Beer Madness Crowns a Winner

Nine dedicated beer-drinking readers and Washington Post beer columnist Greg Kitsock gathered at the Brickskeller in Dupont Circle to rate 32 brews for our 2008 Beer Madness bracket game.
Joe Heim and Greg Kitsock
Sunday Source Assistant Editor and Beer Madness Founder; Professional Beer Writer
Monday, April 7, 2008; 1:00 PM

"Who'da thunk it? Sunday Source's second annual Beer Madness tournament began with 32 beers representing 16 states, and yet the two finalists come from the same state -- less than 40 miles from each other.

In the showdown of Maryland brews, a slim majority of our 10 panelists in this blind-tasting tournament opted for the Silver Spring creation, crowning Hook and Ladder's Backdraft Brown this year's Beer Madness champion. The rest of the worthy (and not so worthy) brewers can take comfort in the words of losers everywhere: There's always next year.

Beer Madness founder Joe Heim and esteemed panelist Greg Kitsock were online Monday, April 7 at 1 p.m. ET to take questions and comments about the game.

A transcript follows.


Joe Heim: Hello everyone and thanks for joining us for this all important round up of our second annual Beer Madness tournament. We're on pins and needles here as the Pulitzer prizes are going to be announced today and we'll be shocked if Beer Madness doesn't win one. If you missed our finale in the Sunday Source, this year's winner is straight outta Silver Spring: Hook & Ladder's Backdraft Brown.

OK, let's get to the questions and comments.

Wedding At Cana Syndrome:"When the master of ceremonies tasted the water that was now wine, not knowing where it had come from, he called the bridegroom over. 'Usually a host serves the best wine first,' he said. 'Then, when everyone is full and doesn't care, he brings out the less expensive wines .'

Do you think this syndrome kicked in during the later rounds with you and your tasters? I bought 3 of the final four beers this weekend (Troegs, Hook and Ladder, Raven) and tasted them. Frankly, I don't see how Raven got so far. Nothing wrong with it per se, but unremarkable to me. Of the final four, I would have picked the Hopback Amber.

Greg Kitsock: Remember that except for myself, none of the participants were what you'd call "beer geeks" ... the type of people who talk about stylistic parameters and ABV and IBUs and other technical terms. So I wouldn't expect the panel necessarily to choose the maltiest or hoppiest or most flavorful beers. They might prefer a midde-of-the-road, more refreshing type of beer, and there' nothing wrong with that.

Interestlingly, some members of the DC area homebrew club, Brewers United for Real Potables, duplicated the tasting and they picked Old Chub and Dogfish Head 60 Minute for the finalists - arguably the maltiest and hoppiest of the beers.

Joe Heim: The other thing to remember is that this was a blind taste. Are you certain you would have picked the Hopback Amber if you didn't know which beers you were drinking? It's an interesting experiment. Lots of beer heads are often surprised by their choices when they are drinking blind (not to be confused with blind drunk.)

_______________________ Beer Madness


Northern Virginia Nats Fan: It's interesting that, considering the grumbling among local beer cognoscenti about the beer selection at the Nationals' new ballpark, the only local craft brewery represented there is Hook and Ladder, the winner of your blind tasting competition. (Actually I'd describe H-and-L as only sort-of-local, since the latest issue of Mr. Kitsock's Mid-Atlantic Brewing News says Hook and Ladder's beers are brewed in Rochester, N.Y.) Any comments on the subject of beer choices at Nationals Park? And any update or prediction on the possibility (also described in Brewing News) that the Capitol City Brewing Co. and the team or concession company will resolve their differences and open a ballpark beer garden serving Cap City's beers?

Greg Kitsock: It's interesting that you bring this subject up, because this is the subject of my next beer column for the Post. I haven't been to the Nats' new stadium yet, but Post reporter Dan Steinberg published a list of the beers on his blog about 10 days ago. In some ways, it's a regression from RFK ... Old Dominion, for instance, had a few taps last year, but they appear to be shut out this season. Clipper City, I know, would like to get their beer into the park, but they haven't gotten much of a response from the Nats' concessionaire.

I'll give the Nationals the benfit of the doubt ... it's been hectic getting the new stadium ready on time, and they probably feel the beer selection is a matter they can hash out over the coming months. But I do hope they add some locals and I hope the fans make their voices heard.

Regarding Cap City, they're still interested in getting in, but I don't think the original plan for a Cap City beergarden is going to happen this season.

While we're on the subject, I think the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales are supposed to make an appearance at the stadium tonight to mark the 75th anniversary of the return of legal beer after Prohibition.

Joe Heim: I'd rather have a beer garden with 20-30 different microbrews on tap rather than just selections from one place. In the meantime, I'll just have to keep sneaking my own beer in.


Portland, Oregon (aka MICROBREW CAPITAL): Really? One beer from Oregon? ONE?

