What are the two greatest things in the world? Yep. Beer and tournaments. I can assure you that it is not poetry and science. We love drinking beer and crossing names off brackets more than anything else and you do too. So, riding on the coattails of our much successful March Madness tournament pool, we dreamed up a fanciful sequel to the old leather pumpkin single elimination competition on a rare and beautiful afternoon when nearly all Steve's Word contributors and groupies were in the same room. After several hours filled with laughs, brainstorming, and having to poop in public restrooms the inspired idea was born. The field of 64 was carefully chosen by our esteemed beer committee; Avery "Tex" Booker, Mitchell "Kevin Arnold" Frye, Elle "The Girl" Scoots, and Chase "The Kid" Booker. In order to make the tournament more closely reflect the proceedings of the NCAA Basketball tournament, the seeding, like all important decisions, was determined by someone horribly underqualified. That annointed ignoramus was Tim Spellman. Click here to see the bracket. For the next four Wednesdays we're going to be giving you each region's winner as determined by our experts. When all is said and done, there will be a massive party with only the Final Four Beers to drink. Our judges and the party attendees will decide the champion of the 1st Annual Steve's Word Beer Bracket through a series of rows, fisticuffs, and make-up sex. Without further ado, let's have Avery get things started.
1 Boddington's vs. 16 Labatt's Blue
Boddington's -- the tweed-suit-wearing, stodgy older gent of the canned-beer crowd -- meets its slurring, betuqued Canadian slacker nephew Labatt's Blue in the first match-up of this bracket. And in a case of colonizer vs. colonized, Boddington's scoots right along on to the next round with nary a scratch. Although Labatt's puts up a respectible fight, with its solid New World drinkability and step-up-from-Bud price tag, in the end the fancy CO2 ball doohickey and velvety, semi-flat smoothness of Boddington's take the cake. Although I always feel like one of the McKenzie brothers when drinking Canadian beer, and that's a nice feeling, I'm just a sucker for a tin of the ol' British fizz. Boddington's politely excuses itself then retires to a chaise lounge for round 2.
8 Three Philosophers vs. 9 Cusqueña
Now we're getting fancy. Three Philosophers is a somewhat dark, complex Belgian-style quadrupel ale (brewed in upstate New York) with a hint of black cherry -- owing to the 2% essence of cherry those crazy monk-surrogates pop into the mix. Personified, this beer is that German guy you meet when you're backpacking, who drinks all the time but never seems drunk, who wears a cravat and speaks 8 languages effortlessly. The guy you love to hate. Either that or it's "The Name of the Rose" in beer form. Both work. It's sophisticated yet masculine, comes in huge corked bottles, and is relatively easy to find in New York. In short, I have nothing bad to say about Three Philosophers. Unfortunately, this is a competition so I have to give Cusqueña a chance. This hard-to-find Peruvian upstart is refreshing and pleasant, but in the end tastes like what I like to call a "travel beer" -- a forgettable, sort of generic local beer you drink when taking a train through a foreign locale. The Peruvian equivalent of Guatemala's Gallo, Belgium's Jupiler, or China's Guilin. Personified, Cusqueña is your friend's buddy in a foreign country, who lets you sleep on his couch while you're traveling through town. Doesn't make a big impact on you, but saves you money and is oddly comforting. Three Philosophers glides through to round 2.
5 Leinenkugels vs. 12 Sam Adams
Finally, we get to a fair fight. Leinenkugels, hailing from Chippewa Falls, WI, has a slightly hoppy, fruity and well-balanced flavor, akin to a light German or Coloradoan Weisse, well suited for a summer picnic or barbeque. All well and good, but here's what it's really got going for it: it smells exactly like Fruity Pebbles. No kidding. Taste- and smell-wise, this one gives Sam Adams some stiff competition. Where Sam Adams is your college friend from Boston who flirts with the idea of joining a frat but instead just decides to tone down his accent and become a quiet alcoholic, Leinenkugels is the eccentric, partly insane guy who puts on a ratty suit and tie, walks to campus, then calls everyone walking out of the art building a "Whoremonger." Maybe that reference is too University of Colorado-specific. Back to Sam Adams, it's malty, with muted hops and a pleasing bite, goes well with damn near anything, tastes good year-round, and isn't terribly expensive. As much as I like Leinenkugels -- it's an exceptional summer beer and smells incredible -- and as much as I want to root for "the little guy," I've got to go with the workhorse here. The first upset of the match! Sam Adams edges Leinenkugels by a millimeter, then hits Leinenkugels over the head with a blackjack for no reason as it turns to exit the bar and screams "RED SOX!"
