Beer Madness

Beer Madness 2011: Celebrating US craft brews

At Birch & Barley/ChurchKey in Logan Circle, another tray of cool competitors is headed for the panelists in this year's Beer Madness blind taste-off.
At Birch & Barley/ChurchKey in Logan Circle, another tray of cool competitors is headed for the panelists in this year's Beer Madness blind taste-off. (Astrid Riecken)
By Greg Kitsock
Special toThe Washington Post
Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The gloves are off for Beer Madness, our annual taste-off to determine the nation's top brew.

Last year, we went global in honor of the Olympics. This year, with a post-Prohibition record of more than 1,700 breweries operating in the United States, we doubled the field from 32 to 64 and decided to celebrate the glories of American craft brews.

All 64 breweries represented meet the Brewers Association's exacting standard of "craft." They're small (even Boston Beer Co., with its 2-million-barrels-a-year output, is a guppy compared with such barracudas as Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors). They're independent (not specialty divisions of large corporate brewers). They're traditional (no corn or rice adjuncts were used to water down these beers for the timid).

By carefully rationing samples and spreading our tastings over two days, we were able to admit stronger styles that we had barred in the past out of sympathy for our livers.

Alcohol-wise, the contestants in this year's Beer Madness run the gamut from a 4 percent (by volume) dark mild to a 12 percent wood-aged imperial brown ale.

Extreme beers - IPAs fermented with Belgian yeasts, coffee-infused stouts, supersized "imperial" versions of traditional styles - are the hot ticket in craft brewing. Excluding those beers, as we largely did in previous years, would be unrepresentative of the market, not to mention just plain ungrateful for all the work the brewers put into them.

Now that the Brickskeller (our venue for the previous four years) belongs to the ages, we moved our annual beer smackdown to Birch & Barley/ChurchKey in Logan Circle, whose 550-plus beer list is widely considered to be tops in the area.

In the shadow of that establishment's metal-sheathed draft lines, which resemble a gigantic pipe organ, we embarked on a marathon blind tasting on Feb. 28 that lasted as long as the Academy Awards had the previous evening, even without acceptance speeches and song-and-dance numbers.

Six days later, we regrouped at the upstairs beer bar to complete the job.

Greg Engert, beer director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group (which includes Birch & Barley), has joined the event as a ringmaster of sorts, picking the contestants and suggesting a new method of grouping the beers to avoid mismatches. At Engert's urging, we jettisoned the usual delineation of ales and lagers (does anyone really care whether the yeast sinks to the bottom or rises to the top after it has done its job?) and substituted four flavor-driven categories:

Malt: These beers derive their sweet, bready, biscuity, toasty and caramel flavors from the specialty grains.

Fruit and spice: Special yeasts are largely responsible for the fruity, peppery and spicy flavors found in these freewheeling Belgian-inspired brews and German-style wheat beers.

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