It felt good to finish a successful 64-beer tournament. Partly because our bladders were feeling the pressure after lots of beer samples, but mostly because we got to crown a winner. 64 beers — Vienna-style lagers, IPAs, imperial stouts, wheat ales, barleywines, pale ales — under one bar’s roof is chaos (delicious, delicious chaos). But picking one as the absolute best is as singularly satisfying as the tick-hiss of a popped bottle cap.

The final two competitors prove we did something right. Founders Breakfast Stout and Victory Prima Pils make drinkers happy, and they make brewers happy. They’re delicious, complex, drinkable and extremely accessible to beer fans; they’re also the epitome of two foundational styles, perfect examples of what excellent American craft brewing can create.

If you’re late to the party, here’s a quick recap: we (1) picked 64 beers from across the country, without repeating a single brewery; (2) gathered the beers together at ABC Beer Co. in New York City; (3) separated the brews into 4 categories, Lagers, Light Ales, Dark Ales and Et Al.; and (4) taste-tested them blindly, head-to-head, in an NCAA-tourney style bracket. Fun ensued.

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

And while it’s been a fun ride, it’s about time we sat back, sipped on the final brews of the day, and ruminated on what we’ve achieved. 64 beers from all across the country blindly tasted, the vast majority of which stood up for themselves damn well without a big name, or a flashy label, or cult hype. We have plenty of new favorites to keep an eye out for in our travels, and plenty of our old standbys re-proved their merit. We picked a winner worthy of the title Best Beer in the Country. We hope you’ve been exposed to a lot of great beers, enjoyed the intriguing (albeit imperfect) method of competition, and gained some serious respect for what brewers across the nation are accomplishing.

But enough rumination. Wanna know who won the damn thing? Drunken drum roll, please… Founders Breakfast Stout, the #1 seed in Dark Ales, thick with dark chocolate, rich coffee, a velvety mouthfeel and a solid alcohol body, beat out Victory Prima Pils, the 2-seeded Lager. Read on for the transcript of our blind tasting and decision process, and for our interviews with the brewers of both beers. Cheers, Founders. And get ready to defend that crown next year.

Meet the Championship Beers

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Who better to explain our champion brew than Founders Brewmaster Jeremy Kosmicki? He filled us in on the 8.3% ABV, 60 IBU beast of a stout, and left us hungry for breakfast.

Gear Patrol: Can you give us your own personal flavor profile of the beer?
Jeremy Kosmicki: Rich and thick body, with coffee flavors and roasted malt followed by a chocolate sweetness and a kiss of hops to finish.

GP: What are your favorite aspects of that flavor profile?
JK: Probably the way the sweetness of the chocolate balances the bitterness of the coffee.

GP: What was your inspiration for the beer? What did you have in mind when you set out to brew it?
JK: A hearty bowl of oatmeal and a black cup of coffee sweetened with chocolate .

GP: What was the process like to get to the finished product?
JK: We nailed the recipe pretty quick, but it’s a very labor intensive brew. I never really intended for it to go to full-on production, so finding ways to simplify the process and not lose any character have been the real challenges.

GP: What sets your beer apart from other beers in its style?
JK: Well, I’ve seen other beers described as a “Breakfast Stout”, so perhaps it created a new style or at least inspired other brewers. I like ours because it’s flavorful and balanced.

GP: What’s the mission statement of your brewery?
JK: To craft beers that are interesting and delicious. To push some boundaries while still keeping it tasteful. To make beer that I feel like drinking, and hoping everyone else catches on. Guess these are more like my personal mission.

GP: What sets your brewery apart from its competitors?
JK: Probably our musical prowess. We have an all-star band made up of just employees.

GP: How does this beer fit into your brewery’s line of beer?
JK: It’s our only stout that’s available for more than 2 months of the year, so it’s kind of our workhorse stout. It’s a great way to bring in the cool weather.

GP: What’s your favorite way to enjoy the beer?
JK: I love drinking one as I’m cooking up eggs, bacon and potatoes for a late Sunday breakfast. Yum!

Ah, the bitter sweetness of a championship lost. Oh wait, that taste is actually Victory’s masterpiece. Bill Covaleski, co-founder of the Downingtown, PA brewery, gave us the rundown on this palatable pilsner.

Gear Patrol: Can you give us your own personal flavor profile of the beer?
Bill Covaleski: Grassy and bright on the nose, bracing, mineral refreshment yields to a light malt finish and sustained dryness. Quenching!

GP: What are your favorite aspects of that flavor profile?
BC: The amount of refreshing flavor that such a ‘light’ bodied beer can deliver.

