Monday, February 4, 2013

CaraMunich isn't Caramelized Munich, and 9 Other Homebrewing Myths Debunked

CaraMunich and Munich malts, close up.Homebrewing has a host of hotly debated topics when it comes to how to brew: hot-side aeration, dry yeast rehydration, aluminum pots, the need to rack to secondary etc. I’m not touching those with this post. What I want to highlight is 10 things I’ve heard repeated over-and-over again, that annoy me because they either aren't true or don't match my experience. While the internet deserves credit as a great resource to homebrewers, it has also lead to ideas and “facts” being repeated by people who assume they are true "because someone on a message board said so."

1. CaraMunich is made by caramelizing Munich malt.
I've heard a couple people say that CaraVienna or CaraMunich are very different from standard caramel/crystal malts (e.g., Crystal 60) because they are made from Vienna and Munich malt, rather than pale malt. In fact, all of these malts start as green malt (barley that has been soaked and sprouted, but not yet dried). The Weyermann FAQ says: "Caramel malts are produced from green malt (directly after germination) in special designed roasting drums." CaraVienna® and CaraMunich® are simply the copyrighted names for Weyermann’s medium-light and medium-dark caramelized malts. I like them, but find them to be mostly similar to other caramel/crystal malts, although there are certainly subtle flavor differences maltster-to-maltster.

My current stash of Citra hops.2. Citra tastes pretty much the same as every other “C” hop.
Citra hops contain higher concentrations of two essential oils (geraniol and linalool) than hops like Cascade, Centennial, and Chinook. Yeast activity converts geraniol into citronellol, which along with linalool is a key component of the characteristic flavor that Citra imparts. Leaving the chemistry behind, Citra produces a different aromatic quality with more tropical/melon notes compared to the classic orange/grapefruit flavor of most Pacific Northwest varieties. Stan Hieronymus talks a great deal about hop chemistry  and the creation of new varieties by breeders in his new book For the Love of Hops, interesting stuff.

3. Entering homebrew contests is the best way for new brewers to get feedback on their beers.
Homebrew judges’ primary role is to pick the best beers, feedback is secondary. Judges have to work relatively quickly, describing what they see, taste, feel, and smell within only a few minutes. Beers are often too cold, drank out of small plastic cups, and consumed in a setting not conducive to enjoyment. If flaws are detected it is nearly impossible to give constructive feedback, because the judge doen’t know anything about your recipe or process. If you want constructive feedback, share your beer with a BJCP judge or experienced brewer at a homebrew club meeting. That way you can talk about your process and what you might want to tweak.

On the other hand, competitions are a great place to get blind feedback on what you think are excellent beers. Tasting multiple beers of the same style next to each other allows judges to really tease out the subtle differences in a way impossible at a homebrew club meeting where you might sample 15 beers of 15 different styles.

4. Craft brewers do (insert technique) or use (insert equipment) so homebrewers should aspire to as well.
Many choices are made for commercial production that aren’t worth the effort for homebrewers. The huge volumes and immense pressures of commercial fermentors necessitate different techniques. For example the heat generated by the huge amount of spent yeast in the cone of a cylindro-conical fermentor can cause autolysis in a couple days. The thin layer of yeast at the bottom of a carboy or bucket allows the yeast to live longer, delaying the contribution of off-flavors by weeks or even months, depending on the strain/temperature. Higher pressure also suppresses ester production, so a craft brewer will often get a cleaner fermentation at a higher temperature than a homebrewer. The same goes for equipment, just because breweries use sparge arms, conical fermentors, steam boilers etc. doesn't mean these are the ideal choice for a smaller scale brewer (even if cost weren't a constraint).

5. I can’t taste a difference from (insert process), so no one should bother with it.
The sensitivity of the human tongue and nose to different compounds can be wildly variable. Studies have found that large numbers of people can’t sense diacetyl, for example. Just because you can’t taste the difference between two ingredients or processes doesn’t mean that no one can. What is valuable is learning for yourself what compounds you are or aren’t sensitive to. That way you’ll know what is worth the effort and what isn’t, and what you’ll need to work on even though it doesn’t bother you. Want to know if decoctions are worth it? Brew the same recipe with and without one and see which you prefer. I know many people don't think decoctions are worthwhile, but Jason Oliver (Devil's Backbone - 8 medals at the 2012 GABF) gave Nathan and I this quote for the Jan-Feb BYO article we wrote about dark lagers "Also, if you tell me that specialty malts can create the same flavors [as a decoction], please give me the formula." With that said, I'm sure there are cases where brewers are wasting time/money on things that almost no one can taste, that's where a large double-blind study would come in handy.

