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Beer Madness

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Greg Kitsock and Joe Heim
Beer Columnist and Assistant Editor, Sunday Source
Monday, April 2, 2007; 2:00 PM

In the spirit of bracket fever and single-elimination madness, Sunday Source put 32 American beers to the test. The results of the head-to-head challenge are revealed in Beer Madness, with the winner crowned on Sunday, April 1.

Beer columnist Greg Kitsock, one of the esteemed panelists, knows a thing or two about a good brew. He was joined by Joe Heim, assistant editor for Sunday Source, to take questions on the final results of Beer Madness Monday, April 2 at 2 p.m. ET. Kitsock writes a monthly column on beer for the Post's Food section. He is also editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News and associate editor of American Brewer magazine, and is currently researching a book on the drinking habits of U.S. presidents.

The transcript follows.

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Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: Well, I have to ask -- who picked the beers for your brackets? This doesn't seem to be a pool of anything but the weak lagers of the U.S. There are GOOD U.S. beers, stellar ones that are nowhere to be seen; such as the Avery Brewery of Boulder, Colo., that produces excellent beers from light to very dark -- The Beast limited brew had 15 percent alcohol and was very tasty -- ; local microbreweries which have a nice array of beers, and my own favorites -- Belgian and Belgian-style ales, dubbels, tripels and quadrupels. Long live REAL beer!

Joe Heim: Hello Dupont and thanks for your question. Your complaint is one that we've heard from a number of readers, so let me just set the record straight right off the bat. We did NOT want a contest that just appealed to the microbrew or, for lack of a better term, beer snob audience. We thought the contest would be much more fun and entertaining if we included a number of mass market beers just to see how they fared in our blind taste test with our panel. And that approach actually created some surprising results as when Bud knocked out Victory Lager. Oh, and for the record, Avery Brewery was represented in the contest with Ellie's Brown Ale which advanced to the Final Four.

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Denver, Colo.: What exact tasting method did you employ? Were you worried about at any "New Coke" problems (i.e., how much you enjoy a small sip of a beer may not translate to enjoying an entire bottle of it)?

Anyway, you should convince your editors to let you flesh this idea out more next year and expand both the tasting process and the number of beers chosen.

Joe Heim: Hi Denver. I think a bigger problem for us would have been the condition of our panelists if they tested a bottle of every beer instead of just a few sips. I think they would have all passed out.

Greg Kitsock: That's a good point. Some beers are great after one sip but not so great after a pint ... or a pitcher. But we had our livers to think about. That's why we limited the selection to beers of mdoerate alcohol content ... no imperial IPAs, for instance, or barleywines.

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Fortaleza, Brazil: Americans, by and large, prefer rather weak beers (look at the best-selling beers). Ditto down here in Brazil (nearly every beer is described as Pilsen style). How would you describe your own personal tastes in beers? Brooklyn Lager, for example, is stronger than, say, Bud or Rolling Stock, but certainly does not have as much taste as Sierra Nevada Porter.

Joe Heim: hello Brazil. Hmm, I'd say I definitely prefer hoppier beers. Victory's Hop Devil is probably my favorite beer. Another great one is Red Truck IPA from the Palisade Brewery in Western Colorado, though that's very hard to get around here. Hmm, what else? Full Sail IPA, Redhook ESB, Sierra Nevada are all great.

Greg?

Greg Kitsock: I like IPAs and hoppy pale ales: (one of my current favorites is Tuppers' Hop Pocket Ale and my introduction to the world of better beer years ago was Yuengling Lord Chesterfield Ale). But I like many styles ... I think a lot of lagers are underrated, especially a nice well-hopped pilsner. What I drink often depends on the season.

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Arlington, Va.: Process Q. You did all this in one night, right? If so, I figure you had to taste 62 beers each to get a winner. If you tasted one ounce per beer per taste, that 62 ounces which is the equiv. of 5 beers. I take it you swallowed the beer you were tasting, or did you?

Greg Kitsock: We're professionals ... don't try this at home.