GP: What was your inspiration for the beer? What did you have in mind when you set out to brew it?
BC: Pilsners are not hard to find. We set out to craft one that pulled no punches in delivering the ultimate in hoppy flavor and sublime refreshment.

GP: What was the process like to get to the finished product?
BC: Selection of the best malts and hops suited for the style. Definition of the mashing regime in the brewhouse. Commitment to proper fermentation and lager aging.

GP: What sets your beer apart from other beers in its style?
BC: There were no American pils’s this bold when it was released in 1997. Today it still shines above a pack with its pure quality.

GP: What’s the mission statement/ultimate goal of your brewery?
BC: We apply European traditions and ingredients to inspired American brewing, with delicious results.

GP: What sets your brewery apart from its competitors?
BC: Victory.

GP: How does this beer fit into your brewery’s line of beer?
BC: We pride ourselves on offering a diverse range of beers. A Prima is a perfect lead in to a Golden Monkey (Belgian tripel) or rich HopDevil (IPA) for the perspective and contrast it provides.

GP: What’s your favorite way to enjoy Prima Pils?
BC: Slow poured with a frothy head. Add a fresh-baked soft pretzel for additional bliss.

As told to Chris Wright

The Championship Round

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A: Founders Breakfast Stout (1), which defeated: Wolaver’s Oatmeal Stout (16), Lakewood The Temptress (9), Maine Beer Co. King Titus Porter (5), North Coast Brother Thelonious (11), Bigfoot Barleywine (7).
B: Victory Prima Pils (2), which defeated: Napa Smith (15), Avery Joe’s Premium American Pilsner (7), Rogue Dead Guy (3), Great Lakes Eliot Ness (1), Two Brothers Domaine DuPage (14)

Ah, to be a fly on the wall during our final tasting session. Alas, this transcript is the best we could do. Here’s how our four tasters decided on a victor:

[All four tasters drink. A is Founders Breakfast Stout; B is Victory Prima Pils.]

Ben: It’s safe to say that because we’ve done this back to back we know what these beers taste like.

Dave: I have guesses on what both are, but I’m not entirely sure.

Zach: Wow. B is really well done. It has some massive floral notes. I was afraid that A was going to completely overpower all the subtleties of B, but man, B is really stepping up. This has become the proverbial nailbiter that we had hoped for.

Chris: B is a Cinderella story.

Ben: A, which is the stout, much more noticeable caramel flavor consistent throughout, where I feel like B overall has a palate that changes through the length of the taste.

Chris: A is kind of like a blanket of flavor, whereas B really pops you right in the mouth. And it’s delicious. And then [snap] it’s gone.

Zach: If I were really thirsty, B would be perfect. Or B would go perfectly with a spicy meal. Granted, A is not something you’d pair with that. It’s a very different offering.

Ben: For record’s sake, most of us think we have an idea what A is, or we have a guess at what it is.

Zach: I think based on what we’re doing here — and this is a very hard decision — I would still be able to drink multiple As, and I still find something new that I like about it every time I go back to it, so I’ve got to go with A.

Chris: For what I’m looking for in a beer, sitting down, not necessarily pairing it with anything, just enjoying a drink by itself, it’s incredibly close. But I think with A that consistency really appeals to me. From the first second I pick it up and smell it to the last taste left on my tongue it’s utterly delicious. So that’s two votes for A [Founders Breakfast Stout].

Ben: Here’s a point. A is fantastic, but it’s not a beer I’d drink year-round. Whereas B to me is a beer I could enjoy year-round.

Dave: I think on the flip side, whereas I may not want to drink A in July or August, I may be less inclined to drink B in the winter time.

Zach: I could drink A in July or August.

Dave: OK, I could drink both of them year round, but I think they both gravitate toward a season, slightly.

Zach: These are like Rolexes. They’re year-round apparel. You are going to wear them all year.

Dave: So what’s your vote, Ben?

Ben: I think I’m gonna go with B. I love em both, I just think B is a beer (and this is definitely biased) that I would more naturally drink year-round. Even though A is an incredible stout, and if someone handed it to me in the summer I’m not going to dump it out. But if I had to pick one beer that I was on a desert island and I had to drink til eternity, it would be B.

Dave: So that’s two for A, one for B. I can send it to OT or pick the winner… I think B is probably a harder beer to make, but I have to go with A. It’s delicious. We started the tournament judging matchups by what was the most appealing head-to-head, and based on that I would say A.

Ben: So it’s three to one for A. I’m glad it wasn’t unanimous, but it definitely could have been.

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