The French philosopher Jean Buridan is said to have posed the dilemma of a donkey standing equidistant from two identical piles of hay. The animal would have no logical reason to choose one over the other and would stand, locked in place, until it starved.
A similar dilemma confronted our panel for Round 1 of Beer Madness, our quest to find the region’s best craft brews. Faced with two equally worthy contenders, would we sit frozen in indecision until the Meridian Pint staff tossed us into the street at closing time?
Whittling eight beers in each of four categories down to four proved a daunting task, as the preliminary bouts yielded two 9-0 blowouts — but five close (5-4) decisions.
That equivocation was reflected in the comments. “These two beers were more similar than different,” pondered reader panelist Echo Rummel of two saison-style ales in the Crisp category, eventually giving the nod to Right Proper Ornette for its greater complexity. (The majority of the panel did not concur, passing Stillwater Classique to the next round by a 6-3 vote.)
“These taste like the same beer,” complained Miles Gray III, managing partner of Smith Commons Public House, before choosing Legend Pilsner over Lost Rhino Zlaty Pilsner. The Legend was last year’s Beer Madness runner-up; this year it exited early as Zlaty triumphed, 6-3.
Gray, incidentally, deserves a nod for his sometimes baffling but always colorful comments. “This one is a li’l light in the [rear],” he wrote of the Heavy Seas Gold (a 5-4 loser to Dominion Lager). “I would like this beer to do more push-ups.” About Ornette, he commented cryptically, “This has notes I would best describe as ‘art gallery tour curator.’ ”
Bluejacket’s Forbidden Planet was love at first sip for reader panelist Lauren Smith, who gushed, “Lemon! Sweet! I want a perfume made out of this!” The kolsch, with an unusually hoppy bouquet for the style, trounced the delicately malty Sly Fox Helles, 9-0. But the outmatched golden lager still drew praise from Frenchie’s baker Erica Skolnik, who detected “beautiful notes of honey, velvety and smooth finish.”
Another D.C. beer advanced when Atlas Brew Works’ District Common nudged Union Craft Brewery’s Balt Alt, 5-4, in the Malt category. “Light, airy and romantic,” wrote reader panelist Bruce A. Johnson Jr. of the winner. Said Skolnik: “Pair this with a creamy mac and cheese and prosciutto and you have dinner.”
Alas, hometown favorite Chocolate City Copper Ale fell, 9-0, to Devils Backbone Vienna Lager in the evening’s other shutout. “Smells like fresh pretzels!” Smith said of the Vienna lager. “Lots of fruit; reminds me of vin santo, which I love,” said Pizzeria Paradiso owner Ruth Gresser, a panelist for one night of the judging, which took place at Meridian Pint in Columbia Heights over two nights.
AleWerks Tavern Ale, a 6-3 winner over Burley Oak ’Merica, reminded Gray of “Carlton from ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.’ Dark but approachable. Safe but fun.” He found ’Merica reminiscent of coffee, tree bark and the L.L. Bean catalogue (using one descriptor not found on U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio’s adjective-rich flavor wheel). Reader panelist Bryan Berghoef dissented, praising the hoppy, American-style brown ale for its “rich, deep, velvety malt tones. Will take this every time.”
Rounding out the Malt category, Evolution Lucky 7 Porter bested District ChopHouse Nut Brown Ale. 6-3.
Commentary fell off a bit in the Fruit & Spice category, as our judges grew more pensive. “Close call. Too close to call,” was all that Gray could muster as he tried to decide between two similar hefeweizens. He finally gave the edge to Starr Hill’s The Love, which squeaked by Flying Dog In Heat Wheat, 5-4. Likewise, Hardywood Park Singel nosed 3 Stars’ The Phoenix by the slimmest of votes.
Victory Swing Session Saison won kudos for its perfumy aroma. Berghoef detected notes of fruit and honey, commenting, “I could smell this one all night. This one takes it by — wait for it — a nose.” But Port City Optimal Wit, the beer the saison bested 6-3, had its backers. Gray enjoyed its “lively carbonation,” and Paradiso’s Greg Jasgur (who took over for Gresser on one of our tasting nights) praised it as a “textbook wit.” Franklin’s Golden Opportunity was a 7-2 victor over The Brewer’s Art Ozzy.
The Hop category reignited the gift of gab in our panelists. Monocacy Riot Rye drew some of the most offbeat comparisons of the evening. Skolnik thought it smelled “like Fruity Pebbles” but praised its “beautiful complexity.” Jasgur was reminded of “sweet orange Pixy Stix.” The Riot Rye easily bested its competition, Blue Mountain Full Nelson, 7-2.
Once again, the District triumphed over Baltimore as DC Brau’s The Public edged Oliver’s Birth. School. Work. Death by a 5-4 vote. The toffeeish English-style best bitter was a little out of its league competing against the much hoppier pale ale, but it won some accolades. “Not for the novice. Beer for seasoned beer drinkers,” wrote Gray. “Reminds me of my grandma pulling a Werther’s Original out of her purse during a sermon to shut me up.”
During last week’s online Food chat, one of our readers, obviously a hophead, groused that in a fair and just universe, Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA vs. Mad Fox Orange Whip should have been the championship round. Heavily seasoned with fruity Citra hops, Orange Whip defeated the grassier, more delicate 60 Minute, 6-3. “Like a lemon covered in sugar and set on fire,” Smith waxed poetic about this Mad Fox staple. Finally, Tröegs Perpetual IPA eliminated DuClaw HellRazer IPA with a vote of 7-2.
How do the winners rack up geographically? Virginia still has an impressive six beers in the race, Maryland has four, the District has three, Pennsylvania has two and Delaware has one.
But it’s still anybody’s game.
Kitsock is editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. He and Meridian Pint’s beer manager, Sam Fitz, will join today’s Free Range chat at noon at live.washingtonpost.com.
Want to taste the Sweet 16? Go to Meridian Pint (3400 11th St NW, 202-588-1075, www.meridianpint.com) for free 1-ounce pours of the same matchups the panelists tasted, and to cast your own ballot with the bartender. Or vote online at washingtonpost.com/beermadness.