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Scoring well in competitions can be a haphazard proposition. A good brewer can usually score well with his normal fare. However, if you really want to have the best possible chance, you'll want to plan ahead. Here's a step-by-step guide to the process.
Each competition has its own set of guidelines, so don't use the guidelines from a different competition. Many competitions use standardized guidelines, such as from the Beer Judge Certification Program or the AHA. Some, like the California State Homebrew Competition have unusual compressed sets. Even within a given competition, they can vary from year to year, so make sure you have the latest version. Once you have the latest version, take time to read through the descriptions carefully. Buy some commercial examples and taste them. Do you know what makes each of the flavor and aroma characteristics? Overall, homebrew judges tend to be rather strict about style guidelines. An otherwise very good beer can get marked down if it doesn't exactly fit. So spend some time reading the style guidelines, and then formulate your recipe accordingly.
All beers go through a peak in flavor. Just when that peak occurs depends on the style. Generally, the stronger the beer is, the longer it takes to reach maturity. A low gravity beer such as an English bitter can reach full maturity in a month. However, a strong barleywine can take over a year. So, if you want to enter one in next year's Pacific Brewers Cup, it's already time to brew. Generally, for an ale you'll want to allow from 2 to 4 months from the date of brewing. If you're making a lager, add another month or two. Also note that time will tend to decrease hop aroma, shifting the balance toward malt aroma.
Homebrew competitions use a standardized scoresheet from the BJCP. Look over the various elements of judging and make sure that your recipe addresses all the topics. The judging starts with aroma even before the first sip. If you have a malty German style, the malt should be evident in the nose. Many American styles should feature a prominent hop nose. But make sure you don't have a hop nose in your German malty beer. Pay attention to esters, diacetyl and sulfur aromas. Some of these are appropriate for certain styles. Too much of any of them will be death to your score.
Appearance is a small part, but it makes for a few easy points. Make sure the grain bill matches the color target for your style. A protein rest will improve clarity, especially chill haze. Don't be afraid to use some Irish moss if necessary. Make sure the body will support good head retention.
Flavor is the biggest part. Keep everything authentic if possible. Stick with noble hops for German styles and British hops for English styles and calculate out the correct bitterness. Make sure your yeast matches too. Use a range of specialty malts to match the maltiness the style should have. Make sure the overall balance of flavors is correct. Almost all styles require balance.
Don't neglect mouthfeel. Make sure the malt profile gives the right amount of body. If you're making a wheat beer, it should have that sticky gluten feel. Oatmeal stout should feel "big". On the other end of the spectrum, American lager should feel light on the palate. Carbonation is part of mouthfeel, so when you bottle your beer, check the appropriate level for your style.
Finally, there is overall impression. This basically means: Did the judge like it? If so, you're in good shape. If not, it tends to be reflected in lower scores in aroma or flavor areas too. The other part of this section is: Will the judge remember it? One of the check boxes on the bottom of the scoresheet is called "intangibles". I found the best trick here is to brew a big beer. Go to the upper end of the range in malt, hops and yeast. Whatever the judges are looking for, they'll want a lot of it.
Even the best recipe won't win if you get wild yeast or sterilant in the batch. Make sure your yeast starter is working well. Make a big starter and aerate well. Make sure air stays away at any subsequent step. Oxidized beer loses points. Keep the temperature controlled to prevent ester or diacetyl flavors. Finally, don't use funny metals in your brewing set-up. Cleanliness contributes substantially to overall impression, so unless you've really missed the mark at recipe formulation, just about any clean beer scores well.
Have a question on how to improve your beer? Ask the Brewmaster.