Jace Gonnerman distributes samples to the panel of tasters during judging for Beer Madness. The competition was held over two days at Meridian Pint in Columbia Heights, where Gonnerman is the beer director. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Two years ago, The Washington Post’s annual Beer Madness competition became an all-local affair. We were riding a wave of regional beer pride: For the first time in more than 50 years, Washington was home to three full-scale production breweries, not just brewpubs. Virginia’s Lost Rhino and Port City were making waves. Maryland’s Flying Dog and Heavy Seas were among the Free State breweries winning national awards. On both sides of the Potomac, smaller operations, such as Evolution and Blue Mountain, were attracting fans. It was only right that we celebrate, and we continued the “locals only” entry policy last year.

[Vote for your favorites in this year’s Beer Madness.]

But as we look at 2015, craft beer is bigger than ever, all across the country. Budweiser may mock drinkers of “pumpkin peach ale,” but it’s steadily losing market share to craft beer consumers. If the country’s largest lager producer can’t win craft fans back, it’s buying up the breweries that they love: Soon after Budweiser parent company AB InBev’s January purchase of Seattle’s Elysian Brewing, the Tampa Bay Tribune reported that Tampa’s much-loved and fiercely independent Cigar City Brewing had been approached about a possible sale.

Closer to home, the ever-expanding market means our own DC Brau is regularly available in Philadelphia and New Jersey, and breweries from many states away are fighting for a beachhead in our area. Georgia’s SweetWater Brewing finally launched in Maryland last month after rolling out in Virginia and the District in 2014.

An even bigger development finds some of the West Coast’s most popular and iconic brands building breweries close to Washington, to improve freshness and cut down on shipping time. Stone anticipates opening in Richmond as early as late 2015; Green Flash is expected to begin brewing in Virginia Beach in 2016. A bit farther away, Sierra Nevada is weeks from opening a brewery and taproom near Asheville, N.C., and New Belgium hopes to be up and running in the same area by the end of the year. They join Colorado’s Oskar Blues, which opened a North Carolina facility in December 2012.


Expert panelist Miles Gray III goes to work. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Tasters took notes about each sample. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Given all that, it seems provincial to continue to limit Beer Madness as a Mid-Atlantic competition. We know our region’s brews can go up against the nation’s best: 17 D.C., Maryland and Virginia breweries have picked up medals at the Great American Beer Festival in the past two years. It only makes sense to see whether local beers can hold their own in a non-local Beer Madness, too.

The 2015 edition of Beer Madness features 32 beers from across America, arranged in a traditional bracket for four style categories: Crisp, Hops, Malt, and Fruit and Spice. The field is stacked with familiar names, including Dogfish Head, Sierra Nevada, Great Lakes and Terrapin. We tried to blend the old and the new: There’s space for Stone’s Go-To IPA, which debuted in spring 2014. Making a return is Maui Coconut Porter, which upset the bracket to win the 2012 Beer Madness title but was unable to defend its crown in 2013 due to our residency restrictions.

To keep a local flavor, we reserved space for the four beers that won those categories last year, and we introduced a few wild cards, including DC Brau’s On the Wings of Armageddon, the only D.C. beer with a 99/100 rating on the popular RateBeer.com Web site. But the bracket is stacked with roadblocks for our local contenders: Can Bluejacket hold its own against Dogfish Head and Lagunitas? Will Devils Backbone’s Vienna Lager once again take the title?

As always, the Beer Madness competition was a blind tasting held over two nights, and the panel of tasters was a pro-am mix. Our four experts include Washington Post beer columnist Greg Kitsock, local beer writer Tammy Tuck and Miles Gray III, the owner of Smith Public Trust and director of the annual DC Beer Week. Also joining us were four readers who were among the hundreds who applied to be on the panel.


Reader panelist Sidney Thomas, right, makes a point to expert Tammy Tuck. Also at the table, from left: Meridian Pint beer director Jace Gonnerman, expert Greg Kitsock and reader panelist Judy Spector. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Columbia Heights beer bar Meridian Pint again served as the host venue, where beer director Jace Gonnerman was invaluable in helping select the participating beers. To qualify, a beer had to be widely available in at least two D.C. area jurisdictions, which meant no room for Heady Topper or Pliny the Younger, as terrific and laudable as those brews are. The only exception is Bluejacket’s Forbidden Planet, the reigning champion of the 2014 Crisp bracket, which can be sampled or purchased only at the Navy Yard brewery.

It’s not just the panelists who get to weigh in: An interactive bracket at washingtonpost.com/­beermadness will allow all readers to vote for their favorite beer in each matchup, beginning with the first round on March 11. Voting will be open for a few days each round, so you’ll need to check back frequently. We’ll reveal our judging panel’s blind choices at the same time, so everyone can compare those results.

If you’d like to try these beers yourself, we’re organizing a championship happy hour at Meridian Pint on March 26, the same day we’ll announce the two finalists on the Beer Madness Web site. From 6 to 9 p.m., the public can try free samples of the two beers and vote for a favorite. Other Beer Madness competitors will also be available on tap that day for research purposes.

However, we’re still several rounds away from crowning a champion. It’s time for the Madness to begin.