Strong opinions. Colorful descriptors. And some sharply divided decisions.
Beer Madness has achieved a level of parity that would be the envy of most pro sports leagues. Of the 32 first-round match-ups, the winner squeaked by 6-5 in 14 of the contests. There were no unanimous decisions.
That was our design. In previous years, we matched up beers in a category randomly, leading to some real laughers. This year Greg Engert, beer director at ChurchKey, pitted beers of the same style (or a similar flavor profile) against each other in the first round, forcing us to stretch our palates.
Three Philosophers from Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, N.Y., scored the biggest margin of victory, trouncing Monk’s Blood, a canned offering from the 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco, 10-1. It’s not that our panel of tasters found any obvious flaws in the latter, an oak-aged strong ale spiced with vanilla beans, cinnamon and figs. Ellie Tupper, one of two beer professionals on the panel, found them both sweet, fruity and a little “boozy.” After a few swallows she wrote despairingly, “Random pick — too similar.” Reader-panelist Duff Gillespie exulted, “I love this pairing. It’s a shame that one must be eliminated.” The lone dissenting vote was cast by our mixologist, JP Caceres of Bourbon Steak, who praised Monk’s Blood’s disparate cocktail of flavors: “Spicy, sour, bitter. Me like it.”
Three Philosophers, a blend of a strong, dark Belgian-style ale (dubbed a “quadrupel”) with cherry-favored Lindemans Kriek from Belgium, measures 9.8 percent alcohol by volume. Monk’s Blood clocks in at a slightly less formidable 8.3 percent. However, high alcohol didn’t necessarily confer an advantage. In perhaps the biggest upset of the evening, Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron (our strongest beer at 12 percent alcohol) fell, 6-5, to Breckenridge Vanilla Porter (less than half the strength at 4.7 percent).
Both of these dark, roasty ales are strongly flavored: Palo Santo draws its spicy, incense-like notes from being aged in tanks made from an exotic Paraguayan hardwood. Vanilla beans from Madagascar and Papua New Guinea confer a confectionary sweetness on the Breckenridge. The latter might have been our most polarizing beer of the evening. Sommelier Kathryn Bangs of Komi enjoyed the Vanilla Porter for its notes of “roasted hazelnuts, bitter chocolate and campfire wood.” “Would love to drink with a cigar,” added Justin Garcia. But Gillespie groused, “Feels like I’m drinking flowers. Sissy drink in porter’s clothing.”
Most of our samples came from bottles. In four matchups that pitted draft against packaged beer, barrels and bottles split 2-2. “Reminds me of the roasted barley tea which we drink a lot during the summer in Japan,” wrote Hiromi Kowaguchi of our lone cask ale, the Dark Horse mild from Oliver Brewery in Baltimore. But she gave the nod to its opponent, Double Bag German-style altbier from Vermont’s Long Trail Brewing Co. (as did our entire panel by a 9-2 vote).
Did Tupper recognize the Tuppers’ Keller Pils she and husband Bob contract-brew in Hampton, Va.? She didn’t say as much in her tasting notes but advanced the Keller Pils anyway, noting that it had “a tad more malt” than the Prima Pils from Victory Brewing Co. in Downingtown, Pa. But our panel as a whole gave thumbs up to Prima Pils, 7-4. Bangs praised it for its “tropical papaya, honeyed pineapple” flavors.
(Bangs, by the way, wins our award for the most vivid vocabulary. She detected nuances of “angostura root” in the Stateside Saison; screamed “Kumquat!” after sipping Exit 4; called Schlafly Extra Stout the “Cote du Rhone of beers”; and blasted Bell’s Two Hearted Ale for tasting “like a hair salon.”)
Of nine Maryland and Virginia beers duking it out in Beer Madness, the local guys held their own, winning five match-ups. New kid in town Port City Porter from Alexandria advanced, 7-4, over Schlafly’s strong export-style stout. “Epitome of roast. Not overbearing, dark, smooth, deep flavor,” praised Christina Hoffman.
Schlafly Brewing in St. Louis opened in 1991. Port City Brewing has been making beer for one month. Seniority counts for little in Beer Madness.