6. Kegging is a huge timesaver over bottling.
I really enjoy kegging. I think it's especially valuable for beers I want to serve quickly, and the ability to flush with CO2 keeps my hoppy beers fresher longer. The ability to control and adjust the carbonation as you drink. However, one advantage kegging doesn’t have is saving much time compared to bottling. While it allows you to spread out the tasks over several days, the total time spent is similar. Sure kegging feels fast when you sanitize a keg, rack a beer into it, snap the lid on, and hook it up to the tank, but you had to clean that keg after it kicked, disassemble the tap/lines for cleaning and sanitation, run to the store to fill your tank with CO2, clean your kegerator etc. I’m not saying it isn’t worthwhile, I’m just saying time savings isn’t one of the primary advantages.

HopRocket as hop-back in action.7. How hop-backs work.
I've read a huge number of posts by people looking to use a hop-back in ways that negates its benefits. For example, pumping wort through the hop-back and returning it to the kettle, or using it on the wort after chilling. I'm not suggesting that these are completely ineffective ways to add hop character, but they will not accomplish the same thing as a hop-back where the hot wort passes through the hops on its way to the in-line chiller, and then the fermentor (as I did with my third batch of Fortunate Islands). The correct configuration allows the heat to extract essential oils from the hops, and the chiller drops the temperature before they are destroyed or driven off.

8. Brettanomyces makes beers sour.
Too many people think that because a beer is fermented with Brett, it will be sour. Brettanomyces (a yeast) produces hugely aromatic esters and phenols, but very little acidity. In a sour beer it is bacteria like Lactobacillus and Pediococcus that are responsible for producing the lactic acid. When exposed to oxygen, Brettanomyces can produce a small amount of acetic acid, but in a vinegary beer it is usually Acetobacter doing the heavy lifting. As a result, 100% Brett beers are usually no more sour than a beer fermented with brewer's yeast. I suspect much of the issue is beer nerds who don't brew, writing negative reviews of 100% Brett beers for being too clean, but I've heard similar complaint from some homebrewers who have entered their 100% Brett beers in BJCP competitions!

9. Sugar should be included in recipes as a percentage by weight of the grain bill.
The percentage of sugar (table, candi, brown, maple etc.) added to a recipe by weight is a relatively meaningless indication of its contribution. For example, let’s think about a Belgian tripel with 20% beet/table sugar by weight. Is that a good amount? If I get 85% efficiency from my mash of Pilsner malt, the sugar works out to 26.5% of the fermentables. If the mash ended up with only 60% efficiency on the other hand, we’d be getting 33.6% of our fermentables from the sugar. Dealing with sugar as a percentage of the fermentables, rather than weight, is the best way to think about the amount you should be adding.

10. Boiling wort for a long time caramelizes it.
The temperature (~213 F at sea level) experienced by the wort during a standard boil isn’t hot enough to significantly caramelize the sugars; of the common sugars, fructose has the coolest caramelization temperature at 230 F. On the other hand, the temperature of the boil is hot enough for Maillard reactions, which result from the reaction of sugars and amino acids and produce similar results to caramelization (darker color and complex flavors). Still, the flavor contribution from adding 30 minutes to a boil are generally rather slight. German hefe-weizens are often boiled close to two hours, lambic/gueuze closer to four, and neither is thought of as especially richly malty. Boiling the first runnings to syrup, or a concentrated boil accelerate the Maillard reactions considerably. As I suggested above, try it for yourself to see if it is worth the extra fuel/time.

Those are the 10 myths that came to me during the last week of thinking about this post. Happy to hear any additions that anyone else has in the comments!


Rowan Chadwick said...

Great post. The sugar thing is something that's had me scratching my head for a while. So what is the best way to calculate the weight of sugar you should add to achieve a certain fermentables percentage?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

You really need to do out the math (or plug the recipe into software) so you can take into account the actual gravity contributed by the grains and sugar. As a couple rules of thumb: at 60% efficiency the percentage by extract of table sugar will be about double its percentage by weight, at 80% efficiency, the extract will be about 1.5 times the weight percentage.

