Two rounds of Beer Madness should be sufficient to eliminate the weaklings, the wannabes, the beers that made us go “meh.” As our quest to find the best craft brew in America progresses, we should expect our panel of tasters to linger longer over their samples as favorite brews recur and difficult decisions must be made.
That proved to be the case with Round 3, in which six of the eight beers to advance won by a hair’s breadth, 5-4, in blind tastings at the ChurchKey bar.
Sheer happenstance, a passing mood, even the barometric pressure might give one beer the edge over another. “This would be wonderful on a nice, sunny day,” Duff Gillespie said of the hop-centric Victory Prima Pils. “But it’s a rainy, ugly day,” he added, opting for the Flying Dog Raging Bitch and giving that Belgian-style IPA a one-vote edge.
“I might have just eliminated one of my favorites,” lamented executive chef Brian Robinson of Restaurant 3 in choosing the grapefruity Flying Fish Exit 4 American-style tripel over the coriander-and-orange-peel-spiced Southampton Double White. In fact, he did just that, as the Exit 4 likewise triumphed by a single vote.
Twice, Komi sommelier Kathryn Bangs crossed out her first selection, eventually preferring Brewery Ommegang’s Three Philosophers (“maple syrup, honey orange”) over Goose Island Pere Jacques (“funky citrus cheese danish”) and rejecting American strong pale ale RJ Rockers Bell Ringer Ale in favor of Lagunitas Maximus, which the panel chose 7-2. “You’re winning me over, little guy,” she said of the Maximus, with a dash of irony. Measuring 8.2 percent alcohol by volume and containing enough hops to strip the enamel from your teeth (so states the brewery’s Web site), Lagunitas’s double IPA is nobody’s little brother.
Incidentally, no one got the fruit right with Brewery Ommegang’s Three Philosophers, which lost to Pere Jacques, 5-4, in a battle of the abbey ales. “Bitter orange?” guessed contract-brewer Bob Tupper. I detected a “candy apple sweetness.” In fact, Three Philosophers is a blend of a strong dark ale and Lindemans Kriek, a Belgian cherry ale. So much for our learned palates.
There was no mistaking the extra ingredient in Evolution Rise Up Stout, which upended the Oskar Blues Ten Fidy imperial stout, 6-3. “Coffee smell and taste,” wrote Whitney Meagher succinctly of the Rise Up. “Dark, bitter coffee grounds — a rainy day beer,” was Bangs’s assessment. “I recognize this one! I’m so happy it’s here again,” crowed Christina Hoffman.
However, the Ten Fidy received the most glowing praise of any losing beer in this round. “Perfect dessert beer. I wish I didn’t have to decide,” said Hoffman. “Maple syrup, coffee, firewood, my ideal morning,” commented Bangs. Tupper, who cast a minority vote for the Ten Fidy, praised the “really nice blend of roast and hops.”
Some of the comments were almost apologetic. “Hard to eliminate this one,” wrote Gillespie in rejecting the Williamsburg AleWerks Tavern Ale in favor of the lighter, crisper, fruitier Long Trail Double Bag. “Nice brew, but goodbye!” (The panel agreed, advancing Double Bag by a 5-4 vote.)
“This was a tough choice. Both are great,” equivocated Justin Garcia, finally picking the Breckenridge Vanilla Porter over Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter. (The Vanilla Porter fell, 4-5, but not before eliciting the most colorful descriptor of the round, as Tupper compared its aroma to that of “Fig Newtons.”)
My toughest decision came in choosing between the DuClaw Misery, a barley wine that I found rich, sweet and warming (“almost sugary”), and Samuel Adams Double Bock, with its depth of malt and “raisiny fruitiness.” Hiromi Kowaguchi agreed: “So hard to choose! Both so good!” But she chose the winner, Misery, while I picked the Double Bock, which fell, 5-4, in a losing cause.