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Write Descriptions for Specialty Beers

Posted on March 23rd, 2014 by in "Homebrew Competition Tips"

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There are some basic guidelines on how to write descriptions for specialty beers and we’ll walk thru them together in this post. There are several BJCP categories that require a brief description from the brewer in order to be judged correctly. The way you describe your beer can mean the difference between a gold medal or going home empty handed.

Tips on How to Write Descriptions for Specialty Beers

Real World Examples of Descriptions for Specialty Beers

“Sour Belgian brown ale with cherries”

write descriptions for specialty beersI brewed a Russian River Supplication inspired beer based loosely on a recipe I found on The beer is described on Russian River’s site as “Brown Ale aged in used Pinot Noir barrels from local Sonoma County wineries. It is aged for about 12 months with sour cherries, brettanomyces, lactobacillus, and pediococcus added to each barrel. Flavors from the cherries, Pinot Noir and oak balance each other nicely with a little funk from the brett.”

They use a shorter description of “Sour Brown Ale Aged in Pinot Noir Barrels with Sour Cherries” which is closer to what you should use for a competition beer.

The description I picked for my beer is “Sour Belgian brown ale with cherries“. I chose to use the “Belgian” descriptor to let the judges know to not use any of the BJCP defined brown ale styles as the base for their judging. While I did use sour cherries, I didn’t think it was required to use the descriptor “sour” twice in a short description. By using the word “sour” first it lets the judges know that it’s going to be a sour beer, and since it’s listed first, it’s probably the most intense flavor or aroma. My beer was also oak aged, but the oak flavor and aroma was pretty subdued, so I decided to not include it in the description.

This sour Belgian brown ale with cherries has done well in every competition where it was entered – including taking a gold against 30 other beers in the Belgian Specialty category (16E). It also took a bronze against 21 other beers in the same category.

 “Session Wheat IPA with lots and lots of Citra hop character”

This beer is based on the Fortunate Islands hoppy American wheat recipe from the Mad Fermentationist. It’s a 4.8% American wheat beer that is aggressively hopped with Amarillo and Citra.

Here’s the description from the Modern Time‘s website “Fortunate Islands shares the characteristics of an uber-hoppy IPA and an easy drinking wheat beer. A massive dose of Citra and Amarillo hops gives it a blastwave of tropical hop aromatics: mango, tangerine, and passionfruit all leap out of the glass. Brewed with 60% wheat malt, Fortunate Islands also has the mild, nutty malt backbone, reasonable ABV, and restrained bitterness to make it an outstanding session beer.”

The description I decided on was “Session Wheat IPA with lots and lots of Citra hop character“. I had just recently won a Pro-Am competition at a local brewery with this beer, so I knew it was a good beer. I entered it in 2 competitions and ended up scoring a 27 and a 37. The judges that scored it a 27 commented “…hop flavor low. I was expecting more.” This is a clear example of why you shouldn’t label the intensity of a flavor. What I called “lots and lots of… hop character” was only “lots of hop character” to someone else. I still get a laugh out of reading the scoresheets for that beer, but overall it was my responsibility to give them a solid description.

“Imperial oatmeal stout with coffee and Belgian chocolate”

This recipe started as a Founder’s KBS clone. For those that aren’t familiar with KBS it stands for “Kentucky breakfast stout”. It’s an imperial oatmeal stout with tons of coffee and chocolate and is aged in bourbon barrels for a year, so it has a huge oak and bourbon character. It’s an exceptionally complex and delicious beer.

My clone came out very well and has done very, very well for me – almost always scoring above 40 in competition. My recipe is very chocolate and coffee forward with almost no bourbon or oak character. It’s there, but it really is hard to pick up behind the huge coffee and chocolate flavor and aroma. Since I wanted the judges to focus on the two flavors and aromas that were most intense, I decided to leave the bourbon and oak out of my description. Since it’s bigger than the standard oatmeal stout, but doesn’t have the flavor profile of a Russian Imperial I decided to call it “Imperial oatmeal stout with coffee and Belgian chocolate”.

I chose to include the word “Belgian” in the description because Belgian chocolate is considered to be the standard that all other gourmet chocolate tries to be. If I would have used something like Hershey’s chocolate I wouldn’t have listed it, but rather just say something like “semi-sweet chocolate.”

Bad, Better & Best

The beer we’ll start with will be an American stout with all natural, organic vanilla bean purchased from a sustainable farm in Argentina, organic tangerine and lemon zest from fruit purchased at a local farmer’s market from a guy with a beard and finally a healthy dose of Cascade and Centennial pellet hops from your local homebrew store.  Since this particular beer has both a spice (vanilla) and fruit (tangerine and lemon zest) and will fall outside of the standard American Stout hopping guidelines, it would probably fit best as a Specialty Beer (23). For the sake of argument lets say that the beer is very hop forward, the citrus zest is most prominent and the vanilla isn’t detectable at all.

Bad Description

“An awesome, rich and delicious American Stout with organic vanilla beans from a sustainable farm in Argentina, 3.17 oz of organic tangerine and lemon zest purchased from a local farmer’s market stand that imported them from the finest fields in Florida and intensely dry hopped with a crap-ton of really great hops.”

There are a bunch of issues with the above description. We’re using flavor descriptors such as “rich and delicious”. The next issue is that the vanilla isn’t detectable, so it most certainly shouldn’t be listed first. If you would decide to include the vanilla in the description you would not need to give them background on where it came from or that it’s organic and sustainable. Simply stating “vanilla bean” would be enough. I probably wouldn’t include it at all unless it was a noticeable flavor and was outside what could be common in an American Stout.

The next issue with this description is that the amount/weight/volume of the ingredient doesn’t mean anything. Is 3.17 oz a lot? Is it a little? Did you brew a 2 gallon batch and add 3.17 oz or did you brew a 500 gallon batch and add 3.17 oz to that. Or maybe it’s 3.17 oz per bottle. Stating that it’s organic, purchased from a farmer’s market and from Florida is also irrelevant.

The final issue is that we’re using words to describe the intensity and amount of the dry hops. Simply stating that it was dry hopped and saying which varieties were used would be plenty. You could even just say something like “dry hopped with citrusy American hops” and leave it at that.

Good Description

“American Stout with citrus zest and dry hopped with citrus American hops.”

It’s short and to the point. We’re not using a bunch of fluff words that confuse the judges and make it harder to figure out what they’re supposed to be tasting. Since the citrus zest is the most prominent flavor we’re listing it first. Dry hopping in American Stout isn’t common, so we’re letting them know that it’s going to be more hoppy than a standard American Stout. We’re also differentiating between the citrus zest and the citrusy hops, which will hopefully help the judges to appreciate the citrus complexity. We’re also totally leaving out the vanilla beans. Since they’re not detectable at all in this beer there is no point to list it. The judges go off of what they taste. They don’t have your recipe in front of them and they don’t take your beer to a lab to run tests on it, disqualifying you for not listing all ingredients.

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