“You’re all winners in my book”. Overused by little league coaches everywhere, it’s a turn of phrase that doesn’t even trick children. You think little Tommy really believes he’s a winner? He might’ve been picking his nose absentmindedly when the winning run dribbled right by him, but he’s not stupid.

So we won’t apply it to this tournament, dammit. Call us over-competitive, but just because a beer made our list of 64 great beers doesn’t mean it’s a champ. It’s been a rocky road (see the whole bracket here), and some excellent brews have gone down swinging: Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, Rogue Dead Guy, Oskar Blues Ten FIDY, Lost Abbey Deliverance, even eminent Pliny the Elder, perfect by BeerAdvocate’s and RateBeer’s scoring standards. But they’re out, without a second chance between them. The closest things to winners — beyond the actual champion, that is — will be the final four beers, a.k.a. the top dogs of the Lager, Light Ale, Dark Ale and Et Al. styles.

For the first time in the tournament, all four tasters sat down together — still unaware of what beers they were having, mind you — and sipped As and Bs at the same table. A slightly buzzed council of two experts (our friends at ABC Beer Co.) and two beer fans, we took our time, compared closely, and made our arguments for who we believed the winner to be. Sometimes we agreed, sometimes things got heated, and more than once we called over an associate for a tie-breaker decision. When the dust settled, we had gone from eight beers to four, and the princes of the tournament (can you tell we watch Game of Thrones?) had earned their spots.

malted-madness-teaser-icon64 Beers. 6 Rounds. 1 Winner. It’s the Gear Patrol National Craft Beer Championship. Follow the Story This Way »

Lagers: Great Lakes Eliot Ness (1) vs Victory Prima Pils (2)

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Ah, the Lagers. Defame our tournament all you want, but we’ll always have this beautifully ordered category. Upsets: one (Blue Point Toasted (9) over Snake River Vienna (8)). Average seeding score of the remaining contestants: 95.75. One-seed vs two-seed matchups: the only one in the tourney. Eliot Ness (1) beat Shiner Bock (16), Blue Point Toasted (9) and Brooklyn Lager (4) to make the style championship; Prima Pils (2) took down Napa Smith Pilsner (15), Avery Joe’s Premium American Pilsner (7) and Rogue Dead Guy (3). We had been hoping for this head-to-head all along.

Facing us down were two completely different lagers. The clean, crisp, citrusy Prima Pils immediately appealed to our senses as a crowd-pleaser, especially with its pleasant hop profile; Eliot Ness, on the other hand, was more subtle and complex, filled out by major caramel and malt notes. In a 3-1 split decision, the more “sessionable, crowd-pleasing” beer won out: Victory Prima Pils.

Gracious in Defeat: Great Lakes Brewing

GP: Can you give us your own personal flavor profile of the beer?
GL: It’s malty and raisin-y from all the Munich malts we use. It’s well balanced… that makes it easier to drink, more of a sessionable beer than the usual lager. It’s got a hop backbone. It’s a bigger beer that you wouldn’t even know because it’s so well balanced.
GP: What are your favorite aspects of that flavor profile?
GL: The way the maltiness and the raisin-y malty flavors and aroma blend in with the hop background. Usually it’s the other way around, as brewers add hops that overpower beer. The hops are the backbone of this, while the malts are on top. It’s almost like a backwards IPA.
GP: What was your inspiration for the beer? What did you have in mind when you set out to brew it?
GL: Lagers have always been our key. Economically, lagers don’t make sense to most breweries. It’s a longer turnover time. So lagers aren’t about profit, they’re about making a quality beer. So we’ve always stuck to our lagers. As far as who came up with it, I’ve been here 15 years, and I’m not even sure who came up with the recipe.
GP: What was the process like to get to the finished product?
GL: It’s a pretty normal brewing process, with 7 days of fermenting and 3-4 weeks of lagering (aging) time.
GP: What sets your beer apart from other beers in its style?
GL: Our lager yeast is its own proprietary yeast, very unique. There’s a lot of brewers who’ve never seen a lager yeast like this. It ferments really well. People don’t talk about yeast, but that’s a big part of why it is the way it is. It’s the unsung hero.

- Jason Gompf

Light Ales: Southern Tier IPA (12) vs Two Brothers Domaine DuPage (14)

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Proof that Cinderella stories can come true, Southern Tier IPA (12) and Two Brothers Domaine DuPage (14) emerged from the shambles of the Light Ale category like unbelievable war heroes walking coolly away from a massive fake explosion. Both had emerged victorious against bruisers. Southern Tier first beat Stone IPA (5), then Perennial Artisans Saison De Lis (13), and then — in a shocker — felled top-seeded Russian River Pliny the Elder. Domaine DuPage had an extremely difficult road as well, facing Surly Furious (3), Firestone Walker Union Jack (6), and Captain Lawrence Kolsch (10) to make it to the round of eight.

