Small Competition, Big Support: An Unorthodox Look at Competitions for Smaller Clubs

Have you ever wanted to hold a competition but felt your club was just too small? For a lot of the more popular homebrew clubs across Canada, with memberships reaching high in the hundreds and ready access to resources like BJCP judges, planning a competition is a giant task, or so I have been informed. With planning, coordination, manpower, volunteers and dedication to accomplish, it is doable.

However, for a club like mine, The Aroma Brewealis Homebrew Club in Yellowknife, NWT, which only has about a dozen (non BJCP-certified) dedicated members, the dream of hosting a competition to the likes of which the “Big Clubs” do is an unrealistic one. We had a desire to have an event every year where the brewers could showcase their skills and compete locally.

The Brew doc Memorial trophy was made from all salvaged brewing equipment after a house fire that took Andrew’s life. The trophy is painted in “CAT” yellow because Andrew was also a very proud Heavy Duty Mechanic with Finning

Where it all started…

In the summer of 2019, at the end of our first year of being a legitimate club, we decided to host a competition. Due to its size, we decided on a members-only, open category competition that was judged by the owner and operator of NWT Brewing Co, Fletcher Stevens and his brewing assistants. The competition had eight entries of all different styles and was a success in the sense we pulled it off—we managed to find a sponsor and some judges, and make a fun night out of it!

We had the competition at our annual BBQ where we invited all members, along with their friends and family to attend. We wanted add a little something extra to the event though, a way to help make the guests feel like they were part of the competition too, so we ran a second people’s choice competition that was a blind taste test of three different beers. The party-goers got a chance to rank each beer by points that were later accumulated up to help determine which one was the Best of Show. The people’s choice competition was named the Brew Doc Memorial in memory of Andrew Debogorski, one of the founding members who passed that year tragically in a house fire after a long battle with ALS. People loved the idea of being able to be involved in the competition. They were lined up at the taps all night sampling 4 oz glasses of each beer and discussing the small differences and talking about what they liked and disliked about the beers.

The three “Brew Doc” Winners so far: Starting at left 2019 winner Shawn Brennan(Left) ; 2020 Winner Ghyslain Letourneau ; 2021 Winner (Left) Mike McCloskey

At the next club meeting, everyone was talking more about the people’s choice award, the Brew Doc Memorial, than the results of the actual judged competition. Members were telling stories of their family members and friends actually talking to them about beer after the event! They were discussing the differences they tasted and all the different flavours they were picking out. That’s when we saw that there was more potential in trying to grow the Brew Doc Memorial then the classic style competition. With the people’s choice style of competition, we didn’t need judges. If we wanted to scale up a classic style competition, that would be one of our larger hurdles for sure. Club members could still submit beers to be sampled, they just had to do it on a larger scale of 5 gallons versus 2 bottles. The biggest advantage we could see for the club was that it could create more of an appeal to the public to come out and sample some of the town best amateur beers and learn about the hobby!

Fletcher Stevens and fellow brewers during original Competition.

Who or what is a “Brew Doc” ?!?!

The Competition, as stated earlier, is in memory of Andrew “Brew Doc” Debogorski. His love for the Craft was only shadowed by his love of sharing his beers with family and friends new and old. He hated the stigma that the word “homebrew” had, and he did whatever he could to change peoples outlook on the word and to help them realize that great beer could be brewed by anyone, anywhere, using just about anything. Andrew was an artist to the core. He loved to create without borders and rules. One of his favourite quotes was from Randy Mosher were he would loosely regurgitate the idea that “You have to brew with both sides of your brain. You have to be calculated and do things with purpose like a scientist, and passionate and free flowing like an artist if you wanna make great beer.” And from that, we shaped the competition around that ideology.  

Andrew at a microbrewery in 2012, twice he went down to a brewery (unknown) in Saskatchewan and worked as an unpaid helper just to try to better understand the craft.
Andrew with Jeff Carlson in Grand Rapids at the NHC circa. 2014

How it all works

This year we had eight different beverages, made by eight different brewers, competing for the Brew Doc Memorial Trophy that was voted for by all members of the crowd. Each beverage had its own label, with its designating number (1, 2,… and 8) and nothing else! The beers had no description, name, or brewers’ info to keep it all about your personal preference. It wasn’t about which beer was closest to style, or if it used different ingredients from what was traditionally used for a particular style. All that mattered was that you and your taste buds enjoyed it. 

