A friend of mine from our homebrew club, The Manty Malters, has produced some very fine beers lately, and I keep telling him that he should be entering these in competition. First of all, he will get some great outside feedback aside from members of the club, but I am confident he will be taking some awards. At our holiday party this past weekend he was telling me he would like to send beer off, but is unsure about how to package and ship his beer for competition. So, this post is for Brian, and others like him who may be a bit unsure about how to send beer in to competition.
First, you need to find a competition to send to . There are two spots you can look that I know of. First is the Homebrewers Association competition calendar, and second is the BJCP Calendar. You will have to look at the specific rules for each competition because not all competitions are open to all categories of beer, and some are club only competitions. Club only competition means your club needs to be a member of the AHA to enter.
What competition you enter is important too. For the best chance at getting great feedback, regardless of winning a ribbon or medal, you want to enter a large competition or one with a great reputation. Smaller competitions are great too, and each will have some great judges. However, usually (but not always) the smaller competitions also have limited numbers of judges and many times some beers are judges by inexperienced or non-trained judges. But on the flip side, your chances of winning a medal or ribbon (if that is all you are looking for) are better with a small competition. After all, a decent beer has a better chance of placing in a competition where your category has 5 entries, compared to a larger competition where you may be up against 18 to even hundreds of other entries. But a win in a large competition just feels so much better. For some of us though, as long as you get solid and honest feedback, that is what we are looking for.
So, now that you found a competition and made sure the beer you are entering fits the category you are entering (This is very important. You want to make sure you read the guidelines and enter your beer where it fits best. You may have set out to create a dry stout, but if it is sweet you are better off entering it as a sweet because that is what the beer is.), you are ready to ship.
Being a shipping clerk and working in the shipping and receiving industry for 17 years, has given me some insight into how to ship these bottles with the least chance of breaking, while still not costing an arm and a leg. I will run this down for you here, then give detailed description on how I pack for competition or trades. The trick is to prevent the glass from hitting each other, double bag the beers (I will explain why later), and pack the box tight so there is no play inside the box at all. The box should feel like a solid mass with no internal movement. If you follow those rules alone, your beer will make it to its destination safely.
First you want to attach the proper label as required by the competition. You are not allowed to have any markings on the bottle or the cap, so you need to affix the paper label with a rubber band. I also suggest making sure the beer is not cold when attaching the label because the condensation can make any ink you use, run, or make the paper so wet it will rip.
Next you want to wrap the beer in a layer of foam, bubble wrap, or newspaper just enough so that if two bottles do make hard contact, they will not clink together or make any sound.
As you see, you want enough foam or wrap to make a nice barrier. I also leave enough at the top and bottom to protect the neck and bottom. To hold it in place you can use any type of tape.
Now for the bagging. You want to use this first bag as a catch-all for when the carrier handles the package too rough and it does cause some breakage. The foam will help prevent the glass from cutting the bag (as long as you can foam inside the bag first)if it breaks, and the bag will help contain the beer.
Now here you can do it one of two ways. You can bag each bottle in two bags, or do as I have done and place a few bottles that have been placed in smaller bags, in one large ziplock bag. What this does is give you an additional layer of leak protection. If UPS or FedEx (Never ship beer USPS to competition) detects any leaks, your package will be stopped right there. So this way, even if you have breakage, your package will get to the destination.
If you are sending many bottles, you will want to place a large layer of foam in the bottom, then place a layer of bottles. On top of that, place more foam, then your next layer of bottles. You also want to make sure that the sides, front, and back are all packed tight too. In this picture, there is a layer of 4 bottles below this, then a layer of foam, and a partial of two bottles here.
Last, you want to make sure you pack the box tight with foam. You want to force the top down so that you can pick up the box and shake it, there should not be any movement. I can tell you that FedEx and UPS handle packages a lot rougher than you think, and putting a glass or fragile sticker on the box does little for how they handle it. So pack it very tightly, that is your best protection. If there is no movement inside the box, you will be fairly safe, and foam and bubble wrap are cheap. So don’t be afraid to use them. Newspaper works good too, but can easily compress. DO NOT EVER use packing peanuts. These allow heavy items to settle and there is a lot of movement allowed by packing peanuts. These are best used for lighter items in bigger boxes, but should never be used for heavy or fragile items.
I hope that helps with how to ship beer for competition. If you have any questions, feel free to comment.