Seriously, we did swallow. It's considered bad form to spit into plastic buckets at beer tastings. In some cases, though, I didn't have to swallow a full ounce to arrive at a decision ... I could tell merely by wetting my lips that I preferred this better to another. I also made sure I had a full stomach before the tasting started, and we had snacks during the tasting.

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Salt Lake City, Utah: Anything cold in a kegger!

Joe Heim: As long as it's not "near beer."

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Washington, D.C.: Great idea with the March Madness of American beer.

Will we have to wait until 2010 for a World Cup of international brews?

Greg Kitsock: Maybe we can do an international competition in tandem with the 2008 Olympics.

Joe Heim: Hey, we'll use any excuse for a beer contest.

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Morgantown, W.Va.: Hi folks,

Though Saranac's pale ale may have lost your title game, it has long seemed to me that it offers the best beer value out there. It's very good, and I can usually find it for about $5.99/six-pack. That's tough to beat.

Are there others that do well in this category?

Greg Kitsock: Saranac is more in the English style of pale ale in that it's more balanced, less aggressively hopped. You might look around for the beers of Shipyard Brewing in Portland, Maine.

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Arlington, Va.: Do you feel you had to leave too many other beers out of this contest? I'm curious how you came up with the 64 "contestants." While Brooklyn Lager has been my house beer for years, I know there are many other that deserved consideration. For example, have you tried the Red Rocket Ale from Bear Republic? It's something I tried recently and it has so much flavor and zip that I can't wait to find someplace that has it on tap.

Greg Kitsock: There are over 1,000 brands available in the area, and even if you eliminate the foreign brands, that's way more than we can do in one evening. I enjoy the beers from Bear Republic, but we tried not to include any beers that were too aggressively hoppy. But I would like to find their Red Rocket (and especially their Racer 5 IPA) on tap.

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Arlington, Va.: Why weren't there any of the excellent beers from the Rock Bottom Brewery in the competition?

Greg Kitsock: We limited the tasting to domestic bottled beers that were easily obtainable in the DC area. I enjoy Rock Bottom's beers, but you have to visit one of the two Rock Bottoms (in Ballston or Bethesda) to get their beer. They're not available through package stores or at other bars or restaurants.

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Fairfax, Va.: I enjoyed following the competition very much.

I'm surprised that both the winner and runner-up are both brewed at the same brewery. I have a relative who worked there for decades, and he will be pleased when I inform him of the outcome.

Greg Kitsock: F.X.Matt in Utica is a great, old regional brewery that completely retooled itself when craft beers became popular, deemphasizing it's old Utica Club brand and introducing the Sranac line(which they keep adding to with their variety packs). Give my regards to your relative and tell him to keep up the good work!

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Falls Church, Va.: Okay, you explained the beer choice rationale ... but how about the judge choice?

Mr. Kitsock and Ms. Farias seem like solid choices -- but were the other people supposed to represent "average joes"?

Joe Heim: Yes, that's right. The other three are all beer lovers, but they're not experts by any means. We really did not want to have a panel that only included experts.

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Tysons Corner, Va.: Shouldn't Joe be home helping with the new baby instead of out drinking (and chatting about) beer? Or is beer more important?

Joe Heim: No need to worry about the baby. He knows I'm doing valuable work on a very serious and important topic. I'm sure it makes him proud.

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Burke, Va.: First, beer madness was a lot of fun to read about, regardless of what the beer snobs say. Great idea and I hope you do it again next year.

Secondly, Brooklyn Lager, eh? How readily available is that beer? I am not sure where in Virginia I can get it other than at Total Wine. Anyplace else?

Greg Kitsock: Thanks for the compliment. Try one of the Whole Foods stores ... it shouldn't be too hard to find in bottles. I don't see it on tap very often, though ... when I encounter one of the Brooklyn beers on draft, it's usually the brown ale or East India IPA.

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Boulder, Colo.: Question: No New Belgium? No Odells? No Lefthand Brewery?