Pathetic, boys, pathetic. C'mon out here, we'll teach you how it's REALLY done!

Joe Heim: I love how every city with more than three microbreweries declares itself the "microbrew capital." You have some fine beers Portland, but it's a big country and there a plenty of places doing it just as well as you are.


Arlington, Va.: I was hoping to get another description of the two beers in the final. Can you remind me what Raven Lager and Backdraft Brown taste like?

Greg Kitsock: Backdraft Brown is an American-style brown ale, with more body and more hops than, say, a Newcastle Brown.

Raven Lager is an amber lager, with a nice hop/malt balance, very drinkable.


Washington, D.C.: I need a happy hour location in D.C. with Hook and Ladder on tap...can you provide me with some D.C. options?? Thanks!

Greg Kitsock: Your best bet is to go to their website They should have a list of establishments that sell their beer and promotions.


Alrington, Va.: Hi Greg and Joe,

Happy 75th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition.

I find it interesting that the winner your competition, and the one I ran, had champions from the same category. You would not think that the darker ales would win considering that they are not offered very often at our local restaurants (we do not have bars or pubs because they have to serve so much food by law). Can you give some insight on why you think the panel came to this result.


Greg Kitsock: Traditionally in America, there has been a lot of prejudice against dark beers. There was a rumor, which I hope has been dispelled by now, that dark beers resulted from the brewery cleaning the tanks in the spring.

The fact the panel chose a darker beer is evidence, I think, of a more open-minded and experimental approach to beer. But remember that a brown ale is still not all that dark compared to a porter or stout.


Burke, Va.: Bravo. I think the Beer Madness bracket was a lot of fun. Some of us at the office filled out our brackets with the winner getting a 6 pack of the champion brew. Made us look forward to each Sunday's results. Looking forward to it next year. Thanks.

Joe Heim: Thanks Burke. Glad you enjoyed it - and that you put it to such excellent use in the office. We will very likely do it again next year. Is there anything you'd like to see done differently. We're all ears.


Boston, Mass.: Hey, how come the beer that advanced wasn't always the one that won the poll?

Greg Kitsock: The results - who advanced and who didn't - reflected what the majority of our panelists thought, and there are as many opinions on beers as there are beer drinkers.

Also, when you're tasting beers in a blind competition, and you're drinking a lot of beers of different styles, your taste buds might not register the same as when you're drinking a single mug of your favorite brand.

Joe Heim: I think you might be referring to the online poll, right? Here's the deal on that. The entire tournament was decided in a blind taste taste by 10 panelists. They are the ones who decided which beers advanced because they were tasting them against one another and deciding which they liked better. The online voting was just to give readers a chance to vote for the beers they would have liked to see advance. So, it was more of a popularity contest. But that wouldn't really be a fair way of deciding which beers advanced. I hope that clears that up.


Arlington, Va.: Were there any wins or losses that you found particularly objectionable? Greg, did you ever want to just SHAKE the panelists for getting it wrong?

Greg Kitsock: If we had been able to share answers, my fellow tasters might have wanted to shake me for getting it wrong (in their opinion) on a few occasions!


Alexandria, Va.: Have you heard stories about people doing their own beer-bracket games at home? We had a great time with ours. But word to the wise -- a little taste goes a long way. We were way too thirsty in the early rounds. Good times, though.

Joe Heim: It was definitely cool to hear that people were hosting beer bracket parties at their houses. And you're absolutely right, a little beer goes a long way. You pretty much have to decide each showdown on a sip or two. More than that and you'll get tanked in a hurry.


Washington, D.C.: How do you feel about the results of this year's tournament versus last year's? In a head-to-head matchup, would Brooklyn trump Hook and Ladder?

Joe Heim: Well, I think there's only one way to determine that. Set 'em up, bartender.


Washington, D.C.: Next year you should do Beer Madness: International Edition. I want to see how German brews fair against Japanese, British, Argentine etc.

Greg Kitsock: I'd like to do an international beer competition in conjunction with the Beijing Olympics this summer. I'm not sure, however, how you would go about choosing a particular beer to represent each country. Should we go for a single style (almost all countries that brew beer commercially do a version of a golden lager), or do we choose a beer representative of that nation, like Guinness to represent Ireland or a Trappist ale to represent Belgium?

Joe Heim: I'd prefer to watch an Olympics where the contestants drank beers before their events. I think it would only enhance the entertainment value.


Washington, D.C.: I just started a new job and work with a bunch of beer snobs. Got any resource I can use as cheat sheets so I can fit in?

Greg Kitsock: Two books I'd recommend to give you a thorough introduction to beer would be Michael Jacson's Beer Companion and Garrett Oliver's The Brewmaster's Table. Sam Calagione (president of the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery) and wine expert Marnie Old have just published a very entertaining book, He Said Beer, She Said Wine, will give you some instant expertise on both beverages and what foods pair well with them.

