This year’s Brau und Rauch Beer Contest will take place on 10 September 2022 and many hobby and professional breweries will once again have their beers judged by independent judges.
Wait, hobby and professional breweries submit beers at the same contest? Isn’t it unfair when pro breweries compete against hobby breweries or homebrewers? And what actually makes a brewery a professional brewery? We look into these questions.
It was almost a year ago when a digital murmur went through the Facebook group Swiss Homebrewers when the winner of the Brau und Rauch Beer Contest 2021 was announced on Saturday. It was the American Pale Ale from Dr. Brauwolf that convinced the jury the most out of the 6 finalist beers and which thus came out on top of the more than 380 beers submitted. The final jury consisted of 6 brewers, sommeliers and international beer judges and the winning beer was convincing due to its craftsmanship and fidelity to style.
But isn’t it unfair when a professional brewery wins the B&R Beer Contest? Some participants in the group had this opinion. Someone was upset that homebrewers and pro-brewers were in the same contest. Others complained that it was a homebrew contest (which it is not, by the way). And finally, a discussion broke out about what constitutes a professional brewery in the first place.
Advantages on both sides
Is it now fair for pro and homebrewers to compete side by side? We think so. Firstly, because it’s about who enters the best beer in the contest. That beer, and past experience has shown, can come from hobby or professional brewers. When hobby brewers won in the years before, there was no outcry from the professionals that this was unfair (and yes, they also took part at that time).
And such an outcry would actually be thinkable. Professional brewers cannot brew a beer just to enter it in a beer contest and win a prize. They have to be able to sell it and the whole amount brewed as well, while keeping an eye on the costs of raw materials. So homebrewers can brew much more flexibly and creatively. On the other hand, professionals have advantages with their systems. Brewing errors should occur less and the beers in the bottles or cans tend to oxidise less – but this is also possible and unfortunately does happen.
The possibility of beating professional breweries at a contest should therefore be more of an incentive to brew top beers and submit them than an obstacle to participation. After all, apart from the unbiased feedback that everyone gets and which is certainly valuable: Isn’t the idea of a contest to compete? With whom doesn’t really matter. Or is it rather the Olympic idea: taking part is everything? Hardly, because then a critic wouldn’t have written that he doesn’t see why one should take part at all, given the mixture of pro and hobby.
To be fair, it should be mentioned here that someone in the group also wrote that he was mainly interested in the feedback in order to improve himself. By the way, the homebrewer in question won first and third place last year. So being a homebrewer does not stand in the way of winning.
A contest open to all
For some, the Brau- und Rauchshop may be a business for hobby brewers. This is not so. Many micro and small breweries source (some of) their goods there. Becoming a customer is open to all and so is the contest. Nowhere does it say that this is a contest for homebrewers. Such a contest already exists with the SIOS Trophy and the SHS Contest. In the former, however, anyone can become a judge, regardless of their background.
Instead, the B&R Beer Contest is meant to give everyone the opportunity to get high-quality feedback from people who know something about beer. Many of last years judges were brewers themselves, in breweries that earn money with it, like La Nébuleuse, Hoppy People, Brauerei Thun, BFM, Brausyndikat, White Frontier, Blackwell or Brauhaus 531. The other part is made up of beer sommeliers (the majority are diploma beer sommeliers) or cicerones and respected beer judges and beer hunters like BOV, Thomas Schneider (TTT) and Laurent Mousson (head judge). There will be a similar composition this year.
That’s why this contest is also interesting for the small professional breweries. Quite cheaply, they get an absolutely neutral feedback on their beer. And if the feedback says that the beer has diacetyl, the brewers know that they should pay more attention to fermentation and will fix it immediately. So if you can accept honest feedback, you have nothing to lose by participating. If you do badly, no one will ever know, unless you tell everyone yourself.
Hobby vs. Pro
Since the contest is open to everyone, the question of what actually constitutes a professional brewery should not really be discussed here. But because it is an interesting as well as difficult and controversial question, we wouldn’t wana miss out on it. After all, one of the comments in the discussion was that the difference is clear. If you are registered as a brewery with the customs administration, you are considered to be a professional brewery. We don’t think it’s that simple.
First of all, let’s look at the terms. According to Wikipedia, home or hobby brewing is the non-commercial production of beer for personal consumption. A professional, on the other hand, is someone who carries out an activity professionally hence for earning their own living. This already shows that there is a large grey area in between. If I sell beer with which I only earn a small financial contribution, I am not a hobby brewer, but neither am I a professional brewer.
The distinction according to the Federal Customs Administration does not make it any clearer. Anyone who brews more than 400 litres of beer a year has to register (hence the insane number of over 1200 registered breweries in Switzerland), which is actually nothing and certainly not enough to earn a living. And besides, you can register even if you brew less than 400 litres.
So how can a line be drawn between hobby and professional? Here are some approaches:
1. Size of the system
If you brew in your kettle at home, you are definitely a home-brewer. The same applies if you brew in the Braumeister. Only, when is the kettle or the system too big to be still considered a home-brewer? 40 litres, 100 litres? It’s hard to draw a clear line. It is also difficult to say that it must depend on the system used. BeerDroid, Grainfather, Robobrew and the like make it possible for home brewers to use app-controlled, almost fully automatic systems. Of course, above a certain size it is likely that you will brew professionally and earn a living with it, but to give a clear indication of the quantity at which it changes from hobby to pro is like reading coffee grounds.
2. Brewer vs. brewery
Another suggestion in the discussion was that breweries with their own brewery name are professional breweries, those without a name are hobby brewers. However, this distinction does not work either. Anyone who registers with the Federal Customs Administration gives a name to the brewery. And we have already dealt with the fact that this registration cannot be the measure of all things.
Another criteria that could help to distinguish pro from hobby is how many people are employed. A professional brewer is by definition someone who earns his living with it. Accordingly, any brewery that has someone as a paid employee would have to be a professional brewery, no matter what their salaries are. That actually makes the most sense.
But a problem arises here as well: What about all the breweries that sell beer, but where the brewer or brewers don’t get paid because they still work and put the money earned from the beer mainly into expanding the brewery?
A survey of 183 breweries by us showed that 33% did not employ anyone, 44% had less than 20% full-time workload. So only 23% had more than a 20% position in their brewery. Nevertheless, this is probably the best factor to distinguish pro and hobby brewers.
4. Product availability at all times
One last possibility we see is the availability of the products. A hobby brewer produces new beers from time to time, but his products are not available all the time. So he may well be “out of stock”. This should not normally happen with professional brewers. They always have beer available. Whether they are always the same or always different doesn’t really matter.
As it turns out, it’s not as easy to draw the line as it might seem, and in the end it’s probably easiest to rely on self-declaration as to whether someone considers themselves a homebrewer or a professional brewer – with all its unknown consequences.
Now it’s your turn. What do you think? Do you have any other ideas on how to separate pro and hobby? Let us know in the comments.
P.S: There is still time to brew a beer for the contest on 10 September. They have to arrive at the Brau & Rauch Shop by 5 September.