The Washington Post

Beer Madness, Round 1: Our panel goes straight to Helles

Church Key manager Brett Weinrieb serves another round of beer samples during the Washington Post's annual Beer Madness which takes place at Church Key. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

For the opening bout of Beer Madness, our host Greg Engert, beer director of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, took great pains to arrange matchups between beers that were stylistically similar: pils vs. pils, IPA vs. IPA, and so on.

But surprisingly few of the contests were close. Typically, our judging panel ganged up on one of the beers, sending it down the drain by a 6-3, 7-2 or 8-1 vote. There were no unanimous decisions.

In the Crisp category, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) flip-flopped, as is a politician’s prerogative, switching his initial vote for Bell’s Lager to Fordham Helles Lager . Six of his fellow tasters agreed, with Halley Fehner praising the Helles for its “slightly floral, honeydew” taste and Palena pastry chef Agnes Chin designating it her “game-day beer with salty snacks.” But our outspoken sommelier Kathryn Bangs opted for Bell’s, finding the Helles past its prime (“smells like a frat house the morning after a kegger”).

Bangs was once again in the minority in choosing Small Craft Warning Uber Pils (“delicious, rich, honey butter and champagne”) over Sword Swallower . Mixologist Gina Chersevani concurred, panning Sword Swallower for resembling “oversteeped Lipton iced tea.” But the panel, by a 6-3 vote, gave the sideshow-themed imperial pils the nod for its floral and fruity notes and caramel malt richness.

The Fruit and Spice category included some of the round’s most diverse beers, as well as some of the closest contests. Saison Rue edged Rayon Vert, 5-4, in a battle of the saisons, and the kaffir lime and lemon grass-flavored Siamese Twin narrowly defeated the strong, dark and fruity Three Philosophers by an identical score. “Tastes like the ginseng-ginger-date tea my grandfather used to drink,” Chin wrote approvingly of the Siamese Twin.

Last year’s champion, Flying Fish Brewing’s Exit 4, survived, besting Brooklyn Brewery’s Sorachi Ace, 6-3. Chersevani picked up “green pear” and “banana peels,” while Bangs was reminded of the Japanese citrus fruit yuzu.

In a battle of the hometown brews, DC Brau’s hoppy pale ale the Public upended New River Pale Ale from Lost Rhino Brewing, 7-2. Chersevani couldn’t scribble enough about the Public, lauding its “fresh, piney” nose and notes of “light sap, honey and white pepper.” She also had a mouthful to say about Belgo (winner, 6-3, over Flying Dog’s Wildeman Farmhouse), detecting avocado, banana, cinnamon and walnut (“tastes like a muffin”).

Elsewhere in the Hop category, Dogfish Head’s barrel-aged Burton Baton edged out last year’s runner-up, Lagunitas Maximus IPA, 5-4.

Comments became terser as the night wore on, but Maui Coconut Porter, in the Roast niche, elicited some of the most colorful verbiage while trouncing Evolution Craft Brewing’s Lucky 7 in an 8-1 vote.

“Coffee, nutty, fruit undertones, tea,” wrote Cork Wine Bar executive chef Rob Weland. Chin picked up “coffee grounds,” “cocoa nibs” and “Kahlua.” Chersevani likened the robust porter to “an egg creme with chocolate syrup.” Bangs pronounced it her “best beer of the night,” picking up hints of smoke and olives (“tastes like Italy”).

Oddly, no one claimed to taste any coconut.

Next week: Round 2 reduces the field of 16 to 8.

See results and vote for your favorite beers at



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