While Boulevard Tank 7, a hopped-up Belgian farmhouse ale with notes of pepper and citrus, was acclaimed by both readers and judges, the other two beers that reached the finals were very different. The blind tasting panel had knocked Schlafly Kolsch out in the first round, preferring New Belgium Blue Paddle Pilsner. But online voters were much more appreciative of the pale, crisp ale. In subsequent rounds, the St. Louis Stunner defeated a series of highly acclaimed beers, including Devils Backbone Vienna Lager and Founders Porter, on its way to glory in the final.
The other finalist, selected by the judges, was Terrapin Wake-n-Bake, a big, bold coffee oatmeal stout brewed with three kinds of coffee beans, three different malts and roasted and flaked barley. Online voters weren’t as favorable towards Terrapin, knocking it out in the first round in favor of Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter.
Here’s how the judges decided the championship:
Boulevard Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale 6, Terrapin Wake-n-Bake 2.
After five rounds of tasting, Beer Madness came down to a faceoff between Boulevard Tank 7 and Terrapin Wake-n-Bake, two solid contenders that steadily advanced through their brackets, knocking off strong competition along the way. “These are two really good beers,” commented judge Sidney Thomas. “It’s like choosing between Nirvana and Pearl Jam, or Rihanna and Beyonce: You really can’t go wrong.”
That’s a fair point, but the result wasn’t even close: Boulevard won by 6 votes to 2, taking the title back to Kansas City and capping a strong all-around for Boulevard.
“We’re really surprised,” Boulevard brewer and brewery ambassador Jeremy Danner said when I spoke to him by phone on Friday. “I was looking at the beers we’re up against, like Allagash, and it’s nuts.
“We sell most of our beer within a few hours of the brewery,” he noted, and Boulevard only entered the D.C. market in June 2012. “We know we’re making good beer, but it’s good to see other people recognize that, too.”
In an odd twist, Danner said the Beer Madness champion almost didn’t exist at all. What we celebrate as Tank 7 was originally nothing more than the base for the company’s Saison Brett, a bottle-conditioned Belgian saison that’s aged with Brettanomyces, a yeast that creates funky, sour notes. But during sampling of one particular batch, “we discovered the beer was really good before we added the Brett,” Danner says. (It was so popular that employees kept going back to check on the taste at the end of their shifts.) “We knew Saison Brett was a great beer, and this had a huge, bright grapefruity citrus thing going on. There weren’t a lot of big, hoppy saisons in the Midwest at that time. People didn’t really know what a saison was. But we knew we really liked it.”
Apparently they were on to something: Tank 7 recently passed Boulevard Pale Ale to become the brewery’s second-best seller, behind only the iconic Unfiltered Wheat Beer. “While it’s a very simple recipe, it’s very distinctive, very memorable. It has that lingering hop bitterness and citrus, but the malt is very crisp,” Danner said. “We really like dry beers.”
The name comes from the brewery fermenter that held the magical version. “Tank 7 was janky, subject to cooling failures and a little bit different, construction wise, to the rest of our brewing equipment,” Danner said.
Judges chose Boulevard by a 3-to-1 margin, and for some, the decision wasn’t difficult. On his ballot, Smith Public Trust owner Miles Gray simply circled Boulevard’s name and wrote “Easy-peasy. Frank Underwood 2016!”
But others pointed out exactly how much they admired the Terrapin, even while voting for Boulevard. “The coffee beer made it to the final!” marveled Washington Post beer columnist Greg Kitsock. “Certainly a strong and distinctive flavor.” But he described Tank 7 as “lighter, more refreshing, more complex and a little less gimmicky. I could split a pitcher of this.”
Anna Bethel noted that “The smell and the nose are unforgettable. The problem lies in its coffee nature. What makes me scream ‘Sacred Juan Valdez, slap me and call me Vente!’ may make someone else hurl.” Boulevard, on the other hand, “has a very fresh, clean nose and taste. I think when it’s all said and done, what’s the most drinkable beer? It’s this one.”