There were instantly two camps. One voted for the more present, in-your-face, true-to-category sweet hoppiness of Southern Tier IPA; the other backed Domaine DuPage’s larger malts and pleasant balance of spice and biscuit-y body. Both sides were ready for war, which was diverted by our tiebreaker taster’s decision — for Two Brothers Domaine DuPage, which he ultimately contributed to sessionability and smoothness.

Gracious in Defeat: Southern Tier Brewery

GP: Can you give us your own personal flavor profile of the beer?
ST: Our IPA has a perfect balance of hops and malts.
GP: What are your favorite aspects of that flavor profile?
ST: My favorite aspect of the flavor profile is the beautiful aroma and how it transitions into the flavor and mouthfeel.
GP: What was your inspiration for the beer? What did you have in mind when you set out to brew it?
ST: We were, and are still, inspired by the history of the India pale ale style.
GP: What was the process like to get to the finished product?
ST: We experimented very little with this beer. Phineas DeMink, our owner, president and creator of the IPA recipe really nailed this one from the beginning.
GP: What sets your beer apart from other beers in its style?
ST: We’re pretty certain our recipe is uniquely ours.

- Nathan Arnone

Dark Ales: Founders Breakfast Stout (1) vs North Coast Brother Thelonious (11)

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Founders Breakfast Stout (1), a favorite to win the whole thing, beat Wolaver’s Oatmeal Stout (16), the aptly named Lakewood Temptress (9), and finally the equally tough Maine Beer Company King Titus Porter (5) to go head to head against a very different foe than it had faced before: North Coast Brother Thelonious (11). Perhaps this jazz legend’s leg up was that it was the only Belgian Strong Dark ale in a category of stouts and porters. That and the fact that it’s delicious. Thelonious took down The Bruery Smoking Wood (6), Smuttynose Robust Porter (3) and Lost Coast 8 Ball Stout (7) in a nasty road to the regional finals.

We instantly recognized a battle of two distinct styles, with the Belgian Strong Dark Ale, Thelonious, full of brown sugar, raisins and an alcohol heat, and the Breakfast Stout, Founders, packed full of ridiculous coffee and chocolate. What occurred next was the perfect example of an incredible beer making an excellent beer look bad. There was a unanimous decision for Founders Breakfast, which wowed with a delicious beginning, middle and end. Truth be told, several of us had a pretty good idea what beer this was, simply because its taste is so recognizable.

Gracious in Defeat: North Coast Brewing

Play yourself out, Brother Thelonious.

Et Al.: Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ (2) vs Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine (7)

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We always imagined the Et Al. category exploding like that guy’s head in Scanners. That’s not quite what happened. The best wheat beer, Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ (2), went right on through (beating Revolution Bottom Up Wit (13), Southampton Double Wheat (8) and the best fruit beer, Cascade Apricot (5)). The other top contender, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine (7), was third best of a style that had the monstrous flavors necessary to win the whole tournament. It had a somewhat easy road, beating Great Divide Old Ruffian (4), Weyerbacher Insanity (11) and Three Floyds Robert the Bruce (9).

In the tasting, though, we finally got the fireworks we had been hoping for. These beers were vastly different. Bigfoot walloped our tastebuds with wild complexity — a completely different range of flavors from the other beers we had tested — without falling off the wagon in the balance department. Little Sumpin’ Sumpin, a beer of big flavors, was easily the more clean, refreshing drink, with pleasant yeast paired to high-powered hops. It went down to the bitter end, literally: Bigfoot’s massive finale on the tongue made it the winner over Little Sumpin’s relaxed, wheaty goodbye in a 3-1 decision.

Gracious in Defeat: Lagunitas Brewing Company

GP: Can you give us your own personal flavor profile of the beer?
LB: Absoultely delicious. It’s a half wheat/half pale, grapefruity, hoppy, easy-drinkin beer that can satisfy the veteran craft beer drinkers or the first timers. There’s just something about it!
GP: What are your favorite aspects of that flavor profile?
LB: The wheatly-esque-ish-ness. It is enough to notice but not too much to drive you up the wall.
GP: What was your inspiration for the beer? What did you have in mind when you set out to brew it?
LB: Summer inspired. Sun & hops in mind. Originally a summer seasonal.
GP: What was the process like to get to the finished product?
LB: The recipe came before the name. The biggest hold-up was fermentation.
GP: What sets your beer apart from other beers in its style?
LB: We’ve never found a style/category that it fit into.

- Nina Anguiano

A Tasting in Pictures

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Special thanks to the fine gents at ABC Beer Co. for all their help with the tournament. If you're ever in need of brews and/or a good time, visit their store and bar in Alphabet City, Manhattan. Follow them on twitter at @ABCBeerCo.