Beer Madness, Round 1: It's looking good for the U.S.A.

Take a peek into the March taste test for our annual Beer Madness competition and meet the panelists who rated all 32 beers.
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Round 1 of Beer Madness produced more than its share of squeakers: 10 of the 16 matchups were decided by a 3-2 vote.

By the time the dust settled, some big names in brewing, including Heineken and Tsingtao, had been handed their walking papers. The luck of the Irish was not in force, as our panel rejected Guinness, 4-1, in favor of a relative unknown, Monteith's Black Beer from New Zealand. "Too much foam," complained panelist Charlene L. Esaw, who acknowledged she was not a fan of dark beers. "Flat, a tad roasty and a tad sour," was Tracy Jill Doty's verdict on the archetypal Irish stout.

A few sips earlier, the Belgian Trappist ale Chimay Red had eliminated Ireland's only other entry, Smithwick's Irish Ale, by a similar score. Begorra!

Only one contest brought a unanimous decision: Nogne O, the hoppy American-style pale ale from Norway, shut out Fuller's ESB, a much more balanced beer in the English tradition. Fuller's brewers can take solace: The comments for the loser were almost as favorable as those for Nogne O. "Also really nice. Great hops," wrote Jeff Krehbiel about the ESB. Lamented Esaw, "I like both of them, but I had to choose."

In a duel of wheat beers, Schneider Weisse Hefe-Weizen, the classic Bavarian-style wheat, won a 4-1 decision over Hitachino Nest White Ale, a Belgian-style witbier from Japan. "Lemony and sour" is how Doty described the Hitachino (she nevertheless liked it), while Krehbiel pronounced it "a little too weird." A spoiled sample, perhaps?

The fruit beer matchup elicited some strong opinions, as the intensely raspberry-flavored St. Louis Framboise from Belgium edged the crisper, apple-flavored Ephemere from Canada, 3-2. "Fruity flavor, not a long evening drink, but very good," wrote Edward J. Hanrahan of his choice, the framboise. "Tastes like Tilt," remarked Esaw about the same beer.

The United States did well, with three of its four entries (including Troegs HopBack Amber, our 2009 champion) winning a pass to Round 2. In a major mismatch, Ommegang Hennepin from Cooperstown, N.Y., KO'd Wells Banana Bread Beer, 4-1, while eliciting some of the evening's most unequivocal praise. "LOVE!" gushed Doty. "Sour and citrus balance. I love the head."

Among the American contenders, only Brooklyn Brown Ale failed to advance, losing 3-2 to Xingu in the penultimate matchup. "More body, richer flavor," explained Hanrahan in choosing the Brazilian black lager.

Belgium and Germany also advanced with three beers apiece, setting the stage for a classic shootout among the great brewing nations.

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