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Beer Madness: Choices, choices

Beer awaits the panel's judgment. (Leah L. Jones for The Washington Post)

The Food section’s online chat was drawing to a close last week when a final comment popped up regarding Beer Madness, our annual search for Everyman's favorite brew. (Have you voted yet?) The correspondent, a self-described “beer geek” from New Haven, Conn., was upset because he could find fewer than half of the 32 beers at his local retail outlets. He complained that he and his friends had to make blind guesses as to which beers would advance, because they couldn’t actually taste the beers.

He didn’t mention what beers he couldn’t find, but I could hazard a guess.

This year we decided to open up the annual competition to international beers. From the United States, we kept just the four finalists from last year's bracket. A few of the old rules still applied: no seasonal or one-batch specialty beers, no draft-only beers, no beers much higher than 7 percent alcohol by volume.

In choosing, however, I opted to have as many different styles from as many different countries as possible. I decided that each of the four basic categories (lagers, pale ales, dark beers and freestyle) would contain no more than one entry per nation. I also tried to include a mix of international brands (Heineken, Guinness), beers from older regional breweries (Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout, Coopers Sparkling Ale) and some foreign microbrews.

Among the newer and smaller breweries that were represented were Nogne-O in Grimstad, Norway and Birrificio Le Baladin in Piozzo, Italy. The former was founded in 2002 by an airline pilot who developed a taste for American-style microbrews on his excursions abroad (he was an occasional customer at Chevy Chase Wine and Spirits in the District). The latter is a brewery and pub in a village of 1,000 outside Torino, Italy.

Both operations have generated a buzz on this side of the Atlantic not only for their own beers but for their collaborations with U.S. craft breweries. Nogne-O last year teamed up with Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido, Calif., and Jolly Pumpkin Ales in Dexter, Mich., to make Special Holiday Ale, a spiced ale seasoned with chestnuts, juniper berries, white sage and caraway. Birrificio Le Baladin is going a step further: Its founder, Teo Musso, is joining forces with Sam Calagione of Delaware’s Dogfish Head Craft Brewery and Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing Co. to open a rooftop brewpub as part of the new Eataly in New York City’s Flatiron District.

Baladin Nora and Nogne-O Pale Ale require a little digging to locate (as do Monteith’s Black Beer from New Zealand and the St. Druon Abbey Ale from France), but all the brands in Beer Madness were purchased commercially in Washington.

The trouble is, what’s available in the District isn’t necessarily going to be available in New Haven or Albany or Allentown or even Alexandria. The beerscape changes with the landscape. Can’t find your favorite brand? Here are some possible reasons:

Maybe the brewery doesn’t make enough beer to sell in every state where there is a demand.

Maybe the brewery can’t find a distributor to carry its brands. Consolidation has reduced the number of distributors from more than 5,000 about 40 years ago to maybe half that today.

There might be legal reasons why a specific beer hasn’t shown up in your area. West Virginia last year raised the alcohol cap on beer sold in that state from 6 to 12 percent alcohol by volume, but that still excludes such beers as the 18 percent Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA and the 27 percent Samuel Adams Utopias.

The National Beer Wholesalers Association estimates that there are about 13,000 beer brands on the market today. No cooler will hold that many beers.

A brand might be theoretically available in a given area, but in such dribs and drabs that there are long interruptions between shipments. J. Cambier Imports in Great Falls () brings in a wonderfully complex beer called Centurion from Le Saint-Bock Brasserie Artisanal Inc., a brewpub in Montreal. This so-called “Triple Bock” is full of molasses and maple syrup flavors, with a hint of smoke, and a lightness on the palate that belies its 11.5 percent alcohol content. “We get a trickle, nine to 10 cases at a time,” says Cambier. Grab a 12-ounce bottle if you can find it.

The folks at Diageo offer a free iPhone app called Guinness Pub Finder that will give you the address and phone number of the nearest establishment serving Guinness as well as directions thereto. It’s a pity that all breweries don’t offer a similar service.

In retrospect, I could have limited my choices to brands that were available nationally and scraped together 32 contenders. But I imagine my selection would have been top-heavy with pale golden lagers, a style that accounts for more than 90 percent of the beer sold commercially on this planet. Labatt versus Molson? Amstel versus Peroni? Corona versus Red Stripe? Why not flip a coin? I don’t think Beer Madness would be nearly as interesting if dominated by match-ups between beers that taste pretty much alike.

Do you?

-- Greg Kitsock

By The Food Section  |  March 22, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags: Greg Kitsock, beer  
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