If I haven’t shown you my competition trophies… well, let’s be honest, that’s highly unlikely. I’m quite obnoxious about it. My parents are very proud. The folks at work are usually happy to celebrate a win with a glass or two of homemade mead. Telling the postie was probably a step too far.
While pondering the trophies’ shiny fabulousness (again), I did find myself wondering why I love comps so much. After all, plenty of very good boozemakers never bother with them. Since I only make small batches, it’s not like there’s tons to go around. And then, isn’t it a bit… weird to be competitive when what you love most is the hands on physicality of the thing, the spices, the fruit, the honey… the absence of the outside world from the task at hand?
Not at all. Just like the impending deadline of a fun run can energise you to get off the couch on Sunday morning and enjoy the air in your lungs, a competition (if you approach it right) can be a great motivator to dive into your hobby rather than clean the bathroom.
Which, let’s be real, is only going to get gross again.
Comps are great! They give you so much…
1. The push to create
There’s nothing like a good deadline to really get the imagination running and the hands making.
Knowing that my wine guild’s annual show comes up every November, that the club will be expecting everyone to enter something… and that dammit I missed out on a medal for mead last year, is quite the kick in the pants to actually make that cherry metheglin that’s been kicking around in my head for months.
2. The feedback
While your friends are going to tell you everything you do is art, there’s the very real possibility that they a) love you and are telling you what you want to hear and b) like getting tipsy for free.
One of the hallmarks of a well run competition is useful feedback. Some judges spend decades training their palate and learning how to communicate what they experienced when they sipped your booze. Good judges can offer hints on what needs improving and what you did right, and give you a sense of what level you’re at right now.
In fact, lest you think comps are all about winning medals, it’s pretty common for experienced boozemakers to put something in a comp just to find out what the heck is wrong with it!
3. The community
Once the judges have made their decisions, there’s often a public tasting, where you can sip your booze again next to some that have done better, and some that have not fared as well. It’s an education in itself. You can even park yourself next to a table of drinks and just listen in as people taste and discuss.
And then, after the results are all posted and the score sheets come out, clubs often come together to share again, sheets and notes in hand. What did the judge mean by this feedback, we ask ourselves. Could this one have used a different yeast, a bit of sugar? How could this drink be improved, to score slightly higher?
Oh, yours scored better than mine? Yes I would like to taste some. And can I please have your recipe…
4. The shiny, shiny medals
Let’s not kid ourselves, trophies are awesome. I suck hard at sports: this is my chance.
And finally, there’s…
5. The completely awesome and often rather random prizes
Local businesses, especially the ones that sell to do-it-yourselfer types, often sponsor categories with vouchers or product. I once won five kilos of hickory chips. 10/10 would enter again.
Convinced? I do hope so.
If you’re thinking of giving it a go (yay!), it’s worth doing a little research to find out what the rules are, and if you’ll get plenty of feedback.
And finally, but really importantly….
Seriously, this is key:
Make your peace with the fact that humans, and volunteer humans at that, are judging on the day.
With all the good will in the world, some days there are not enough experienced judges in the room. Your feedback sheets might be very slim: on a very bad day, you’ll just get a score. Sometimes you will violently disagree with a judge, and complaining is not only useless, but rather unfair given that every human tastes things differently. I don’t agree with the judge who thought my hopped cider should be sweet, but neither of us is wrong. He or she was the one doing the volunteering on the day, so he or she gets to make the call for that comp. I’ll continue to make my cider dry.
If you enter competitions and can add to this list, or indeed if you’ve decided they’re not for you, I’d be very interested in your thoughts.