Ken said...

If you have a blob of malt extract sitting at the bottom of your kettle, it can certainly get hotter than 212F.

Handsome Mike said...

Since Techniques used by craft brewers don't necessarily translate to craft brewing, do you think too many homebrewers get caught up with building a bigger better system, moving to all grain, getting conicals etc?

Rowan Chadwick said...

I use Beersmith, but that seems to work by weight. I just plugged in a recipe with sugar, fiddled around with efficiency and the % contribution of the sugar remained the same. I guess I'm just going to have to learn the math.

I've been meaning for a while to sit down and work out a recipe with pen and paper rather than relying on software. Just to get better understanding of the underlying principals.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Certainly you can caramelize extract or other sugars stuck to the bottom of the kettle (which very quickly leads to scorching), not what anyone wants!

I think many homebrewers make choices on what to guy that aren't optimal. I try to focus on fermentation, rather than wort production. Using an old cooler mash tun, aluminum kettle, and homemade immersion chiller I can make wort just as good as a $6,000 rig. I'd rather spend my money on fermentation temperature control, yeast propagation, better ingredients, etc. I think all-grain is important for the control over ingredients it gives you, but I'd rather see more homebrewers get their fermentation where it should be before making the leap.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I've got BeerSmith, but I know ProMash better. With ProMash you can hit the "%" button to see the percent by extract. Seems like BeerSmith must have a way to display this?

Unknown said...

You could do a top 10 on Brettanomyces alone. I can think of several, but the one that I hear the most is when people talk about it as if it is a super organism that is not bound by the same organic principles as other yeasts. An acid sanitizer such as Starsan kills brettanomyces by rupturing its cell walls, and it does it just as easily and effectively as it does it to saccharomyces. Yes, it's a trooper and an efficient attenuator, but it is still a unicellular yeast. I've confirmed all of this with microbiologists at Wyeast, as well as with Chad Yakobson.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

You are completely correct on the mortality of Brett (although it is capable of feats like surviving for 30 years in a bottle of Berliner weisse). What Brett can do that brewer's yeast cannot is make a large flavor impact from a very low starting cell count. New Belgium did some experiments with Brett as an anti-oxidant, but even starting at 100 cells/ml (when pitching rates are usually usually measured in millions of cells/ml) yielded a noticeable Brett character before the usual onset of oxidation in their standard beers.

Lee Morgan said...

I'd like to know more about how pressure suppresses ester production, but I can't find anything in my copy of Yeast. Do you have a good source?

Dave said...

I disagree with #3 and #6. The problem many new brewers face is that their friends all "love" their beer and don't provide constructive feedback on what they're tasting. Sure, judging isn't the best way to get specific advice on your process but it is the best way to get objective feedback on the results. You can then take that feedback and talk to more knowledgeable brewers about how to improve your beers (e.g. how do I get rid of that buttery flavor the judges are picking out...)

For kegging, if you're spending anywhere near as much time cleaning your kegs and lines as you do cleaning used bottles you're doing it wrong. Cleaning a keg takes very little time compared to bottles and lines are quick too.

Anonymous said...

#1 But not all the green malts are the same. Barley for Munich is germinated longer than for pale malts. So a caraMunich could be based on these. Then again, as you said ... the internet.

Scott said...

We've debated this before Mike, but for #6 you might want to qualify your statement since you are bottling beers for Modern Times test batches. You can't convince me that bottling and kegging take the same amount of time. I can clean and sanitize an keg in 10 minutes. No need to pull apart and pull lines everytime you keg a beer. I bet 99% of home keggers don't go to the extreme you do. Again, bottling for test batches off a keg for a production brewery is different than kegging for home consumption.

dank brewer said...

I had heard about fermenting with lager yeast in a pressurized keg at Ale temperatures from a guy at Midwest Brew Supply and he said that it would produce a perfectly clean lager. I don't understand it, and I've never tried it, but I'd love to hear more about it.