4 Bass vs. 13 Red Hook
A transatlantic brawl between two perennial favorites. Bass, an English Pale Ale known the world over as "Tan" from the beer variety duo Black & Tan, isn't a whole lot to write home about, but it's always a pleasant quaff, and you can find it everywhere -- InBev has taken care of that -- making it one of the more accessible imports in New York's bodegas. But Bass's ubiquity, and its mundaneity, put it at a distinct disadvantage to Red Hook. Whereas Red Hook, from the American Northwest, has the bite, character and sparkling hops that characterize many Seattle-area beers, Bass is happy just being what it is -- a good, old-fashioned beer that is classic and crowd-pleasing. It's a classic case of the stodgy but not terribly unpleasant British uncle against the youthful Seattle punk-ass kid. While the punk-ass kid might get on your nerves after a while, he's a hell of a lot more fun to be around than Mr. Belvedere. Innit? Red Hook tucks Bass in at 8:30 PM, then sneaks out the window and moves on to round 2.
6 Sweetwater 420 vs. 11 Carlsberg Elephant
I'm going to try to be fair about this...but before even cracking open a "Sweetwater 420" I must say it's already at a competitive disadvantage. Why? Two things: the ridiculous hippie-baiting name and its parent company's cheesy fly-fisherman vibe (look at their website). Two things that have nothing to do with the flavor of the beer itself, yet bother me immensely. That aside, this Extra Pale Ale is exciting in its simplicity, refreshing, and great for summertime, like most very pale American beers.This is your childhood friend whose family was super-Christian and creepy, yet he was just a nice quiet guy who never brought it up and who still says "heck." It's endearing. And aside from the stupid name and motif, I have virtually nothing bad to say about Sweetwater 420 (::shudder:: but that name!). Elephant, part of the mighty Carlsberg empire, is another decent lightish European beer, but behind the charming name and cool ergonomic bottle lurks something sinister. Whereas Sweetwater is the nice clean-cut kid (who apparently loves smoking weed and fly fishing, strangely enough), Elephant is that Lars von Trier-type European, who at first comes off as just a little pleasantly eccentric but is always just one hair away from either cutting off his, or someone else's, ear. The beer has a familiar taste, not dissimilar to "regular" Carlsburg, but has the lingering alcohol sensation of a much darker beer. In many ways it's comparable to a strong lager like Molson XXX or a handful of Midwestern microbrews. While this extra punch might be a good thing, depending on the company in which you find yourself while drinking it, in the end it's a little too in-your-face for me. Sweetwater takes this round. Sweetwater 420 grabs his hacky sack, calls in sick to work, puts on its sandals and slouches off to round 2.
3 Lagunitas IPA vs. 14 Tsingtao
I may be biased in this one, but to be fair I could be biased either way. I have a strong affinity for good IPAs as well as Chinese beers, so this looks to be one of the most interesting matchups of my bracket. Right off the bat, Lagunitas comes out at full gallop, a hoppy yet not bitter, highly drinkable IPA that is pleasant from start to finish. Like all good IPAs, it manages to balance the bite of strong hops with a subtle fruity tang that rounds out its flavors nicely. This beer is your friend who owns a boat, shops at Paul Smith, and doesn't hassle you about never giving back his copy of "Lucky Jim." A real stand-up beer/guy. Sounds like an open and shut case, but then POW! -- here comes Tsingtao, a Chinese pirate who sinks your buddy's ship, orders a bunch of magazine subscriptions, then sleeps in your living room for a week without even asking. No, I don't know what that analogy means either, but it's one hell of a mental image, isn't it? Tsingtao ("Qīngdǎo," not "Seeng Tao") has a reputation (in China, at least) of being a somewhat crappy, low-priced beer, inferior to its foreign rivals in both taste and quality. However, I couldn't disagree more with this reputation. I find the big Chinese beers -- with the exception of some regional brands, like Shaanxi Province's Tsingtao-owned Hans or the bitter-melon-infused Kugua (trust me, it tastes even worse than it sounds) -- to be on par with, or better than, most big-name German or British beers. Although Tsingtao can't quite hold up against superior countrymen like Harbin, Snow, or Zhujiang in my book, it goes down nicely and has a balanced flavor descended from the German beers on which it was originally based. Anyway, although it's hard for me, I have to give this round to Lagunitas. While Tsingtao is a personal favorite, it does have a hint of that faintly bland, processed feel to it, akin to a Bass or Sam Adams, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but Lagunitas has that microbrew, "made with love" feel to it that I find really endearing. Lagunitas bids a fond "zaijian" to Tsingtao, then potters on to round 2.