Greg Kitsock: New Belgium beers aren't available any closer than Chicago ... and we didn't have the time to make a road trip! New Belgium's Fat Tire is probably the most requested beer still not available in the DC area .I have not seen Odells beers around here, and Left Hand beers are kind of sporadic.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Guys,

It was a cute idea to pit beers head to head in a bracket like the NCAA basketball tournament, but just like that tournament the beers aren't really compared to each other, only a few are. What about a blind test with all the beers? Sure it's a lot harder due to the number of them, but at least we'd get an idea which beer is really the best. I mean a good beer might be knocked out by a bad draw or did you seed them according to preconceived notions?

Joe Heim: Hi Atlanta. That sounds like a LOT of drinking to me. I think we'd just end up with a lot of drunk panelists. The seedings were completely random. There are a lot of different ways we could have done the seeding, but we just chose this one and went with it. We'll probably do it differently next year just to mix things up.

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Raleigh, N.C.: How did Brooklyn Lager "win" if Saranac clearly had more votes? According to the bracket it is 64.1 percent to 35.9 percent? It sounds a little like the past presidential election ...

Joe Heim: Hello Raleigh,

Thanks for the question. The online "voting" was to gauge which beer readers would choose if it were up to them. But the actual contest was decided by five panelists in a blind tasting. The panelists didn't know which beer they were drinking so that they wouldn't be influenced by the label on the bottle. Hope that clears that up.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm a big fan of the Brooklyn Lager, so I wasn't surprised it came out on top. I think that you guys should hold another competition for foreign beers. I'd be interested in seeing the results. Also, how does one become a volunteer tester? Do you have to have any experience other than being a hearty beer lover? Can I apply?

Joe Heim: Hello DC. You know, finding volunteers for this contest was extremely difficult. It seem no one wants to give up an evening to drink 32 varieties of free beer. So, yes, please apply. To steal from the Car Talk guys, send in your application on the outside of a full case of your favorite beer and we'll give you serious consideration for next year.

(No, don't really do that. I'll get in trouble with my editors)

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Annapolis, Md.: Gentlemen: A noble experiment, well executed and reported. I was disappointed in only two things, neither of which is your fault. First, the exclusion of one of my favorites, Leinenkugel's Red -- my UW-grad wife introduced me to it some years ago, and it's a keeper (perhaps next time, in a 64-beer field?). Second, the news (to me, at least) that Rolling Rock is now a (sob) Busch beer. The "Box o'Rocks" has long been a summer tradition for me, but no more. Like the good citizens of Latrobe, Pa., I will boycott this faux brew. Any recommendations for a replacement that isn't made by Busch or Coors?

Greg Kitsock: I haven't seen Leinenkugel's Red in this area yet, although Leinenkugel's has released its Sunset Wheat and one or two other brands.

If you enjoy a nice easy drinkin'lager, why not give Victory Lager a try? Or Dominion lager? Or McHenry Lager from Clipper City?

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Adams Morgan, Washington, D.C.: What is the deal with this new rule stating that Old Dominion, Leinenkugels are no long craft breweries? How did this come about and how could it affect their businesses?

Greg Kitsock: I don't think it will affect anyone's business much. The Brewers Association, the group that represents the craft beer industry, wanted to tighten up their definition of craft beer, and they decided to make independence one of the criteria. Leinenkugel's is a wholly owned subsidiary of Miller. Dominion is owned 49% by Anheuser-Busch. (Under the new definition, a craft brewery cannot be mroe than 25% owned by a non-craft brewery.)

Basically, the decision affects the statistics that the BA keeps on craft beer and which it releases every year. I personally don't agree with the definition. I think Old Dominion makes some fine beers, and I hear Leinenkugel is getting into some more interesting brews, including a double IPA.

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Hyattsville, Md.: I thought the idea of beer tournament was fun, but you mixed together horrible, mass-produced, junk beer with some respectable brews -- there are no comparisons to be made here. The worst brew ever to come out of the Dogfish Head brewery is still many times better than any Bud/Miller, etc., product.

BTW, THE best locally brewed beer in the entire Metro region is at Franklin's in Hyattsville. Chain breweries like Rock Bottom are not producing anything close to the brews at Franklin's. I would hold this opinion whether I lived in Hyattsville or Hagerstown.

