NCAA March Madness has ended with the Villanova Wildcats as champions, but who was your Beer Bracket Madness champion? I sat down this weekend with four ready-and-willing craft beer tasters for what ended up being a surprisingly challenging bracket tasting.
ESA is Yards’ first ever beer creation and a classic at that. This extra special bitter is 6% ABV and pours a dark amber. It is has malty and earthy feel to it and is smooth when sipped. The hops, though present, aren’t overpowering as the presence of malt rounds out the flavors.
Clink! is Sole Artisan Ales’ “anytime beer” and we could all see why by the end of this bracket. This dry-hopped session ale is 4.9% ABV and pours a light golden color. It has a floral nose to it as well as floral and citrus flavors making for an all around crisp pale ale.
After much deliberation, Clink! won on my bracket. Here were the results for all five of us:
ESA: 2 Clink!: 3
Next up we had Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company’s J.A.W.N. Juicy Ale with Nugget. An American pale ale, this brew is 5.2% ABV and packed a hoppy punch. Described by one of my fellow bracket challengers as “hop centric,” this flavorful ale has notes of citrus, almost tropically so, along with hops and malt to make for a crispy yet bold brew. The easy drinking malt, citrus, and fruity flavors provide a nice base to the beer with the noticeable use of nugget hops to really hit this one home. All enjoyed this; every flavor that swished around our mouths made this one the first can to empty by the end of the bracket.
Victory Brewing Company’s HopDevil proved itself a good competitor against J.A.W.N. HopDevil, an American IPA, is 6.7% ABV and pours a warm amber color. The head is a light tan, thick but once dissipated it left a nice lace dancing atop this amber nectar. The hops are immediately noted in the nose along with some citrus notes. Upon tasting HopDevil initially the hops hit the palate but then the malty, bold spicing flows into the mix. This combination was nice and made this IPA an easy drinker, smooth. It allowed us to taste the hops without the sometimes overwhelming bitterness, which generally turns off some of the people we had in our tasting group ( a lot of Belgian style lovers). We were all happy about this one.
Following this pairing I had to think, snack on a pretzel, re-taste, and think some more before making my decision. Finally, I decided on HopDevil.
Here were our results for this round:
J.A.W.N.: 3 HopDevil:2
The next two rounds got a little funky pretty quickly. For the first one we had Conshohocken Brewing Company’s Puddlers Row ESB up against Troegs Independent Brewing’s Troegenator. These two brews had some pretty drastic differences in overall flavor and mouth feel.
Conshohocken Brewing Company’s Puddlers Row ESB, an extra special bitter, is 5.4% ABV. This beer poured a copper color with a not-too-thick white head. At first impression I noticed a bready nose with some fruity notes. After tasting, the hops combined with the bread, malt, and fruit feel seemed to work for me. I wasn’t sure at first; I had to sip it a few times to gather all the flavors. Although it is mild – it doesn’t hit you as hard with the hops as I’d expected, with the full mouth feel – you can get an almost sweet, caramel taste to it mixed amongst the malt and fruit. This beer had an interesting combination of flavors and goes down smooth, nothing crazy.
Then our tasting did a drastic 180 – or at least to me it felt this way – when we challenged this more classic ESB to a pairing with Troegs Independent Brewing’s Troegenator. Troegenator, a doppelbock, came in at 8.2% ABV ready to conquer all palates with its aggressive flavor. This beer poured a reddish brown color, clear, with an off-white head. When I went in for the first sip the intense, fruity nose hit me. The taste of dark malt and sweetness from the fruit yet also caramel notes quickly intensified in my mouth. The texture was smooth, almost syrupy. The strong combination of flavors gave it a medicinal taste in my opinion; it was too much for my palate. Although I know some people do really enjoy this style, it’s not for me.
Maybe it was just the drastically different comparison but it turns out, I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. Here were our results:
Puddlers Row ESB: 5 Troegenator: 0
Following the flavor-packed round 3, our palates had been seriously tested. The test wasn’t over however, as round 4 didn’t let up. The last pairing featured Philadelphia Brewing Company’s Walt Wit and Free Will Brewing Company’s Black Friday. These brews both had Belgian-style inspiration but used very differently.
Walt Wit by Philadelphia Brewing Company is a witbier with an ABV of just 4.5%. Inspired by the American poet Walt Whitman, this ale poured a hazy, golden color. The white head was thin and left an even thinner lace. Light spicing and citrus notes were noticed both in the aroma and the taste of this simple but classic witbier. I for one welcomed this Belgian-style witbier with open arms after the tasting roller coaster we had been on. Which brings me to the last beer in the pairing.
Black Friday by Free Will Brewing Company, though Belgian-style as well, was much stronger than Walt Wit. Holding an ABV of 11.5%, this quad has the added strength of being aged in apple brandy barrels, which gives it a different mouth feel overall from most Belgians. Pouring a deep brown color, this beer was very complex in taste. At first pour I immediately caught the apple and brandy notes. Once tasted, the flavors I noticed most were the apple, brandy, and sweet dark malts. There was a heat to the mouth feel, one you’d typically get after having – well – a sip of brandy, really warmed you up inside. The combination of the brandy feel with the fruit and malts didn’t quite work for me – maybe it was having had Troegenator’s very intense flavors too close to my memory – but I think anyone who likes the feel from hard liquor but also enjoys beer would really get a kick out of this.
It didn’t take me long to pick Walt Wit for this round. While the complexity of the flavors in Black Friday is still appreciated, I love a good witbier. Here were our overall results:
Walt Wit: 4 Black Friday: 1
FINAL FOUR RECAP:
Once we made it through the initial tasting, that narrowed it down to four beers for each of us. My final four left Clink! vs. Puddlers Row ESB on one side and HopDevil vs. Walt Wit.
I tasted my final four brews and contemplated my semifinal decision a little longer. Clink! I moved onto the semifinal and their competitor, Walt Wit, moved on in the bracket as well after a tough battle with HopDevil that made this decision a close one.
Here we are, the final showdown between Clink! and Walt Wit, two simple but elegant brews that left me wanting more even after the strange mix of spices, fruits, and hops I had been confused by. The floral and citrus notes from Clink! made for a very drinkable ale. I could say the same for Walt Wit though, which also had citrus notes to it. Something about Walt Wit made it stand out just that much more to me during this challenge.
The combination of light citrus flavor but also the Belgian-style had me declaring Walt Wit my official Beer Bracket Madness Champion of 2016.
This tasting was a tough one, with some beers my fellow tasters and I had never tried, but I will most definitely do it again. If you completed your bracket be sure to share your results with us. Want a bracket made for you state? Let me know and I’ll add it to the lineup of bracket tastings I have coming. For now, the March Madness is over but not to fear – NHL playoffs are in the works.
Final Champions for our group:
Walt Wit: 3
Puddlers Row ESB: 1