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Beer Madness: This year's field goes global

Take a peek into the March taste test for our annual Beer Madness competition and meet the panelists who rated all 32 beers.

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By Greg Kitsock
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

"You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer."

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-- Frank Zappa

Inspired by Zappa's quote and by the Winter Olympics, we decided that Beer Madness, our annual quest for Everyman's favorite brew, needed some changes. So we opened it up to international competition. In a mashup of March Madness and the Vancouver games, Beer Madness is going global.

But how to choose the contenders? The menu at the Brickskeller, our event venue, lists beers from dozens of nations along with toasts in about 70 languages. In consultation with Brickskeller owner Dave Alexander, we picked 32 beers (all bottled) from 22 nations on six continents. (All right, England and Scotland are part of a single entity called the United Kingdom, but they have very different brewing traditions, so we didn't let questions of sovereignty deter us.) We wanted strong contenders, but nothing too obscure; that would defeat the purpose of narrowing the field to that most spectacular beer anybody could -- and should -- quaff.

The format was similar to that of previous years' competitions. We grouped the contestants into four brackets of eight beers each: lagers, pale ales, dark beers and freestyle (fruit and spice beers). Defending America's honor were the four finalists from Beer Madness 2009.

Once again, we split the tasting duties between two four-member panels, chosen from more than 300 applicants. I served as the fifth member of each group; there are no ties, no appeals and no whining in Beer Madness. Panel One reduced the number of beers from 32 to 16; Panel Two whittled that field to eight, then to four. The two panels came together to judge the Final Four.

All tastings were conducted blind; we don't want the judges to be influenced by cute labels. Our tasters were instructed to pick their poison based on personal aesthetics alone. No point system, just thumbs up or thumbs down. As an additional twist, we conducted a taste-off of the two losing beers in Final Four competition to determine a bronze-medal winner.

So would freshness give the U.S. breweries an insurmountable edge over the competition?

Would upstart microbreweries from Norway, Italy and New Zealand upend international mega-corporations such as Guinness, Heineken and Anheuser-Busch InBev?

As the opening ceremonies draw to a close, let's hoist a mug to our valiant competitors:

Prosit!

Salud!

Na zdorovye!

Let the games begin!

Cast your vote

Our panel has already voted, but we want to know what you think. Vote for your favorite brews using the Beer Madness bracket.


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