Young and Hungry

Why WaPo’s Beer Madness Results Actually Matter This Year

Last week, the Washington Post announced the final results of its annual Beer Madness tournament. For the past five years, the Post's food section has put together a panel of local beer enthusiasts and had them position dozens of beers against each other in a blind tasting. The Post then shares the bracket results in a multi-week series that mirrors college basketball's March Madness.

Unlike previous years, I am taking note of the 2011 Beer Madness winners. Here's why:

My bad attitude about the beer competition isn't over not being selected for the panel, which I applied for back in 2008 before I started my tenure at Y&H.  (I thought my story about hiding and successfully retrieving a nice bottle of Belgian beer outside RFK Stadium after failing to smuggle it into a Nats game would get me in, but no dice.)

My initial excitement and desire to participate quickly waned when I saw which brews were selected, and worse yet, how they were organized. Year after year, the list of contenders seemed to me a bizarre mix of primarily mass produced beers, the kind that are light on carbs and even lighter on the palate (think of your typical grocery store beer aisle). Among them was only a sprinkling of brews with actual flavor.

And often beers were seated in pairs so different from each other that they seemed impossible to compare. For example, in what has to be the worst matchup ever, Ommegang's delicate but complex Hennepin artisanal farmhouse ale was put head-to-head in the 2008 bracket with Miller Chill (as in "chelada"), a mass-produced light American lager spiked with lime and salt. Whether a panelist chooses the subtle grass, earth, and citrus flavors of the saison or a margarita-themed light beer is likely a matter of personal preference.

"Within the groups it seemed like they picked beers out of a hat and randomized which beers were put up against each other. It didn’t seem like there was any logic," says Raul Arroyo-Mendoza, who sat on the 2010 Beer Madness panel.

This kind of nonsense led to winners like Brooklyn Lager (2007), Hook & Ladder Backdraft Brown (2008), Tröegs Hopback Amber (2009), and Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout (2010)–all decent beers, with Hopback Amber at the top of the list, but none worthy of a championship title in my opinion.

But this year Beer Madness was run differently. The organizers at WaPo partnered with Birch & Barley/ChurchKey beer director Greg Engert. Together he, food section editor Joe Yonan and beer columnist Greg Kitsock, who has orchestrated the event each year, made some significant improvements.

First, they decided to choose only American craft beers, meaning those from breweries in the U.S. producing under six million barrels per year. There were no Budweiser, Miller, or Coors products, or lines of beer owned by affiliated large companies like Rolling Rock or Red Hook (AB-InBev) or Blue Moon or Leinenkugel's (SAB Miller).

Engert suggested categorizing the beers by flavor profile, similar to the way he organizes his beer menus, rather than by ales and lagers, a grouping that means little in today's terrain of innovative brews mostly dominated by ales. Within each profile, he wanted to pair beers of similar styles and alcohol content against each other to avoid early round mismatches.

"I wanted to leave that subjectivity of preferred style to the end, in the later rounds," says Engert.

Engert himself selected the breweries and made a list of styles in each flavor profile he wanted to cover. This year's tournament would be a four-quadrant bracket with eight to ten styles in each flavor category, represented (when possible) by two breweries each–for a total of 64 contestants. He then started the grueling process of filling the slots with a beer from each brewery's year-round offerings.

The organizers also split the tasting into two sessions on separate nights instead of one marathon evening of boozing. This counteracted palate fatigue and allowed for not only more beers than in previous years, but also the inclusion of brews with higher alcohol levels, which tend to be the most popular ones. According to Engert, the organizers actually wanted to spread the tasting across four nights and are likely to do so next year.

Finally, the organizers had a different way to choose the panel, which included industry professionals with developed palates as well as the usual Joe Sixpack. WaPo recruited Kat Bangs, sommelier at Komi in Dupont Circle, JP Caceres, mixologist at Bourbon Steak in Georgetown, Brian Robinson, executive chef at Restaurant Three in Arlington, and Ellie and Bob Tupper, brewers of Tuppers' Beers and celebrated local beer enthusiasts. Along with these four panelists (the Tuppers counted as one vote), five readers were selected from this year's application pool: Justin Garcia of Centreville, Hiromi Kowaguchi of Arlington, Whitney Meager of D.C., Duff Gillespie of Kensington, and Christina Hoffman of Arlington.

The panelists received a crash course in beer judging before participating. "I wanted to turn things away from pure subjectivity, but didn't want to tell people what to think," says Engert. "I told them it should be a balance between what you prefer but could incorporate some ideas of what makes certain beers more palatable or interesting than others."

The upshot of all this thought and effort is a winner's circle worth noting. The victors in each profile, which are each champions themselves, include:

These four brews then competed against each other for the Beer Madness title. Misery and Exit 4 faced off in the semi-finals, as did Rise Up and Maximus. The victors, Exit 4 and Maximus, then competed in the championship round, with Flying Fish Exit 4 American Trippel, a 9.5 percent alcohol by volume Belgian-style ale, grabbing the win in a 6-3 vote.

Personally, I would have flipped the semi-finals bracket to pit the Malt and Roast champs and Hops and Fruit & Spice winners against each other–just to see how the final result may have been different. Other than that, this year's tournament took most of the madness out of Beer Madness, and for the first time I am looking to the winners list and seeking out the late-round beers I have yet to try.

Image courtesy of WashingtonPost.com

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  • yup yup

    That is excellent. I'd never put Pere Jacque over 3 Philosophers, but if the Exit 4 beat a Goose Island beer, I'll check it out. Thanks for the info!

  • Stefanie Gans

    props to cherry hill!

  • Joe Yonan

    Hey, Tammy -- Glad you liked the contest this year, and appreciate your noticing the changes, which we worked hard on. Allow me to clarify a couple of things, though.

    We owe a great deal of gratitude to Greg Engert for his hard work on Beer Madness, but the sequence went more like so: After a couple years of running it by the system established by the departed Sunday Source section, I decided this year to shake things up: to focus first and foremost on American craft beers, and to include experts on the panel. I approached Greg Engert with all that in mind.

    He, as you noted, did the amazing work of choosing (with Greg Kitsock's input) the beers, came up with the flavor categories, and painstakingly made sure the matchups made some sense. To keep the whole thing blind for the tasting, I converted all the beers to code numbers and worked with Greg E's staff of pros to make sure the pours were right.

    We may refine it next year -- trying again to manage the logistical feat of several nights of tastings instead of two, for instance -- but Greg Engert knows: We'll always want him as a partner. The contest is better for it, absolutely.

  • Tammy Tuck

    Joe, thank you for the clarification. Again, thumbs up on the new approach and I am counting the days until next year's tournament.

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