Joe Heim: It's possible to love good beer and not become a beer snob. In fact, I recommend it.


Joe Heim: This chat is making me thirsty.


Silver Spring, Md.: I'd just like to say that I am acquainted with the H and L brewers and they are definitly local boys -- the fact that the beer is brewed elsewhere doesn't change that.

Also -- winning couldn't have happened to nicer guys -- just really good-hearted. We are wishing them all the best with the new brewpub in S.S.

Joe Heim: Nice to hear. And, speaking of the winners......


Silver Spring, Md.: Joe and Greg,

Thank you for making Hook and Ladder a part of the tournament. We had a lot of fun with it and looking forward to next year's competition!

Rich and Matt Fleischer

Greg Kitsock: You're welcome, Rich and Matt! Is there any news about the brewpub you're planning for Silver Spring, Md.?


Washington, D.C.: You guys should do next year's as a big public-spectacle event. In a boxing-style ring. Then we can all show up and boo when the panelists pick the wrong beer.

Greg Kitsock: How about we stage it as a pro wrestling match?

The Nodding Head, a brewpub in Philadelphia, hosts an event every summer called the Royal Stumble where participating brewers dress up as wrestlers and engage in trash talk. Whosever keg kicks first is declared the winner.


RE: Joe Heim: This chat is making me thirsty. : Me too. I'm predicting a lot of liquid lunches in the D.C. region this afternoon.

Joe Heim: That's it, everyone gets the afternoon off. I'm sure your bosses will understand.


Washington, D.C.: Joe, which is more important to you: Beer Madness or being one of the Three Wise Guys?

Joe Heim: Oooh, tough question. It's like being asked to choose your favorite child (if one child were a drunk and the other child an idiot).


Los Angeles, Calif.: Really liked the primer on different categories of beer -- I never know the difference. Does preference for a lager/IPA/ale/stout usually go hand in hand with a certain personality type?

Greg Kitsock: I don't think it indicates a particular personality type so much as how mature a palate you've developed. Styles like IPAs and stouts might seem a little foreboding at first to a golden lager drinker, but in time you develop a liking for hop bitterness and roasty flavors.

Remember also that people differ biologically in their sense of taste. One individual might be very sensitive to bitterness and so he/she prefers malty beers to hoppy ones. There is a chemical, a byproduct of fermentation called diacetyl, that gives beer a sweet, butetry taste. I've found that some people are much more sensitive to this than others.


Silver Spring, Md.: The restaurant and brewery is making a lot of progress and we anticipate a Fall of 2008 opening.

Rich and Matt Fleischer

Joe Heim: Good to know, thanks.


Since You Asked: Joe/Greg,

Since you solicited recommendations for next year, I have one. If you can work around the schedule of your tasters, I'd suggest you determine the results in two different sittings. The first sitting could whittle the 32 down to the elite 8. The final sitting could finish it off. I think fresh taste buds and a zero blood alcohol level would make a difference with those last 8 beers.

Greg Kitsock: I like that suggestion. There is such a thing as palate fatigue, and that can play a role in the final rounds.

Sometimes, I feel sorry for the judges at the annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver, who might have to choose a trio of winners from over 100 IPAs.

Joe Heim: Yeah, I absolutely agree with this suggestion. Doing this in one night is a bit much. We could even put together two groups of panelists. One to get us down to 8 beers and another to decide the winner.


Slang!: so what's your favorite euphemism for "drunk"? "Hammered"? "Tanked"? "Blitzed"?

Greg Kitsock: How about "bitten by the brewer's horse"?

Joe Heim: Or kicked by the brewer's ass?


I'm not a beer fan ...: Can we do "Cocktail Madness" next year? Local bars and restaurants can dream up their own specialty cocktails and we'll pit them against each other. Might have to be a smaller bracket though, or done of the course of a few nights. Yikes.

Joe Heim: That could get ugly in a hurry.


Carbondale, Ill.: Love the contest. Last year I believe the winner was Brooklyn Lager if I remember correctly. I had that 10 years ago in NYC and could tell from the first sip that it was an exceptional beer. So I am looking forward to tasting your finalist's next time I am in D.C.I was not sure about having a fruity bracket, but to each his/her own. One suggestion for next year, have an East, West, South and Northern bracket to satisfy some the nonlocal contigant.

Joe Heim: I think a regional bracket might be the way to go. Excellent suggestion.


32 Entries: Gents,

I know one criteria for the 32 beers selected to be tasted was availability. What other criteria was used to pick the 8 beers in each of the 4 categories (ales, lagers, dark, fu fu)?

Greg Kitsock: I wanted to expand the variety of beers from last year's tasting, which consisted almost entirely of golden ales and lagers. At the same time, I didn't want to overwhelm the tasters with anything that was too high in alcohol.

