Nothing in common. That pretty well sums up the Final Four for Beer Madness 2013, our blind taste-off of 32 regional brews. They are: a crisp but balanced Pilsener; a freestyle herb beer that might have been Belgian-inspired but resisted pigeonholing; a hop juggernaut; and a confectionary stout.
We don’t have top seeds in Beer Madness, but if we did, the honor probably would have fallen to Devils Backbone Vienna Lager. Head brewer Jason Oliver boasts a chestful of hardware, including eight medals alone from last year’s Great American Beer Festival. His Vienna Lager took gold in its category. But in Beer Madness, it failed to lock up the Crisp category, falling 6-3 to Legend Pilsner. Worn to the nubs, our tasters’ palates seemed to respond better to the prickly hoppiness of the Legend than to the caramel smoothness of the Vienna. “Malty, bready, meh,” wrote cheesemonger Carolyn Stromberg of Vienna Lager, while praising Legend Pilsner as “more effervescent — much more complex in flavor, too.” Range restaurant chef de cuisine Matt Hill termed both “well-balanced” but added that “I just enjoy [the Vienna Lager] better.”
Gordon Biersch Belgian Pale Ale, the District’s last, best hope in the tourney (yes, it’s a national chain, but the beer is brewed locally), lost to Stillwater Cellar Door, 6-3, in the Fruit & Spice niche. Gina Chersevani gave the Gordon Biersch a pat on the back for its “rich mouth feel” and notes of apples and pears, but she preferred the Cellar Door for its flavors of tropical fruit, citrus and cardamom. ”Sparkly and light, Belgian white,” guessed Jeanne Segal about the Cellar Door, while U.S. Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) noted a hint of mint. (Still no mention of the white sage it actually contains.) A few panelists commented on the Cellar Door’s high level of carbonation, which might have worked in its favor as our fatigued taste buds groped for any kind of stimulation.
In the Hop bracket, Flying Dog Double Dog Double Pale Ale, an imperial IPA, edged Lost Rhino’s Face Plant IPA by a 5-4 tally. Scott Schenkelberg praised the Double Dog’s “rich fruit bouquet” but felt it was a “little too high in alcohol.” (At 11.5 percent alcohol by volume, this was indeed the most potent beer in our contest.) He deemed the Face Plant “too malty — not enough hop floral essence.” Doris Dixon disagreed. “Hops are balanced and don’t overpower,” she wrote of the Face Plant.
The matchup in the Roast category elicited a lot of love for the combatants, with Dominion Oak Barrel Stout barely besting Baying Hound Long Snout Stout, 5-4. Chersevani opted for the Oak Barrel, terming it “affogato delight,” after the Italian dessert consisting of a scoop of gelato drenched in hot espresso. But she enjoyed the Long Snout Stout, too, commenting, “berries — also delicious.” Joe Wallace compared the Long Snout to a “complex sherry,” while Stromberg likened the Oak Barrel to “currants” and “chocolate-covered raisins.”
Normally, dessert finishes a meal, but two more rounds of tasting awaited us, as Maryland (two entries), Virginia (one) and Delaware (one) remained alive in the battle of the Chesapeake.
The bracket: To vote for your favorite remaining beers and to see how the panelists’ votes compare to readers’, go to www.washingtonpost.com/beer-madness.
Next week: The brews break out of their categories, and two are left standing.
Kitsock is editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.