Joe Heim: hello Hyattsville. Sorry that you didn't like the methodology. Again though, we thought it would be more fun/interesting to have some of the mass produced beers in the mix.

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Zurich, Switzerland: Since when is a lager a "winning ale"?

Greg Kitsock: You're right ... Brooklyn Lager is obviously not an ale, although I believe it does use some hops typically used in ales.

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Washington, D.C.: While I'm aghast at the outcome, I won't bore you with my complaining because I still enjoyed the whole feature.

Any plans on doing an international version? Duvel vs. Don de Dieu. Svyturys vs. Singha. Bitburger vs. Boddington's. The matchups could be amazing!

Also, if you need any future judges, let me know!

Joe Heim: An international version is definitely something we'll consider for next year. Or maybe just an IPA version. Or, and this will really annoy the snobs, a light beer version. We could also do the tournament in reverse and try to come up with the worst beer. Now that'd be fun.

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Reston, Va.: Aren't both finalists (Saranac Pale Ale and Brooklyn Lager) brewed at the same brewery in Utica, N.Y. -- F.X. Matt Brewing Co.?

Greg Kitsock: You are correct! F.X.Matt brews the bottled version of Brooklyn Lager under contract for the Brooklyn Brewery. The Brooklyn Brewery does have its own brewery, although their capacity is limited and they need help to keep up with demand.

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Re: Leinie's Red Drinker: Leinie's Red is available in six-pack form at the convenience store at New Hampshire and T.

I also had some last weekend at RFD which also has the Honey Weiss.

Joe Heim: Good to know. Thanks.

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Old City, D.C.: Stopped by Chevy Chase to check out one of your recommended beer stores, and was hugely underwhelmed. They had a six-pack from the Sam Adams homebrew competition, but that was about it. Did I go to the wrong place, or is that really as good as it gets in the District?

Perhaps some of the chatters today can help a brother out.

Greg Kitsock: Did you visit the right store? Chevy Chase Wine and Spirits on upper Connecticut Avenue? The last time I visited, they had a selection of over 1,000 beers, on shelves lining the whole back of the store! Ask for Larry and tell him I sent you.

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33: How on earth did Rolling Rock make it so far? Seriously. Blahg.

Joe Heim: Well, I'll give you my theory. Rolling Rock went up against Purple Haze in the first round. PH has a very strong, fruity taste and the tasters either love that or hate it. I think it was a 3-2 vote. In the second round, RR was up against Bud. Two very similar beers, but one had to advance. And there you have it: Rolling Rock makes it to the Final Eight.

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Seven Corners, Va.: Waiting The Dogfish With Bated Breath -- what made you decide to include the Dogfish Selter Pale Ale instead of the 60 Minute IPA ?

Greg Kitsock:60 Minute IPA is one of my favorites, but we made a decision to limit the beers to brands of moderate alcohol content (60 Minute, I believe, is about 6.5%, a little stronger than average), and we also excluded very hoppy beers like IPAs. When you're tasting 32 beers in one session, your taste buds can get worn down very quickly.

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Arlington, Va: I had my money on Dogfish Head going all the way, but they went flat in the Elite 8. Any thoughts on next year's recruiting class? Can they make another run at the title?

Joe Heim: Tough call Arlington. It'll depend on the opposition. The Dogfish did pretty well this year and ended up losing to one of the finalist. I think if we chose a different beer from the Dogfish Head Brewery it might even do better. Keep an eye on the 60 Minute IPA for next year. It's a good one.

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Washington, D.C.: Hey, beer snobs be darned, I'd love to see a lite beer tourney -- it'd be nice to find ONE that doesn't taste watery ... ick. My beer belly will thank you for the assistance ...

Greg Kitsock: Basically, light beer is made by removing most of the carbohydrates ... the very components that give beer its body and a lot of its flavor. Sam Adams Light isn't too bad, but it's not the same as their regular Boston Lager. Actually, light beer isn't an area that too many craft breweries want to get involved in.