I'm assuming it would be harder to make a flavorful Saison in a commercial setting then since the pressure would reduce the "desirable" ester production? How would you deal with that, under pitch?

shaughn said...

i agree with most of this, but i gotta join the small choir and say that kegging is still waaaay faster than bottling. however, i use mark's keg washer (but i completely disassemble everything) and that may not be what you are using.

i really like the idea of simple sugars as % fermentables. i had never thought of that befor.

the long boil/color issue i have always found strange in that most pils malts get really long boil times to prevent DMS precursors and those beers are usually as yellow/gold as you get.

Anonymous said...

We've debated this before Mike, but for #6 you might want to qualify your statement since you are bottling beers for Modern Times test batches. You can't convince me that bottling and kegging take the same amount of time. I can clean and sanitize an keg in 10 minutes

I highly doubt you can unhook, clean, sanitize a keg in ten minutes even if you have all the solutions mixed up and readily on hand

BrewerAdam said...

I have to agree that "kegging saves time" is a myth. I can bottle up a 5 to 8 gallon batch in about an hour (i've bottled 55 batches in the last 3 years, so Ive had some practice). Add the time rinsing bottles/running them through the dishwasher, etc, and it may be at 2 hours max. With kegging, you have cleaning kegs, lines, etc, and you have other hassles of CO2 leaks, foaming, and other kegorator issues (that are all over brewing forums), and I bet the time is negated. Having all of my beer in bottles allows me to also, just grab some and go when I am taking homebrew places. No filling bottles or growlers off of kegs.

That being said, I agree their are benefits to kegging, just as I think there are benefits to bottling.

Anonymous said...

Some parts like conicals may be over rated for home use but other factors such as the size of the system and all grain can make a huge difference(positive or negative). All grain does not mean better it means more customizable. Bigger systems offer more forgiveness in mistakes but can also be more complex to learn.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

On ester suppression:

“Results show that temperature increases fermentation rate and the production ratio and final concentration of fusel alcohol, independently of the top pressure applied. Conversely, dissolved carbon dioxide controls the production rate and final concentration of ester by limiting yeast growth. Relationships between initial or maximum ester production rates and maximal growth rates were shown.”

The opposite (less pressure allows higher ester production) is the reason that many brewers open ferment beers where they want to have a fruity character (Belgians, hefe-weizen, English etc.).

Good point Dave, although I think most homebrewers will be honest in their feedback if you ask them to be (my friends rarely have a problem telling me if there is something I can do to change/fix my beers). I get the feeling that some people enter beers in competitions that they know have problems to get feedback, that’s really what I don’t think works.

I agree that I am doing a more thorough job cleaning/sanitizing kegs/lines than many, but considering that people complain if a bar doesn’t clean their tap lines once a week, doing it between batches (every couple months) isn’t that crazy. I’d rather not risk yeast in the lines getting back into the keg (for example). I’m certainly not counting the actual effort of bottling off the keg, but it’s true that holding a keg/lines cold is great insurance. I think certain things feel like more work to some people than others.

Anonymous said...

No kidding about the competition environment. Serving shit in plastic cups? Folding chairs? Awful lighting? Proper glassware is essential. The only people who drink beer out of red solo cups are college kids at a house party.

The BJCP spends an insane amount of time bickering about the most retarded stuff, and having exams laden with arcane trivia. But when it comes to competition standards, their rules are little more than fluff to most competition organizers.

Unknown said...

Point 7: "How to use a hopback" is great. I have a slightly different approach to hopbacking my brews as of late. Instead of passing the hot wort through, I have been letting the hops steep in an airtight sealed glass jar for about 30 minutes. The aromatic profile of my brew turned out great, but your post has me wondering if I am destroying many delicate aromatic oils by taking the cooling aspect out of the hopbacking process. What do you think? Do you know of any references to studies done on the degradation of hop oil compounds by heat?

Anonymous said...

Kegging is not really a huge time saver, probably b/c i might be a bit over zealous in cleaning. It might not save that much time but I've read that sometimes people store some mixed up star-san for multiple uses. Does anyone have any experience with this? What type of vessel to store it in and how long can it be saved? I hate to mix up a batch just to clean one keg and then throw it away?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

If you want to save Star-San you need to use low-mineral water (RO, or ideally distilled) to allow the pH to stay low, and store it in an airtight container. I know many people use spray bottles. You can also check the pH (I've heard Five Star say it should be below 3.5 or 3.0 depending on who you ask). For less than a dollar I'd rather make a fresh gallon every time I brew or bottle/keg. With the time/effort/cost of brewing I'd rather have peace of mind.

