Notes On A Well-Run Competition

Andy Tipler, Greg Radawich, and I had the pleasure of judging at the First Round of the National Homebrew Competition in New York City this weekend. I posted some pictures to the BJCP group on Facebook while I was there and commented on the fact that I appreciated how well-run it was. Another group member, Dana Cordes, asked me why I said that. My answer to him grew too long for a Facebook post. So I’m moving it here. I hope that it might prove useful to anyone involved in running a competition.

I am writing as a judge, about what made my day of judging fun. But I’ve also been involved in the organizational side of competitions for long enough that I know a little about that. So I can make some pretty good guesses about what the organizers did in the weeks preceding the comp to make my day (days, actually — 3 flights over 2 days) go smoothly.

The competition was run by Mary Izett and Chris Cuzme, and they deserve much of the credit. They were ably supported by a large and well-seasoned crew from the NYC-area homebrew clubs. (I encourage you to view their own FB posts to get the full list of organizers. The cellar and IT crew deserve special mention for their excellence.) NYC has a LOT of homebrewers and a LOT of active volunteers. I realize that some of what I liked might be hard to replicate in places with sparser coverage. But much of it comes down to good leadership.

So here are the reasons why I, as a judge, found the NYC NHC First Round enjoyable. They are in no particular order. Just jotting them down as they come to mind. (In fact, as I review this, I realize that I left some of the most important points for last.)

We started on time. We finished on time. There was an absolute minimum of milling about, waiting for things to get organized. Nothing is more demoralizing for a judge than to fight through traffic for hours trying not to be late only to hang around doing nothing for an hour (or two) once you get there.

Instructions were complete but concise. We knew what was expected of us but there was no droning on. (Something I need to work on in my own organizational role.)

The stewards ROCKED. Seriously. I know that there is talk of running competitions without stewards. Maybe it works. But I know that, as a judge, I utterly depend on my steward to keep the day running smoothly. A steward who knows what he or she is doing makes me 2X – 3X more productive. All three of  my steward (Ralph Bass, Rita Ghei, and James DiMauro) were outstanding. Everything I needed appeared at my elbow, usually before I had to ask for it. Everything I was done with disappeared. There was no hanging about waiting for some necessary but missing item. And it was all done with a smile.

There was enough of everything: score sheets, cover sheets, summary sheets, instruction sheets, cups, pencils, openers, staplers, etc., etc., etc. Again, no waiting about for someone to run to the copy shop or the store for more cups.

There was enough food. Yummy food. Served on time. “Enough” is important — the slower panels didn’t find empty trays when they finished up their flights.

The venue helped make it fun. It was a craft beer place, serving its own excellent brew. Its own staff was fantastically supportive. It was big enough that we were not cramped but snug enough that it didn’t feel cold and sterile. (I’ve judged in big conference centers and wished desperately for a little LESS space to make it feel a little more “homey”.) Lighting was good. Sound levels were reasonable. We never had to worry about spillage or gushers destroying a carpet.

The cellar was totally organized and reasonably close. I know what goes into unpacking and labeling hundreds of entries and getting them all set up for competition day. We did not have to wait for entries to be found or brought from some distant location. Everything was chilled. Nothing was shaken.

Workload was totally reasonable. There were enough judges to keep flights at a reasonable size. This was a big part of “finishing on time”. None of the judges felt abused.

A lot of work went into judge assignments so that novice judges were accommodated without sacrificing the quality of the judging. The novices (many of whom were well into rigorous classes in preparation for the tasting exam) were usually assigned as the 3rd judge on a team. It is fun to teach new judges and even more fun when it doesn’t affect the workload or quality of the judging. Even panels without a novice were carefully paired to combine more-experienced with less-experienced judges.

Did I mention that the food was good? And the beer at the bar? We felt very pampered.

Smaller categories were accommodated in a thoughtful way, with split panels handling multiple small categories sequentially. For example, we had 3 panels who judged Light Hybrids and then Amber Hybrids in one session. But working this way, rather than giving all of one category to one panel, we were able to balance the workload and all finish on time, even with the required Best Of Category rounds.

The organizers kept it fun. Maybe this is a luxury you get only when you have a deep bench full of very experienced staff; you can relax when you know there will be no drama. But it makes a big difference. Lots of laughs and good times. No visible stress.

Communication before the event was great. All the important info; minimal noise.

I think that’s about it: Lots of what we needed (supplies, food, light, staff support) and very little of what we didn’t (waiting, stress, long-winded speeches). A relaxed, highly-competent, well-trained, experienced staff. A fun venue. And a great attitude.

Simple, right?


February Meeting at Ernie’s

The February meeting at Ernie’s house was a tremendous success. Besides the usual judging of homebrews and sharing of commercial beer, we had a special presentation by Doug Gladue. Doug reprised the talk on yeast he had given at the NHC last year. Extremely well-received. It generated a LOT of questions and discussion. Thank you, Doug.

Not a lot of homebrews were judged. Most were excellent. Except my Vienna lager, which was very green (only 8 days in the bottle) and soundly hammered.

After the judging was over, some of us overstayed our welcome, only leaving at the stroke of midnight. (No word on whether any glass slippers were found.) I managed to forget the scoresheets but Ernie took pics and sent them along. Thank you, Ernie.