Personally, if I feel I need to lose weight, I'll drink the same full-flavored beers I usually do ...just a little bit less.

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Washington, D.C.: Next year, use a larger panel of judges and limit some to East and West brackets before having everyone, on a separate night finish off with winners. The change in days may create more interesting results.

Joe Heim: Hi DC, I can see that waiting between tastings might change the results but I'm not sure why they would necessarily be more interesting. As for the panel size, I agree that it would be nice to expand it to 7 or 9.

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Arlington, Va.: Many of the bears in the contest (or mentioned today) can be tried or purchased to take home at Lost Dog Pizza on Washington Boulevard.

Joe Heim: Thanks for sharing the tip Arlington.

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Fairfax, Va.: Please define "hops" or "hoppier." What taste does that translate to?

Greg Kitsock: Hops are the flowering cones of a perennial vine. They can be put into the beer whole or processed into oil or pellets. They give beer its bitterness (necessary to balance the sweetness of the malt) and its distinctive perfume. Different hops can give aromas and flavors that can be described as peppery, flowery, lemony, musky, resiny, grapefruit, etc. Craft beer tends to have a much higher hop intensity than mainstream industrial lager. In national brands like Bud, Miller, Coors, and PBR, it's hard to taste the hops at all.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm concerned that you weren't comparing apples to apples -- why not separate lagers from ales from wheat, etc? At least in the first round.

Joe Heim: I suppose we could have done it that way, but then you still have different types of beers having to go against one another in the second round, so it just postpones the inevitable. I could also see doing an entire contest just on lagers or just on wheats or IPAs. Then again, this was a pretty lighthearted exercise. We take our beer seriously, but we don't want to take the fun and inherent silliness out of this contest altogether.

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Leesburg, Va.: This is not related to the contest, but since you're here ... any idea where a person can get a six-pack of Fat Tire in the area? I haven't found a store in the metro area yet that has it.

Thanks for the great contest!

Greg Kitsock: Fat Tire, alas, is not available here. The brewery is doing very well and has no immediate need to expand to the East Coast, although they won't rule out doing that eventually.

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Belleville, Ill.: Although a good first attempt, this is not a proper evaluation.

Here's what I would do, and actually have run as an experiment. You take a small group of at least 20, and give them masked (THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT) tastes of each beer. You then get a vote. One important point: If you do as you would with wine, and swish it around your mouth, you will end up with foam coming out of your nose.

Joe Heim: Hmm, I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "masked." This was a blind taste test so the panelists had no idea what beer they were drinking.

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Duck, N.C.: For anyone going to the Outer Banks this summer, Brooklyn Lager is on tap at Metropolis in Corolla.

Joe Heim: If you're in Duck, you're in luck.

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washingtonpost.com: Beer Madness

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Stevensville, Md.: Not a question, just a recommended change in format.

How about a World Cup?

Joe Heim: We're open to any and all formats.

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Leesburg, Va.: Loved following the articles and was crushed that I didn't have any forewarning to apply for a judges position!

You mention that your favorite beers often depend on the season. I am the same way, so I'm curious if a contest like this held in the late winter/early spring will always favor hoppier brews (Pale Ale's, etc.) while also shortchanging some of the great porters/marzen's that might appeal to somebody in the fall. Any thoughts about doing seasonal tournaments where you have some of the seasonal's compete? Who makes the best Octoberfest beer? Who makes the best summer ales? And can I get a job writing that column!?

Greg Kitsock: You have a point ... no matter what time of year we hold this contest, there are going to be some fine seasonal beers unavailable. And even if last year's seasonals are hanging around somewhere, they might not be fresh. I think most, if not all, of the beers we did include are year-around products.

My favorite German Oktoberfest is Spaten. A number of local breweries do some nice Oktoberfests, including Dominion and Victory. At the Capitol City beer festival held every October, they do have a judging of Oktoberfest beers. I wouldn't mind holding my own contest.

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23112: If you had asked me a year ago, I wouldn't have been able to even tell you what Saranac beers were out there. But now I'd safely say that I've liked probably 90 percent of the varieties that I've had from that brewery, and I've tried over a dozen. I voted for Saranac over Brooklyn, but I admit I haven't tried the Brooklyn stuff (not even sure if I've seen it).

