You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to put on a 64 beer, single elimination, NCAA-style tournament. One minute you’re dreaming of all that hoppy, malty, chocolatey, fruity goodness in one place and the next… well, you’re trying desperately to get all that hoppy, malty chocolately, fruity goodness — in one place.
To be clear, this tournament isn’t about bitching. It’s about gathering 64 of the best beers in America together, matching them up, tasting them blindly (removing the pretense that so often surrounds our entrenched beery beliefs), and crowning a champion. It’s GP’s swing at a new way to enjoy, explore and appreciate damn good beer. It’s about one of the biggest movements in our country. It’s about a shared passion. It’s also about personal taste, the barroom argument you’ve had with your buddies a hundred times: which beer is better?
How we set about doing it is important to understand. To begin, there’s one broad thing about what we came to call “March Beer Madness” you need to know: it’s far from perfect. We’d be lying if we said we didn’t care about the beer nuts rolling their eyes as they judge our labor of love. We’d also be full of it if we said making it happen hasn’t put one hell of a chip on our shoulder. “Try to do it better yourself”, we’re also saying, while flipping you off, still slightly drunk from the massive tasting we’ve just taken part in.
So let’s go back to the good parts. Building a list of 64 beers from the absolute favorites of eight GP beer fiends was our starting point. We asked everyone providing input to make sure they’d had these brew de la brews more than just once (preferably, lots of times) and that to make the list a beer had to be truly excellent. We ended up with a lot more than 64, and pared down based on availability, picking 64 unique breweries (no repeats — we took full advantage of the huge swathe of options available in the U.S.), and seeding scores. More on that later.
A quick note on availability: we sourced the entire GP to gather this list, ensuring that West Coast, East Coast, and everywhere in between had a chance at representation. We ended up with beers from across our great country. The GP crew was helped — immeasurably — by our friends over at ABC Beer Company in both sourcing and tasting beers (more on that later). Needless to say, we’re huge fans of this fine NYC establishment, a haven for casual drinkers and beer nuts alike.
HOW WE DID IT, IN SHORT: 1. GP staff picks 64 beers. No repeats on the breweries. 2. Split beers into “regions” of Lager, Light Ale, Dark Ale and “Et Al.” 3. Seed beers 1-16 in each category with an average of BA and RB scores. 4. Blind test beers, with 4 tasters selecting winners based on appearance, smell, taste, mouthfeel and overall experience.
The Seed is Strong
So how to make this list of beer fit into a 64 “team” single elimination bracket? Here’s where things got tricky. There had to be four “regions”, but facing off beers based on their brewery’s location didn’t seem quite right. The idea of radically different brewskis being judged head-to-head throughout the tournament would make objectivity key; while personal taste would always be inherent, we knew there was a better way. What we decided upon was a split based on broad styles of beer: “Lagers” (self-explanatory), “Light Ales” (color, not calories — IPAS, pale ales, BPAs, ESBs, Amber Ales, Brown Ales, Saisons), “Dark Ales” (Stouts — milk, coffee and oatmeal — Porters (ditto), Belgian Strong Dark Ales, Dubbels, Tripels, Quads, Winter Warmers) and “Et Al.” — a catch all category full of misunderstood, misfit types.
Then we faced our next problem. How would we figure out seedings? Again, a bit of an ugly conundrum — making the abstract concrete so often is — but here the answer was simpler. BeerAdvocate and RateBeer both offer excellent scoring. We took advantage, averaging the “popular” score on BA with the “style” score on RB, and using this number to seed 1-16 for each broad style section. When there were ties in seeding scores, we flipped a coin.
The “and others” (that’s what et al. means, in case you’re not a snobby latin-usin’ type) grouping ended up falling into four distinct categories of four beers each: fruit beers, wheat beers, scotch ales, and barleywines/strong ales. It wasn’t pretty, but at last, we decided that somewhat alike beers would be tested against each other for the first two rounds. Fruit beers v. fruit beers, barleywines against barleywines, etc. Similarly, match ups within these “subcategories” were decided by seeding scores: the top-seeded fruit beer faced the worst seeded fruit beer, and the two middle of the style were against each other. After that, well, the et al. category became a bit of a shit show. Which is totally fine.
Our plan of attack for the tasting balanced the need for controlled competition, blind tasting and the realities of limited beer quantities, tasters, and time. We ended up four tasters, two from GP and two the fine co-owners of Alphabet City Beer Co., Zach Mack and David Hitchner, along with several volunteers to help set up and referee the tournament (shout out to this author’s girlfriend, who ended up being both a beautiful beer wench and a talented event organizer). To ensure some level of objectivity, beers were poured away from the thirsty eyes of tasters, and a number/letter system was used to identify the brews.
Limitations on time and quantity meant it all had to be done in one go, and tasters had to decide based on a couple gulps, or about 1-2 ounces per round. To truly appreciate a beer, one has to enjoy the whole damn thing; but for this 64-beer brouhaha, a couple solid slugs were good enough. Still, we asked each taster to keep in mind appearance, smell, taste, mouthfeel and overall enjoyment. In the end, the deciding question had to be, simply: which one would you rather drink?
To conserve palates and our beer reserves, each taster was assigned a “style” region for the first three rounds. They made the call on each match up for the first three rounds, weeding down their section from 16 beers to the 2 head honchos. Once we were down to 8, a new system emerged: all four testers tasted the beer head-to-heads and debated until a winner was decided, with a fifth tie-breaker vote waiting in the wings. All in all, it was a lot of beers in one day, and we all emerged groggy with lambasted taste buds. But the day was epic, and so were the results.
Speaking of results: We couldn’t be happier. Not to spoil what was an exciting tournament, but there were major upsets, Cinderella stories, top-seed dominations, heart-wrenching decisions and heated debates. Reinforced in the end was our love of beer — sipping it, making it our own, and enjoying it in damn good company.
Until we release our first round results tomorrow morning, that’ll have to do.