We have a strong hard rule about not divulging whose beers are whose, so that people didn’t just vote for their friends or family, but strictly on the beers merit. What we asked of the crowd is to grab a cup and sample each beverage over the course of the night. We put water beside the kegs for rinsing cups out so tasters didn’t have to worry about mixing the flavours and also for staying hydrated between beers. Once they had a chance to taste each beverage, they filled out a ballot, and ranked the beers by awarding points to beer’s designating number, from their favourite (8 points), second favourite (7 points) and so on, all the way down to least favourite (1 point). After that, we counted up all of the ballots, and at the end of the night, if we end up with a tie (which we have had happen 2 years in a row) then the kegs are weighed again (once initially at the beginning of the night for reference) and whichever keg is lighter, is given an extra point. 

The 8 different beers that were on tap this year.

This summers event was our biggest year for participants, crowds, and donations from the local and Canada-wide sponsors. We had about 45 people show up, 12 club members and the rest were friends, family, and people from the local beer community. As this was a memorial competition, we also had Andrew Debogorski’s widow and their son in attendance, which always makes it a little more special for us.

The winners from the competition—Front row: Mike McCloskey (1st place).
Middle row: (L-R) Myriam and Miro Debogorski (Andrew’s family), Jordan Allingham (3rd place), Ghyslain Letourneau (2nd place)
Back row: (L-R) Tyler Acorn (5th place), Shawn Brennan (7th place), Denika Brennan (4th place), Mary Butt (8th place), Dean Diguer (6th place)

It’s not meant as a replacement, just a fun alternative…

This is a great model for clubs that are small in size and really just want to run some form of competition. Obviously this format couldn’t really work on too much bigger of a scale, and this form of competition doesn’t really benefit the individual brewers technical abilities—it just means they can make a very pleasant beer that is enjoyed by a diverse crowd. The traditional format in which beers are judged by the BJCP style guidelines is an important and great tool for brewers to gauge themselves against the rest of their peers and help people become better brewers.

For our club at this time, the most important thing that we gain from this style of competition is we get to show off our abilities to our friends, family and most importantly, our community. This event has helped our club’s name grow in a positive way, one that helps remove that stigmatism that is on the word “Homebrew” in our region, and in the end, that’s what Andrew always really wanted our club help accomplish. This form of blind competition helps people see all the great variety of beers that can be made by homebrewers and expose themselves to beers styles they’d never heard of, or thought of trying.

Some of the Attendees from this years event
Samplers doing their thing

Honourable Mentions!!!

As for our sponsors, we had a great response from the brewing community across Canada. Our Yellowknife based brewery NWT Brew Co was one of our major sponsors along with Escarpment Laboratories, who have been just amazingly supportive people! We also had the other two territories represented as sponsors thanks to Winterlong Brewing Company out of Whitehorse, Yukon and Nunavut Brewing Company out of Iqaluit, Nunavut. As Northerners, this made us very proud to see the small, but close brewing community come together! Winning Wines Plus Southside out of Edmonton, Alberta was another amazing contributor that really imbodied the meaning of being a LHBS in the sense that even though we are 1500KM away, they always go out of their way to supply us like they are just around the corner. Northwest Hop Farms, Ontario Beer Kegs, and Toronto Brewing are all amazing homebrew supply stores with great online presences that also contributed as sponsors and we are very thankful for the essential service they provide to us remote brewers. Without them, our hobby would be next to impossible.

Our wonderful sponsors!!! Missing is Winning Wines Plus Southside. We had an issue at the printers but they are amazing people and we are proud to have been sponsored by them (and everyone else!)

If you are interested in running an event like this and just want to ask a few questions or have any comments, please feel free to email me, and if you’re looking for an anthem for your next brew day, check out a song Andrew created called “Brew Doc” Brew Doc by BI Polar (soundcloud.com)

Keep the Boil Rollin’

Shawn Brenna is the president and founder of the Aroma Brewealis Homebrew Club in Yellowknife, NWT, as well as the Northern representative on the board for the CHA.

Shawn Paul Brennan is the Northern regional rep and is a born and raised Northerner from Yellowknife, NWT. He started homebrewing in 2014 with very basic extract kits, then moving to brew in a bag, and on to a 3 vessel electric brewery setup. He also brew ciders, meads, and a variety of different kinds of wines. Contact him at shawn@canadahomebrews.ca.

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