Selecting our favorite domestic craft beer was rather like selecting a favorite child: really not that hard, but bound to incite debate. Discussion of beer, like children, brings about a certain sentimentality — nostalgia, even — for the dogged unsophistication and everyman appeal of the malted beverage. Pitting our favorite beers against one another in…
Hail to the King, Baby
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 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.
A sip from the bitter end
Four style categories, four beers remaining. This is the big time folks: four rounds have drained 60 beers from the tourney. That makes Victory, Two Brothers, Founders and Sierra Nevada — seeded 2, 14, 1, and 7, consecutively — in the 96th percentile. That’s a 1290 on the SAT. Not quite Ivy Leaguers — but then again, neither are our tasters.
With so few brews remaining in our Malted Madness tournament, it’s time for some specific dissection. What remains, largely, is a contest between styles. So how does one judge between a stout and a barleywine, a pilsner and a Bière de Garde? Very carefully, we realized — but also with plenty of subjectivity, banter, and flip-flopping. Largely, the debate was winnowed to a somewhat philosophical question: what kind of beer were we even looking for? Was it the most complex, style-boundary-pushing flavor bomb, or a beer that everyone could enjoy anytime, anywhere? For full disclosure, we’ve decided to include our full discussion/debate sessions for both matchups this round (which we recorded for prosperity’s sake). Read on for our decisions.
The tastiest kind of reminiscing
Malted Madness is a celebration of beer. Largely, we’ve glorified suds through our favorite medium: bloodthirsty head-to-head competition. Now, though, we pay homage to the most foundational of beer’s values… enjoyment. We asked our staff to remember the most memorable water, malt and hops they’d ever had and recorded their misty-eyed reminiscences. What we found — unsurprisingly — was that the true measure of beer is often when and where it’s enjoyed, and who with.
Meet the Best Lager, Light Ale, Dark Ale and Wild Card
“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 and RateBeer 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.
The Going Gets Tough, The Suds Get Going
Ah, the round of sixteen. Narrowed down to a quarter of our original beers, the Malted Madness field (see the whole bracket here) has been cleared of those excellent beers with even a muted set of flaws. What remains is a clash of subtle differences, muddied everywhere by the trouble of putting slightly different (sometimes, vastly different) styles head-to-head. The process wasn’t pretty — but how can tasting 16 of the best beers we’ve ever imbibed not be beautiful?
Mind you, we still didn’t know which beers were moving on. What was abundantly clear, however, was that the “As” and “Bs” we had given the nod so far were damn good. Decision depression was at an all-time high, and we all defaulted to our overarching rule, beyond judgement of appearance, smell, taste and mouthfeel: Which beer would you rather drink?
This Bud's For You
Editor’s Note: Malted Madness is a celebration of America’s craft beer. But what about the rest? Brandon Chuang feels… strongly about the everyman beer. We haven’t forgotten the good ole’ standbys either, so we let him vent.
By now, just a few short days into Malted Madness, you’ve taken in about as much as you can when it comes to beer. You’ve studied the bracket — our curated list of 64 of the best craft beers in the country — and you’re drunk with emotion. Why isn’t my beer in the tournament? How could that beer make it past the first round? Nothing brings out our passions more than competition, and nothing clouds our judgment more than the wants and desires of our own hearts. And in this boozy, passion-soaked attempt to find the best of the best, we’ve forgotten what “the best” truly means.
We’ve begun a coronation while the king still lives.
The Hoppy Mayhem Continues
The second round of any 64-team single elimination tournament is always clearer. The chaos is winnowed down in scale but magnified in intensity. Dark horses that dazzled against top-ranked teams return to earth (ahem, Harvard). Under-performers face heavier competition, and some of the best battles of the tourney ensue.
The second round of Malted Madness brought a whole new level of great matchups and tough calls for tasters. The first round’s head-to-heads had been largely decided on gut reactions. In this round, the tasters began showing signs of “decision depression” — i.e. not wanting to make a selection — and there was far more frowning going on than should be in a room loaded with excellent brews. Still, we had known the risks going into the tournament (though we forgot to include alcohol poisoning waivers). Furrowing brows and downing saltless crackers to revive our palates, we forged on.
Take off eh!
Not content to be contained, Malted Madness is spreading across the 49th parallel. Lucky for us, our neighbors to the North hold the same passion for cranking out (and drinking) mouth-watering microbrews as American brewers. And lucky for you, the GP team has a Canadian correspondent to help guide your sudsy stumblings beyond the world’s longest international border. The goal was the same: finding category contenders worthy of each of our style brackets (lagers, light ales, dark ales, and Et Al.). But instead of crowning winners, we’re presenting four Provincial picks (plus a personal favorite) to whet your palate. You might even be tempted to hop the border and find out what excellent Canuck craft brew is all aboot, eh?
The madness begins
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.
Turning a Dream Into a Sudsy Reality
You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to put on a 64 beer, single elimination, NCAA-style tournament. One minute you’re dreaming of all that hoppy, malty, chocolatey, fruity goodness in one place and the next… well, you’re trying desperately to get all that hoppy, malty chocolately, fruity goodness — in one place.
To be clear, this tournament isn’t about bitching. It’s about gathering 64 of the best beers in America together, matching them up, tasting them blindly (removing the pretense that so often surrounds our entrenched beery beliefs), and crowning a champion. It’s GP’s swing at a new way to enjoy, explore and appreciate damn good beer. It’s about one of the biggest movements in our country. It’s about a shared passion. It’s also about personal taste, the barroom argument you’ve had with your buddies many times: which beer is better?
Tops Pop Next Week
Name your favorite domestic beer. Not so easy, eh?
With Malted Madness, Gear Patrol takes on that challenge: blind tasting the best craft brews across America. We’re not talking about your “go-to” choice, the quick pick you can find at any supermarket or Jiffy Mart across America, although there are several of the quality we mean that are nationally available. No, this is about the beer with a starring role in your dreams, a taste that conjures the trumpets of heaven with each sip and invokes tears of joy as it traipses across your palate. Naming a favorite is subjective, like picking America’s “Sexiest Woman”, and an over-simplification of the media. Gear Patrol jumps into the fray, regardless, in an attempt to do just that: pick the best craft beer in the United States out of a field of 64 in a grand single-elimination tournament. Join us for Malted Madness, the perfect companion to the culmination of college basketball. Read on for more info.