Joe Heim: I see Brooklyn at a lot of places including my little corner grocery on Capitol Hill. Most Whole Foods stores seem to carry it as well.

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Arlington, Va.: I'd like to agree with the person from Hyattsville about Franklin's beer. I saw a WETA special about local restaurants that mentioned Franklin's. It's been a favorite place, despite the distance from Arlington.

Joe Heim: Hyattsville, Arlington agrees with you about Franklin's.

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Old City, D.C.:"Keep an eye on the 60 Minute IPA for next year."

Your beer snobbery is showing. A beer that hoppy will never make it past your panel of amateurs. Heh.

Joe Heim: Our panel is capable of many great things.

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Alexandria, Va.: You have to admit that Brooklyn Lager had a pretty easy path to the top. Budweiser? Rolling Rock??= With so many good beers out there, why waste time on watered-down industrial beers?

Greg Kitsock: Brooklyn Lager is a nicely done amber American-style lager. It's the kind of beer you can pour back a few bottles of while watching the NCAA finals.

The brewery does a nice variety of beers from more mainstream brands to the more extreme. Their latest release is a 9% alcohol by volume (or thereabouts) Belgian-style ale, in corked bottles, called Local 1. I hope it comes around here.

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Bowie, Md.: Here would be an interesting taste test: compare Rolling Rock with the other beers produced at the same Budweiser brewery in N.J. Also do the same with PBR, which I believe is contract brewed by Miller, though not sure where. And see if you can tell the difference between RR and say MGD. It would be an interesting study of the corporate influence on beer.

Greg Kitsock: Anheuser-Busch claims they're using the same recipe for Rolling Rock that the brewery in Latrobe used, and they've even got glass-lined tanks to aged it in!

I'm not a Rolling Rock drinker, and I haven't tried it in years, so I can't really say.

That's an interesting idea you have: line up some of the big industrial beers, and see if anyone can taste much of a difference. I think I could tell between Bud and Miller. Bud still has a trace of hops, and the use of rice rather than corn makes it a little paler and crisper than Miller. But if you were to add Coors and PBR and a few others to the mix, I'd be hard-pressed to tell them apart.

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Boston, Mass.: How does the Brooklyn Lager compare to Long Trail Ale, Switchback, and UFO? It was sad not to see these three in the running at all.

Greg Kitsock: Is Long Trail Ale available around here?I don't believe I've seen it or Switchback. UFO, an American-style wheat beer from the Harpoon Brewery in Boston, just popped up in my local package store, but I haven't tried it yet.

These are all different styles, however, and it all comes down to personal taste.

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Arlington Courthouse, Va.: It's hard to knock the Brooklyn Brewery, which has one of the best priced, best tasting line of beers in the country, but the Brooklyn Lager didn't exactly have a tough bracket, once Purple Haze and Victory Lager were inexplicably knocked out by Rolling Rock and Budweiser. And the metallic tasting Saranac Pale Ale in the final? Please. Everybody is entitled to their own opinion, and to be fair, Sierra Nevada and Dogfish brews are extremely acquired tastes. But Saranac Pale ale just doesn't taste good! At the very least, you could have made the whole thing more interesting by including more craft brews and more varieties -- where were the stouts, the porters, the IPAs, the Belgians (no, Blue Moon doesn't count)? Color me befuddled.

Greg Kitsock: I've enjoyed Saranac Pale in the past, and I wonder if you got a bottle that was stale or mishandled. Sometimes you have to give a beer a second chance.

We did leave out a lot of beer styles. I think we were right to exclude high alcohol beers from this marathon tasting, but I do have second thoughts about not including a porter or stout .Maybe in a future tasting ... .

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Joe Heim: Thanks everyone for joining in the chat today and taking part in the Beer Madness madness. Hopefully, we'll do it again next year. And the year after that. And....

Greg Kitsock: I hope we can repeat this next year, with more beers and a bigger panel. Thanks for all your comments.

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