For the Love of Hops has information about how volatile the the key hop oils are, but I'm not sure if having them sealed in a container would prevent them from being destroyed or not. With a hop-back the hot wort is only in contact with the hops for a few seconds before it is chilled. Your idea is a really interesting one, but I really wouldn't considered it to be a hop back.

Lee Morgan said...

More on ester suppression: the article you linked showed a connection between increased top pressure/dissolved CO2 and decreased ester production. I wasn't aware that fermenting under top pressure was standard practice for ale fermentation in commercial breweries.

Obviously large conical fermenters will create a great deal of pressure simply from the weight of the fermenting beer, but it's not clear to me why this would increase dissolved CO2... Can you help me out here?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

My understanding is that hydrostatic pressure (from the large vertical column of beer) slows the exit of carbon dioxide from the beer.

"The influence of increasing hydrostatic pressure is attributed to the increase in dissolved carbon dioxide in the fermentation medium (16)." -

Gail Ann Williams said...

Brett may make more than a little acetic acid and acetone.

I did an experiment with a 100% brett primary, then white labs lampic blend secondary beer, with some pulled off and aged for 4 years in a large bottle that got some oxygen though the airlock (O2 dissolves in water so we can assume that goes on). It got funky fast, but over the years it became highly acetic.

I wondered whether it could have had acetobacter contamination, so I did some searches on Brett studies outside the beer world and found a bunch of interesting stuff, including abstracts that approach the use of Brett with the goal of commercially producing acetic acid. I can't find the best one right now, but here's an example. There were a bunch of studies like this about 10 years ago.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

You are correct that under the right circumstances (like a stir-plate starter), Brett can produce above threshold acetic acid. This is usually, as your link suggest, not under conditions that resemble a standard beer fermentation. That study talks about a situation (constant aeration and agitation at 30 C in a glucose medium) that doesn't seem very similar to the one you describe for your beer. If air was getting into your beer (maybe a dry airlock or a poorly seated bung?), odds are airborne acetobacter was as well.

My statement was about expectations under normal fermentation conditions.

Anonymous said...

My statement was about expectations under normal fermentation conditions.

I have a question about Brett and sour/tart flavors. Logsdon's Seizoen Bretta has a distinct tartness to it. I wanted to try to make something similar, and using nothing but White Labs Saison III and Brett C. I made a beer that came out surprisingly sour. More so than the beer it was based on. Any thoughts on how something like this happens?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

There have been conflicting reports over whether White Labs Brett C culture has Lacto in it as well. Chad Yakobson said that he found some when plating it out, but White Labs says it is "clean." I'll just say that basically every time someone says "but I made a beer with just Brett and it's sour" White Labs Brett C is involved. Brett can certainly add a tartness on its own, but it really won't make something I'd call sour under normal fermentation conditions (as far as I'm aware).

Peter said...

I agree about the percentage of fermentables being a more functional way to describe sugar component in a recipe. However, I always assume people are giving weight percentage unless they specify otherwise. On the same topic (sugar), you could add that adding simple sugars does not dry out a beer(make it less sweet) or reduce the body. It's only when sugar is substituted for base malt that these effects are realized.

Anonymous said...

As a BJCP judge (and a damn good one if I do say so myself) I'm going to disagree with #3; sure there are some judges that provide pretty poor feedback (and in your local area you always know which ones those are), but on the whole I think we do our best to try to provide as much constructive feedback as possible.

If it was primarily about selecting the best beers we would simply judge every flight in best-of-show style, maybe fill in the checklist-style scoresheet (*maybe*), and call it a day.

Steve said...

Good points Michael! I thought of a few other myths, or at least untenable assumptions:

Brewhouse efficiency via fly sparging cannot be matched via batch sparging. (with good mash pH management and other BMPs, batch sparging can yield excellent efficiency)

No break material should be carried over from kettle to fermenter. (a little break material actually helps the fermentation)

pH strips are not accurate enough for beer making. (some are accurate enough, i.e. plastic ones, especially ColorpHast +.3 to test pH of the mash, sparge, pre-boil, etc.)