Availability was a criterion, and, except for the four finalists from last year, I wanted a different group of brands to make it more interesting. Also, I tried to limit selections to one brand from one brewery (although there was one exception: Schlitz and Nattie Boh are both made by Pabst).

Lastly, I tried to make the beer selection mirror, to some extent, the variety of beers that you see on a supermarket shelf ... evrything from budget brands to connoisseur's beers.


Re: Nationals Poor Beer Selection: A bartender at CapCity said the restaurant deal at Nationals Park fell through because Miller wouldn't let CapCity brew on premise (like at the CapCity restaurants). CapCity couldn't see bringing kegs to the game.

RFK had RedHook ESB and IPA, as well as all the Bud and Miller products. There isn't a dark beer tab (stout. porter), and red beer tap, or a Pale Ale/IPA tap in the entire Nationals Park. Do you think the National could have more variety every 3rd or 4th beer stand ?

Joe Heim: I'll be very disappointed if you can't get an IPA on tap at the new park.


Vienna, Va.: I was personally sad that Leinie's Sunset Wheat didn't make it farther. But I've noticed increasing availability of this midwestern beermaker's offerings in the D.C. area, including the favorite of my lovely Wisconsin wife's: Honey Weiss. Ever had it? I'd recommend a try -- a less fruity lager than Sunset Wheat, more smooth with, naturally, a hint of honey. No, I don't work for them or their distributors (if I did I'd be more succesful getting into bars!)

Oh and since beer and hockey go together: Let's Go Caps!

Greg Kitsock: Leinenkugel is owned by Miller, the country's second largest brewer, and I think we'll see more of their brands becoming available in the future. This summer, I believe Leinie's intends to roll out its Summer Shandy (a blend of beer and lemonade) on a national basis.

My personal favorite is Leinenkugel's Creamy Dark, although I haven't tried some of their recent, bigger, more flavorful beers.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for this great series, and I am already looking forward to it next year. But how does one avoid the worst effect of beer -- the extra "padding" it puts on?

Joe Heim: One doesn't. One just drinks beer and gets fat.


Bethesda, Md.: Is Dogfish Head 60 Minute considered a Double or Imperial IPA? I know that the 90 Minute is, but wasn't sure about the 60.

I'm kind of on a Double IPA kick right now and was wondering how many were represented in the competition, and if so, how they fared.

Greg Kitsock: We shied away from double IPAs - indeed, any double or "imperial" style - because of the higher alcohol content.

Dogfish Head 60 Minute is a regular IPA. The brewery does a 90 Minute IPA and a 120 Minute IPA which are definitely in the imperial category, as well as Burton Baton, an aggressively hoppy, wood-aged IPA.


Tysons Corner, Va.: I always enjoy reading the beer brackets and look forward to trying the winner sometime soon. If only Joe were as pleasant and funny in person as he is online and as a wise guy....

Joe Heim: My wife says the same thing. Hey wait, maybe you are my wife????


Washington, D.C.: I like the idea of a regional competition, but are there that many beers in say, a SE Conference, as opposed to, say, the NW?

Greg Kitsock: The South is slowly catching up in craft beer consumption (and available styles), although in some states like Alabama and Mississippi, alcohol caps restrict the number of styles a brewer may legally make.

The trouble is, there are a lot of fine beers from the Southeast that aren't available here, like the beers of Bosco's (a brewpub chain) or Sweetwater Brewing (not the local brewpub, but a regional brewery in Atlanta) or St. Arnold's Brewing Co. in Houston. But Abita in the New orleans area does an interesting range of styles and they are readily available in this area.


Washington, D.C.: I'm a recent transplant from New England and my FAVORITE summertime treat back home is a blueberry beer with fresh blueberries in the bottom of the glass. Any place around here that does that?

Greg Kitsock: There are a few blueberry beers available commercially here in bottles, including one from Sea Dog in Maine. Marin Brewing Co. in California makes a brand called Bluebeery Ale, which is one of the best examples I've tried and which I've occasionally seen locally.

I don't know if any of the local brewpubs are planning one, although it is a fairly popular style. My advice is to pick your own berries and add them yourself as a garnish.


Greg Kitsock: Thanks for all your comments and questions! Email at if youahve any more questinsn. I hope to see you at one of the upcoming beer festivals or dinners in this area!


Joe Heim: Thanks from both of us for all of your questions and for your suggestions for next year's contest. If you have other thoughts/ideas for Beer Madness, email me at


For Greg: If you were going to do a beer-centric tour of the U.S., which cities would be can't-miss?

Greg Kitsock: Alright, one last question: I'd do (from west to East), Portland (Oregon), Seattle, San Diego, Denver, Chicago (not a lot of breweries, but many great bars), Baltimore, Philadelphia and Portland (Maine). That's a short list, not a complete one by any means!


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