Beer Madness 2013: Going local

Video: The Washington Post’s annual Beer Madness focused on selections from local craft breweries in the annual tournament pitting 32 beers against each other in a bracket-style tournament.

Washington isn’t Milwaukee-on-the-Potomac. Not yet.

And even the biggest boosters of the city’s beer scene would consider it hyperbole to rank the District alongside craft brew oases such as San Diego or Portland, Ore.

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Cast your vote in our interactive bracket. And see which brew our judges pick to go all the way.

But after decades of sampling the rest of the world’s beers, dating back to the Brickskeller’s founding in 1957, the District has sprouted a homegrown industry. The city’s five indigenous beermakers (two brewpubs and three packaging facilities) are tiny; DC Brau, the largest, expects to pump out about 12,000 barrels in 2013. But they’re discovering enthusiastic local support. And their numbers might very well double by this time next year.

Maryland and Virginia boast upwards of 70 breweries between them, and new ones are being announced weekly. Once considered nuisances, sources of noxious emissions and debasers of public morals, breweries now are being actively courted. Last May, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) signed into law a measure that allows breweries to retail beer by the pint or growler in their tasting rooms instead of merely giving away samples. That measure was instrumental in Green Flash Brewing’s recent decision to build an East Coast branch in Virginia Beach. The San Diego brewer expects its Mid-Atlantic site to be capable of turning out

100,000 barrels a year when it opens in 2015.

And that brings us to the subject of Beer Madness, our annual blind tasting to crown a worthy beer as top of the taps in our nation’s capital.

In previous years we’ve gone mass-market, global (in honor of the Olympics) and all-American. In this, the seventh annual Beer Madness, we decided to celebrate the local renaissance and showcase the best this region has to offer. All 32 entries come from breweries in the Chesapeake Bay area. We included some local brewpubs whose distribution doesn’t stretch outside their front door, and a few small newcomers, such as Wild Wolf Brewing in Nellysford, Va., and Union Craft Brewing in Baltimore, that are just poking their noses into Washington and suburbs. But you can find all of these beers, on tap or in bottles or cans, within the confines of the Beltway.

We did expand the definition of “local” to encompass Delaware. It would have been a shame to exclude the hard-to-pigeonhole, sometimes downright eccentric beers of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton. And the Dominion labels of Coastal Brewing in Dover were hatched within a relative stone’s throw of the District: Old Dominion Brewing operated for many years out of an industrial park in Ashburn.

Although the breweries hail from only three states and a federal district, our lineup displays as much breadth and depth as any we fielded in previous years.

Once more, we enlisted Greg Engert, beer director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, to choose our contenders and emcee the proceedings at ChurchKey/Birch & Barley on 14th Street NW. (Engert’s Bluejacket brewery is set open later this spring. His brewer, Megan Parisi, has tried out a few recipes using other folks’ brew kettles, but we didn’t include any of those, so no beer could claim an advantage.)

The categories were the same as last year:

●Crisp: Lighter, refreshing, lower-alcohol beers that temper flavor with quaffability.

●Fruit & Spice: These beers draw their funky, off-kilter flavors from Belgian yeast strains and non-traditional ingredients, such as raisins, cacao nibs and white sage.

●Hop: Besides adding bitterness, generous use of hops imparts a spectrum of earthy, peppery, floral, grassy, citrusy and piny aromas and flavors. (This was our most divisive category. “I want to marry this beer!” exclaimed one of our panelists as she sipped a hoppy IPA, while her table mate dreaded the “hop headache” the brew would certainly give her.)

●Roast: Grains roasted at high temperatures, sometimes within a hair’s breadth of carbonization, give these beers their mahogany-to-ebony colors and roasty flavors mimicking fresh espresso and bitter chocolate.

Our panel, split between four laymen chosen from The Post’s readership and four professional tasters, included the daughter of a hop grower, a celebrity chef and U.S. Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), co-chairman of the House Small Brewers Caucus. (“It’s the only bipartisan thing in Washington,” said DeFazio, who also judged last year’s Beer Madness.) I was the ninth member and potential tiebreaker.

Our judges were asked to rate the beers based on personal preference rather than adherence to any stylistic guideline. Some decisions came hard. “Can I just vote ‘present’?” asked one panelist, gridlocked between two samples.

We must confess there is a second reason, besides mere local pride, we made this year’s Beer Madness a celebration of local brew. This year, for the first time ever, Washington will host the annual Craft Brewers Conference and BrewExpo America trade show. The Brewers Association, which stages the event, expects a record attendance of 6,000 beermakers and allied professionals.

Between March 26 and March 29, they’ll arrive in tandem with the cherry blossoms for four days of seminars, tastings, horse-trading and lobbying. (The Brewers Association is organizing a “Capitol Hill climb” to voice support for a new version of last year’s Brewer’s Employment and Excise Relief Act, a.k.a. BEER Act, which would halve the excise tax on small brewers to $3.50 per barrel.)

The festivities will spill over into the city’s taprooms and eateries as out-of-town brewers share an assortment of rare vintages not normally offered here. Conversely, brewers from around the nation (and world) will get to pass judgment on our hometown heroes.

“I think it’s going to be great having all these brewers in town,” said Dave Coleman, a little swagger in his voice. The co-founder of 3 Stars Brewing in the District was looking forward to pouring his Peppercorn Saison and other brands at the opening reception at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Charlie Papazian, president of the Brewers Association and author of “The Complete Joy of Homebrewing,” had just visited 3 Stars, Coleman said. The verdict? “He thought our beers were awesome.”

Kitsock is editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.

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