High alpha hops are not good candidates for dry hopping. (nonsense, as seen with amarillo, columbus, citra, etc.)

The best beers utilize water adjustment profiles based on famous brewing city water profiles. (not true, since those profiles were often manipulated by the breweries there and so should not always be seen as the starting point for building your water profile)

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I actually have gone away from using my Color pHast strips for mash pH readings. They always seemed to give about the same 5.4-5.5 reading of a cooled sample, but I've found that my pH meter gives measurements that differ significantly and are in line with my expectations for where pale or dark beers should be given the water.

Couldn't agree more on the comment on "classic" water profiles. In most cases brewers in those cities have specific proceedures to deal with their local water.

Eddie said...

Great post. Seems like I still have a lot to learn. Will be back to read some more of the 500 articles here.
Thanks for sharing

Anonymous said...

Nice post, I like your blog.

Sheldon Woods said...

Another one that gets me with (5) the craft brewers doing something so homebrewers must, is pitching rates. For a craftbrewer, a higher pitching rate gets the beer to ferment faster, which means they get greater throughput. For the homebrewer, a few extra days fermenting is nothing. BUT, if the craftbrewers pitch large amounts, we must.

Anonymous said...

I respectful disagree entirely with the statement that the primary reason to do kegging should not be saving time.

When I was bottling 5 gallons, to clean and sanitize all ~50 bottles, fill and cap it, that often took at least 2 hours, then waiting at least 1 week to carbonate.

If I completely disassemble a keg, clean it, then rack my beer, the entire process often doesn't take more than 20 minutes. I can force carbonate to get a quick sample.

So 2 hours cleaning and filling bottles, 1-2 weeks carbonating, or 20 minutes kegging, 10-15 minutes for a quick charge, and drink it...

Once I switched to 10 gallons, I bought a kegging system. Now I brew 20 gallons, and there is no way I would even think about bottling that much. All of this being said, it is absolutely a huge time saver for me.

Also, 4 kegs takes up significantly less space than ~200 x 12 oz bottles.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I think you missed the larger point of my statement. I'm not talking about only the act of kegging/bottling, but rather everything that goes into maintaining kegs and lines. I just worry that people get into kegging with an expectation that there isn't much you need to do and end up with issues. With bottles I've never had to chill and fill a growler before heading to a homebrew club meeting, replace kinked lines, deal with pumps to clean my lines, un-stick a poppit clogged with hops, or run to the gas supplier at 8 AM before work. Certainly the bigger your batches the more time you'll save (and at Sapwood Cellars we're starting with kegs and looking to move to serving tanks for that reason).

No argument about how long it takes to have carbonate beer with bottled CO2, that isn't what I was discussing as it's inactive time.

Anonymous said...

In my early days of kegging, I had clogged poppets from fruit and hop particles. That was resolved by racking and filtering fruit beer and using pellet hops.

I've never had a kinked line and I don't fill my kegs using a pump. I use an auto siphon with a ball lock fitting an fill through the beer out poppet. Learned that from a pro brewer.

Had I read this before I started kegging many years ago, I probably would have not invested because it sounds like it takes an enormous amount of effort, bottling is quick and easy, and you won't save any time.

To me, bottling was a huge pain and very time consuming. That's why I quit. A few days ago I cleaned and filled 4 kegs in about 2 hours. In the time it used to take me to bottle a 5 gallon batch, I kegged 20 gallons.

I just don't want anybody to get the impression that kegging is long and tedious and bottling is so much easier. Sorry if I missed your point, but that is how I interpreted it.

Scott Knebel said...

Higher pressure increases the solubility of gases in liquids. See Henry's Law.

Boo-Urns said...

I generally disagree with #3 in regards to your commentary on what judges can and cannot do at the table. I strive to provide as much constructive, actionable feedback as I possibly can (with the understanding that I don't have access to the recipe or any process details).

The one aspect I will agree with is that this is "the best" way to get feedback. For those who don't have access to a homebrew club (or are in a club largely populated by newer homebrewers and/or no BJCP / known-good palates to lean on for advice, competitions may be the only outlet for feedback, but as you stated the best avenue is to share the beer with someone with whom you can have a discussion about it.

But overall I feel your tone regarding competitions and judging is unnecessarily negative.