For the past several weeks, we’ve been neck deep in beer organization, planning, spreadsheets and desperate phone calls. We’ve labored, unpacking beers, tweaking final lists, praying that no bottles were dropped or lost or drunk by devious and sly beer-stealing types, and preparing an encoded 64-brew bracket.
Then, suddenly, we were plopped in comfy leather chairs in Alphabet City Beer Co., unsalted crackers unappealingly laid on the table before us, with beer pairs — two pitch-black, two cloudy with wheat and yeast, two reeking of hops and two deep in malted caramel colors — set before their respective tasters.
And so Malted Madness began, finally, in earnest. Zach Mack bravely charged into the Et Al. category, Ben Bowers tackled the apocalyptic Light Ales grouping with modesty and strong focus, David Hitchner hammered out bold decisions in the Lager category like it was second nature, and I tucked into Dark Ales with loudmouthed gusto. We were all buzzing, and we hadn’t even had a sip.
64 Beers. 6 Rounds. 1 Winner. It’s the Gear Patrol National Craft Beer Championship. Follow the Story This Way »
David Hitchner, a self-professed Lager lover, was all too happy to tackle the classic style category. Things stayed extremely orderly; the only upset in the first round here came when 9-seed Blue Point Toasted Lager defeated 8-seed Snake River Vienna. Otherwise, it was high-rated domination: Great Lakes Eliot Ness (1), Sly Fox Pikeland Pils (5), Brooklyn Lager (4), Rogue Dead Guy (3), Avery Joe’s Premium Pilsner (7) and Victory Prima Pils (2) housed their paltry competition. Do we smell a 1-v-2 faceoff a few rounds down the road? The only people truly upset were Bawston ‘Gansett (11) fans, who had been screaming obnoxiously for the bean-town dark horse under their Sawx caps. Unfortunately, David wasn’t one of them. At least it was Sam Adams Boston Lager (6) that took the ole favorite down.
In Memoriam, Round 0 – Round 1
We are gathered here today to mourn the untimely demise of Bell’s Two Hearted Ale. Named after the famous Michigan river (and a notable Hemingway short story title), he was a pleasant beer, considered drinkable by all. Though he had his vices (7 percent alcohol), he hid them well under a tasty demeanor. He had high hopes in visiting a city where his sale has been forbidden by Bell’s owner due to an unsavory past — but alas, he was struck down by a lowly farmhouse ale. Damn that Belgian brute!
Flow free, Bell’s Two Hearted. You are drunk, but not forgotten.
Where the Lager bracket was a New York Philharmonic concert of seeding etiquette, the light ales were a mosh pit of skanking hooligans. It shouldn’t have been a surprise. The average seeding score (a combination of RateBeer and BeerAdvocate scores) in this category was a whopping 92.6. That meant a load of huge beers, almost every single one entirely deserving of a championship ring, or at least a final four berth. It also meant upsets galore. 15 seeds (Goose Island Pepe Nero) smoked 2 seeds (Ballast Point Sculpin IPA). Two Brothers Domaine DuPage (14) beat Surly Furious (3), a worthy competitor. Perhaps the best beer in the tournament (ahem, author bias), Bell’s Two Hearted Ale (4), was smacked from heights of deliciousness by lowly Perennial Artisan Saison De Lis (13).
Still, there was some order: One-ranked Russian River Pliny the Elder (avg. BA + RB score: 100) held out against New Belgium Fat Tire (16), and Firestone Walker Union Jack, an IPA (6), beat the Blonde Ale style Half Acre Gossamer (11). There were some interesting matchups, too, like Stone IPA (5) versus Southern Tier IPA (12-ranked Southern Tier prevailed, but only barely). This range of squirm-inducing results was exactly the reason we decided on a blind tasting. Screw rare-name worshiping and entrenched fanboy douchebags. Bring on the sweet, hoppy mayhem.
“Et Al.” was the misguided, acting-out badboy of the tournament. This is where good beers went because they were different, and the easily categorized brews probably resented them for it. Hell, even within the category the beers were at odds. It was like Kim Jong Un was thrown into a room with K-pop star Psy, Barack Obama and Dennis Rodman. Tart fruit beers rubbed shoulders with moody Scotch ales. Barleywines, reeking of booze, mocked yeasty wheat beers, the wusses of the libation world.
The bracket had been tweaked so that alike styles faced off, saving the swirling melee of extremely different beers for later. But it was coming. In the meantime, the pale ale/IPA/wheat beer/Frankenstein Lagunitas A Lil Sumpin’ Sumpin’ (2) asserted its dominance over Revolution Bottom Up Wit (13); Southampton Double White (6) knocked out the classic, Allagash White (8); and the Apricot duo (Cascade, 5, and Pyramid, 14) knocked out Abita Purple Haze (16 — psh) and Dogfish Head Noble Rot (10), respectively. Top seeded Lost Abbey Deliverance lost to Weyerbacher Insanity (11) and Sierra Nevada Bigfoot (7) smacked around Great Divide Old Ruffian (4). The Scotch ales — the most bizarre, misunderstood and generally crabby style in the tourney, acted unpredictably, with Three Floyds Robert the Bruce (9) and Brau Brothers Brancreagie Peated (15) winning out. It’s assumed they then took a break to play a round of golf and eat haggis.
The dark ales lineup was a fat alcoholic’s dream. In this category of very alike styles and delicious flavors — chocolate, maltiness, coffee, toffee, vanilla and even some smokiness — the biggest question was which brew could maintain balance while still bringing the heat in the taste department. Founders Breakfast stout (1), which tasted like coffee wrapped in a hug of bitter dark chocolate, moved on without question, as did Smuttynose Robust Porter (3). Maine Beer Co.’s King Titus Porter (5) tasted like Fruity Pebbles (I have an advanced palate), and moved on accordingly. Long Trail Coffee Stout (15) upset Oskar Blues Ten Fidy (2), to Oskar’s chagrin. North Coast Brother Thelonious (11) — a righteously different style than the stout/porter dominated region — named after one of the best jazz musicians of all time, trod on Bruery Smoking Wood (6) like it was an articulated run on the ivories. A classic, Anchor Porter (4), was robbed by underdog Summit Great Northern Stout (13). Lakewood Temptress (9), a big ole’ Texas stout, knocked off Left Hand Nitro Milk Stout (8) in a barn burner, and Lost Coast 8 Ball Stout (7) took down Elysian Omen (10) with a chocolatey vengeance.
Founders Chocolate Goodness versus the Tasty Maine King Titus. Sly Fox Pikeland Pils versus beloved Brooklyn Lager. Russian River Pliny the Elder takes on Ommegang Rare Vos, and things are generally ridiculous in the “Et Al” category. What’s not to love, beer fans?