Rob Weland carefully tastes one of the beers while participating in the Washington Post's annual Beer Madness which takes place at Church Key. Eight judges taste and judge dozens of quality beers to determine which one is the best. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

More than 4,800 miles separate the two finalists of the 32, all-American craft brews of Beer Madness 2012: Coconut Porter from Maui Brewing in Lahaina, Hawaii, and Exit 4 from Flying Fish Brewing in Cherry Hill, N.J.

But only one vote decided the winner.

Coconut Porter in previous rounds thumped the opposition with scores of 8-1, 8-1, 6-3. Yet it barely squeaked by last year’s champion, 5-4. It thus became the first canned beer to wear the Beer Madness crown.

It would be hard to match up two more dissimilar beers: the roasty porter and the fruity, well-hopped American take on a Belgian triple. Several of our panelists experienced severely divided loyalties.

“The exotic, floral and fruity notes are totally in balance with the overall structure of body, hops and alcohol,” commented sommelier Kathryn Bangs of the Exit 4. High praise, you would think, but she nevertheless circled the porter, noting, “I just like this one more.”

“I like both of these beers, but my heart lies with the malts,” decided reader/judge Halley Fehner in choosing the same.

Curiously, none of our tasters described the porter as tasting like coconut. That subtlety, says brewery co-founder Garrett Marrero, is intentional. “We get beat up a lot for that. You can hardly taste the coconut. But it’s not meant to be a pina colada.”

Marrero uses strips of locally grown coconut, about 200 pounds per 25-barrel batch of beer. He toasts the coconut to eliminate the oils (which would kill any head), then adds it to a vessel called the hopback as the beer flows from kettle to fermenter. The beer also steeps on sacks of shredded coconut following the primary fermentation.

A few of our panelists (four pros and winners of the public competition for four spots) described the brew as tasting like coffee or chocolate, yet Coconut Porter contains neither of these ingredients. The mocha flavors, Marrero says, derive from six types of malted barley, including highly kilned varieties such as chocolate and black malt. The coconut’s purpose is to add another dimension, “a toasted nutty sweetness.”

At 6 percent alcohol by volume, Coconut Porter is robust, a little stronger and fuller-bodied than the brown porter style. It’s very food-friendly, says Marrero, who has incorporated it into recipes including braised short ribs and chocolate cake. It also makes a terrific beer float with Rocky Road ice cream, he adds.

Coconut Porter inspired two of our restaurant-pro judges to create recipes as well. Mixologist Gina Chersevani played off the beer’s notes by adding rum, coconut milk and sugarcane syrup. The tall cocktail looks like a black-and-white milkshake. Palena pastry chef Agnes Chin used the beer to steep steel-cut oats and to provide the background for a dense, rich chocolate coconut porter cake, which she’s serving this week at the restaurant with a cacao nib ice cream and drizzle of espresso caramel.

“I always loved great beer,” says Marrero, who grew up in San Diego, a city often described as beer valhalla. “I graduated from high school the same year that Stone Brewing Co. opened.” Marrero later became close friends with Stone’s co-founder, Greg Koch. When Coconut Porter trounced Stone’s Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale in Round 3, Koch e-mailed Marrero, “You sunk our battleship!”

After a brief career as an investment consultant, Marrero and his wife Melanie opened a brewpub on Maui in 2005. They began canning beer in 2007. “We believe cans protect the beer better from light and oxygen,” he asserts. Their lightness and compactness allow him to ship beer as far afield as Maryland, Virginia, the District and even Puerto Rico.

Marrero likes to experiment with other Hawaiian ingredients. Mana Wheat is an unfiltered American wheat beer flavored with pineapple. His draft-only Onion Mild actually contains caramelized and charred onions, a sweet variety grown on Maui and celebrated in a local festival. Attendees at this year’s Savor beer and food festival can get an early sip of his Sobrehumano Palena ’ole (“superhuman without limits”), a collaboration with Michigan’s Jolly Pumpkin Ales, brewed with Michigan cherries and Hawaiian passion fruit (called liliko’i).

Marrero will spend about a week in Washington around Savor in early June, no doubt with a little more swagger in his step than the average tourist after outlasting the rest of the best.


Black, White & Tiki

Chocolate Coconut Porter Cake

Maui Coconut Porter is sold at several Whole Foods Markets locations, Rodman’s in the District, Potomac Gourmet in Oxon Hill, Planet Wine in Alexandria and at Total Wine stores.