It’s an embarrassment of riches.
As of this writing, Virginia is home to about 70 breweries, Maryland has maybe half that many, and the District has nine, more than at any other time in the past 130 years.
And so it’s resolved: Beer Madness, our annual blind, bracketed taste-off to determine the worthiest brews, will remain local for the second year in a row — and possibly longer. Sorry, San Diego, sorry, Seattle, but there is enough talent within a 150-mile radius to keep it fresh into the foreseeable future. Our 32 contenders this year include six breweries never before involved in our competition, including three D.C. operations that sold their first pint after last year’s winner was chosen.
One of those newbies is Bluejacket, overseen by Greg Engert, beer director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group. For the past couple of years, Engert has provided us a cozy home at his 14th Street NW beer palace ChurchKey. But it would be unfair to grant a participant the home field advantage, so we pulled up stakes and regrouped at Meridian Pint in Columbia Heights, where beer manager Sam Fitz was happy to take over as master of ceremonies.
A confession: We tinkered with the definition of “local,” admitting three eastern Pennsylvania breweries that have a strong presence in the D.C. area and are likely to make further inroads as a result of bringing modern new plants on line (most recently, Victory Brewing’s branch brewery in Parkesburg, Pa.).
Availability was a key factor in choosing our contestants. Beer’s ability to lubricate conversation (and dissent) has been noted since colonial times. We want our readers to conduct their own Beer Madnesses and do their own second-guessing, back-seat driving and Monday morning quarterbacking (even more so than they do in the online comments throughout the competition). “We tried to pick 32 beers that are readily accessible, not just at Meridian Pint but throughout the city,” said Fitz, “so you don’t have to drive 40 miles to get them.”
In fact, all you’ll have to do is commandeer a barstool, because Meridian Pint is making available all 32 beers for tasting on draft this year, helping the competition bridge the gap between the private judging panel that wields the power over the bracket and readers who go online and cast their own votes without necessarily tasting the beers, let alone tasting them blind. (For details on when you can taste which brews in the 2014 Beer Madness lineup, see the related story.)
Although forced to seek a new venue, we retained Greg Engert’s system of classification, with one minor tweak. Our four categories:
Crisp: Lighter, refreshing but flavorful beers with a sense of balance.
Fruit & Spice: “Yeast-forward” might be a better term, as only two of the eight beers in this category actually contain fruit or spice. Rather, these beers tend to draw their earthy, fruity and spicy flavors from the byproducts of fermentation.
Malt: This new niche replaces last year’s Roast category. We wanted to broaden the field from porters and stouts to include paler brews that derive their bready, biscuity, nutty and toffeeish flavors from less thoroughly roasted grains.
Hop: This is a divisive category — some folks simply can’t stomach bitter beer — but IPAs are generating more excitement than any other niche. Hops are expanding our vocabulary. They impart aromas and flavors described as earthy, peppery, floral, grassy and resiny, not to mention a fruit salad of associations such as grapefruit, tangerine, pineapple, kiwi, passion fruit, gooseberry and melon.
We corralled our beers at under 8 percent alcohol by volume and avoided extreme styles such as sour ales and barrel-aged brews. One change in tasting methodology: We chose a champion in each category before proceeding to the next. As a palate-preserving precaution, we saved the hoppy beers until last.
Once again, we enlisted a jury of eight, with this writer as the ninth (and potentially tie-breaking) vote. Our panel was evenly split between Post readers who submitted their beer credentials (four were chosen from a pool of 300 applicants) and industry professionals. One of our judges — Ruth Gresser, owner of Pizzeria Paradiso — had to exit early and was replaced by Greg Jasgur, beer manager for her three restaurants.
Aside from myself, the one return presence on our panel was Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), co-chair of the 124-person-strong House Small Brewers Caucus and himself a home-brewer. DeFazio took his work seriously, toting his handy “beer wheel” to provide him with descriptors for the task ahead. “I’ve sat next to sommeliers and been depressed because they have adjectives and I don’t,” he said.
The only people who knew the identities of the beers as they were brought to the judging table on two consecutive Tuesdays in March were Fitz, his staff and Food editor Joe Yonan, who devised a coding system for judging that kept the panelists — myself included — in the dark as to just what we were tasting.
As you read about the panel’s decisions over the following weeks and watch the bracket narrow, you’ll have the chance to dust off your own adjectives as you taste the beers at Meridian Pint and make some tough calls yourselves.
With that in mind, let the madness begin.
Kitsock is editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.