Round One of Beer Madness, our blind tasting of 32 brews (this year, all from the Chesapeake Bay region), ought to provoke the deepest pontificating, the most serious soul-searching. The beers in these initial taste-offs, after all, are matched to resemble one another in style, strength and intensity of flavor.
And yet, of the 16 contests in our opening salvo, only three resulted in 5-4 squeakers, while 10 matchups were decided by 7-2 — or even more lopsided — verdicts.
The elegantly malty Devils Backbone Vienna Lager upended the roasty Chocolate City Cerveza Nacional de la Capital, 8-1. Dogfish Head Raison D’Etre (which for panelist Carolyn Stromberg evoked “Ethiopian coffee” and “burnt caramel, figs”) similarly routed Brewer’s Art Resurrection. And District ChopHouse Bourbon Stout (likened to the hazelnut-flavored liqueur Frangelico) toppled Blue Mountain Dark Hollow 8-1 in a battle of big, boozy, barrel-aged brews.
The biggest blowout, oddly, involved two beers nearly identical in flavor, as Rock Bottom White Ale blanked Port City Optimal Wit, 9-0. No one claimed to detect any obvious faults in the Optimal Wit. (Panelist Peter DeFazio, in fact, circled the Port City entry on his score sheet before switching allegiance.)
A few tasters commented that the Rock Bottom White Ale had a richer mouth feel. But the winning beer seemed to draw most of the brickbats. Chef Bryan Voltaggio noted a whiff of “emulsified sausage.” Mixologist Gina Chersevani commented, “Smells like Mike Isabella’s pepperoni sauce,” referring to the chef-owner of Graffiato in the District’s Chinatown.
But they both voted for the meat beer. Go figure.
A few pairings did divide our panel sharply. In a face-off for hometown bragging rights, Belgian Pale Ale from the Gordon B iersch brewpub on Ninth Street NW sneaked by DC Brau’s the Citizen, 5-4. Joe Wallace picked up hints of “taffy smell” and “model glue” in the Citizen, while Chersevani found “acetone,” “apple juice” and “lemon peel.” The same beer reminded Stromberg of Bazooka Joe bubblegum. Doris Dixon praised the Belgian Pale Ale for “rich depth of cognac undertones, beautiful color, hoppy aroma.”
“Unique” is an overused word, but DeFazio — a.k.a. U.S. Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) — probably was justified in applying it to Stillwater Cellar Door, with its pungent aroma of white sage. Other panelists groped for the right descriptor, coming up with peach, spearmint, tea, menthol, pine and fresh-cut grass. Only Scott Schenkelberg correctly guessed pepper in its opponent, 3 Stars Peppercorn Saison.
The Peppercorn Saison fell by a 6-3 margin, leaving all three of the District’s packaging breweries to lick their wounds and contemplate next year’s contest. An indictment of our young but burgeoning beer scene? A refutation of the equation that local = freshest = best? Hardly. Both of the city’s brewpubs made the cut, as did another nearby operation, the Rock Bottom in Bethesda. That might indicate an advantage for beer pumped directly from the serving tanks and toted home in growlers. It might also mean that CraftWorks Restaurants & Breweries — parent company of the Gordon Biersch, Rock Bottom and ChopHouse chains — knows how to hire and nurture brewing talent.
Our panel was never at a loss for adjectives, and a donnybrook between the two Irish-style dry stouts especially elicited the gift of gab. Stromberg dismissed Corcoran Brewing’s Slainte Stout as tasting like “laundry detergent,” while Wallace found it reminiscent of “Asian sauce” and “water chestnuts.” (To make it perfectly clear where he stood, he wrote “LOVE” next to his tasting notes.) Dixon detected notes of “rosemary” and raspberries.” Baying Hound Long Snout Stout was compared to “cherry” (Segal), “caramelized bananas” (Stromberg) and “cotton candy bubble bath” (Voltaggio). Long Snout carried the day, 7-2.
Blind tastings eliminate any partiality for a particular brewery or locality. But our tasters did bring along certain prejudices. Chersevani openly proclaimed her dislike of hoppy beers. “Palate killer — hop head pain,” she scribbled as she sipped Franklin’s Private IPA.
Jeanne Segal, the daughter of a hop farmer, perked up considerably as the pale ales and IPAs were served. “Don’t make me choose!” she pleaded when forced to decide between the Franklin’s (“seriously amazing”) and AleWerks Drake Tail Ale (“gorgeous, refined”). She eventually voted for Franklin’s, the same beer that threatened to give Chersevani a migraine; Franklin’s edged out AleWerks, 5-4.
Flying Dog Double Dog Ale practically sent Segal into a rapture. “OMG, like walking into a field filled with dried hops. I want to marry this beer.” Most of her fellow panelists agreed, as the Flying Dog squashed DuClaw Serum, 8-1.
In other matchups, the panel chose:
■Evolution Lucky 7 over Oliver Pagan Porter, 7-2.
■Old Dominion Oak Barrel Stout over Capitol City Mighty Potomac Chocolate Stout , 7-2.
■Union Craft Duckpin Pale Ale over Sweetwater Great American Pale Ale , 7-2.
■Lost Rhino Face Plant IPA over Starr Hill Northern Lights, 6-3.
■Wild Wolf Local Wolf over Heavy Seas Small Craft Warning , 5-4.
■Legend Pilsner over St. George Pilsner, 6-3.
■Tuppers’ Keller Pils over Mad Fox Kellerbier Kolsch, 7-2.
So how did our competitors fare, region by region? The District fielded five beers, but two of them squared off against each other in the Belgian pale ale matchup, so the most the city could have advanced was four. It went 50-50, sending a pair of hometown beers to the next round.
Virginia had the most entries, 13, but two contests involved Virginia beers exclusively, so 11 was the maximum number the Old Dominion could have advanced. Only four, fewer than half, made the grade.
Maryland had a dog in the hunt in 10 of the 16 matchups, and eight times the Free State’s entry got the nod — an 80 percent success rate. (Admittedly, two of those winners faced another Maryland brew.)
Finally, little Delaware had two entries, and both survived to compete again. You can’t beat 100 percent.
Of course, what ultimately matters is not who survives the first volley, but who’s left standing when the battle concludes.
The bracket: To see the full, updated interactive bracket, to see how the panel’s votes compare to readers’ in each matchup, and to register your own preferences, go to www.washingtonpost.com/beer-madness.
Next week: Picking the Elite 8.
Kitsock is the editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.