Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to one of the 32 contest brews as Sierra Nevada Porter. It is Sierra Nevada Stout.

The beer universe continues to expand. There were 1,927 breweries operating in the United States for all or part of 2011, according to the Brewers Association, and 855 more in the planning stages. That’s an increase of almost 10 percent in a year’s time.

With such developments in mind, we probably could have doubled last year’s field of 64 for Beer Madness, our annual blind tasting to crown a king of the cooler, the results of which will be revealed over the next month or so. But we went in the opposite direction, condensing the pack of craft brews to 32. That made sense for several reasons, and it gave our judges the right amount of time to swish, swirl and determine a true champion.

Cast a vote for your favorite beer in our online bracket.

Greg Engert, beer director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, welcomed our tasting panel of four food and beverage professionals and four motivated Washington Post readers to his draft palace, Birch & Barley/ChurchKey in Logan Circle. Once again, we grouped the beers, which represent the breadth and depth of the brewing art in America, into four categories (based on a flavor paradigm developed by Engert

for NRG):

Fruit and spice. These beers draw their fruity, spicy, earthy, funky flavors from the yeasts used to ferment them, or from flavorings such as coriander, coconut and kaffir lime.

Roast. Highly roasted grains impart flavors of coffee, chocolate, licorice and burnt toast to these deep-hued beers.

Hop. From the lemony bouquet of Sorachi Ace to the in-your-face pine sap of Simcoe to the orange and grapefruit nuances of Amarillo, the bitter herb dominates the aroma and flavor.

Last year’s malt category, however, was deep-sixed in favor of a niche called Crisp: an assortment of pale and amber lagers, most with lower alcohol contents and softer, more delicate flavors, that often get short shrift when placed aside the boozy, super-bitter imperial styles. “So often, people mistake intensity for complexity,” noted Engert. “Just because it hits you in the face doesn’t mean there’s a lot going on.”

But would our panel appreciate subtlety?

All of the breweries fit the Brewers Association’s definition of “craft.” They’re small (under 6 million barrels a year); they’re independent (not divisions of large industrial brewers such as Blue Moon or Shock Top); they’re traditional (in the sense of not using corn or rice to lighten the beer).

And all of their products are widely available in the Washington area, year-round, via takeout in bottles or cans. We listened to the readers who wanted to re-create the Beer Madness challenge at home and had trouble tracking down some of last year’s bracketed brews. Out: draft-only operations such as Oliver Breweries or Chocolate City Brewing, as well as intriguing options such as Avatar Jasmine IPA from Seattle’s Elysian Brewing (available in the District but not in Virginia) or Chocolate Oak Aged Yeti from Great Divide Brewing in Denver (in Maryland and Virginia only).

One exception: After we had arranged our brackets, Brad Philips, regional representative for Sierra Nevada Brewing, informed us that his District and Virginia wholesalers had dropped Sierra Nevada Stout (although you can still find it in Maryland). When you stock hundreds of labels in your portfolio, “‘it doesn’t necessarily make sense to carry those brands that don’t sell at a higher volume, regardless of how delicious the beer may be,” Philips said. He was hopeful that a strong showing in Beer Madness might bring the brand back.

Our champion and runner-up from last year are in the hunt, raising the possibility of an East-West rematch between Exit 4, an American-style triple from Flying Fish Brewing in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Lagunitas Maximus, an IPA plus from Lagunitas Brewing in Petaluma, Calif.

Eagle-eyed Beer Madness fans will notice the return of a few other brands from 2011; that was done to set up first-round taste-offs between beers of similar styles. But 26 of the contenders, and eight of the breweries, are new to the competition, including DC Brau and Lost Rhino Brewing in Ashburn, both of which had yet to serve their first pint by this time last year.

The tasting was done in two sessions, one week apart. Our four panel professionals were Rob Weland, executive chef at Cork Wine Bar in Logan Circle; pastry chef Agnes Chin from Palena in Cleveland Park; mixologist Gina Chersevani; and sommelier Kathryn Bangs of Komi in Dupont Circle. Bangs earned a return berth this year based on her colorful commentary, such as slamming Bell’s Two Hearted Ale for tasting “like a hair salon” and describing another beer as a “funky citrus cheese Danish.” I served as the ninth panelist and potential tie-breaking vote; Daniel Fromson, who also writes about beer for The Post, was on hand as an alternate and to collect bits of wisdom.

More than 400 Post readers responded to our call for four judges from the public sector, submitting with wit, earnestness and, in some cases, beer haiku and limerick. This year we welcomed our first U.S. congressman: Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), longtime home-brewer and co-chair of the House Small Brewers Caucus. He took this assignment seriously, toting a beer-flavor wheel with descriptors such as “bread crust,” “lacquer-like,” “acetic,” “freshly cut grass” and “parsnip/celery.” (You can read more about the panel on our daily blog, All We Can Eat.)

We had to apologize to Rep. DeFazio for failing to include any beers from his home state, even though Oregon, with more than 120 beermakers, is second only to Vermont in breweries per capita. The congressman shrugged it off. It spared him the embarrassment, he said, of unwittingly voting down a constituent’s beers.

Hometown loyalty plays no role in a blind tasting like Beer Madness.

Kitsock is the editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.