7 Spaten vs. 10 Husker
Spaten is the big fat red-nosed jolly German guy you meet at Oktoberfest, who regales you with stories of his "lost weekend" in Thailand and who disappears during a bathroom break, never to be seen again. Wait, that doesn't resonate with anyone else? Spaten's pedigree and incredible drinkability (for a full-flavored German beer) mean that Husker's going to have to work overtime just to compete. But ALAS...though I searched several delis -- Korean, Dominican and Indian, supermarkets, and specialty markets in New York, I failed to find a single bottle of Husker. Husker lives to fight another day. Disqualification. Neither beer moves to the next round.
2 Bluepoint Toasted Lager vs. 15 Kirin
I wanted to write something pithy here, about the Japanese ninja going up against the Long Island vinnie goombah. But I just couldn't. Long Island, NY's Bluepoint Toasted Lager is straight-up delicious. That's all there is to it. The "toastiness" is muted, yet it's there, and the beer's warm malty undertone is offset by a twangy hops finish that flat-out destroys any semblance of competition that Kirin had going for it. This is a pretty unfair matchup, though, so I'll give Kirin a fair shake. In its element -- the Americanized sushi restaurant, or at one of the many izakayas that line St. Marks Place, Kirin can't be beat. Mainly because it's $3 a pint there and its draft iteration tastes fantastic with food. But at home, from a bottle, this made-in-America (Los Angeles) version of its infinitely superior Japanese-made variant just isn't the same. Bluepoint wins this one by a country mile. Bluepoint sends Kirin back to Japan in a nicely-wrapped lacquer box.
1 Boddington's vs. 8 Three Philosophers
The Bob Hoskins-esque bruiser of a pub ale is no match for the sweet nectar of the Belgian abbey. Three Philosophers wins this one without blinking. Three Philosophers says a Hail Mary over the festering corpse of Boddington's, then moves on to the semifinal.
12 Sam Adams vs. 13 Red Hook
East Coast and West Coast collide, as we find the Tupac and Biggie of the beer world, two full-flavored contestants, on equal footing. Ultimately, Red Hook's bright Pacific Northwest sheen ultimately does Sam Adams in. On the way out of the bar, Sam Adams picks a fight with a bottle of Coors Light for no reason and is arrested. Red Hook takes the round. West Siiiide!
6 Sweetwater 420 vs. 3 Lagunitas IPA
Lagunitas IPA's strong competitive advantage proves too much for Sweetwater, whose pleasant drinkability and affable nature can't keep up with the crispness and lingering, satisfying hoppiness of an IPA. Lagunitas flips Sweetwater off and hollers, "Adios, pinche!"
2 Bluepoint Toasted Lager scoots along, unchallenged by the disqualified Spaten. Spaten buys a one-way ticket to Thailand to "find himself," on the recommendation of a fat dude stuck in a Munich bathroom.
8 Three Philosophers vs. 13 Red Hook
Again, Three Philosophers demolishes all comers with its sinister complexity and incredible cherry finish (seriously, buy a bottle). While Red Hook will remain a favorite at picnics and barbeques, as a beer drinker's beer it's leagues away from its Belgian foe. Three Philosophers goes on to the final.
3 Lagunitas IPA vs. 2 Bluepoint Toasted Lager Big upset!
Bluepoint's skillfull balance of the deep yet nuanced malt undertones of an old world beer and the fresh, precocious finish of a homebrew propel it past my long-running favorite, Lagunitas. Putting my love for a tart, ice-cold IPA on a summer day aside, Bluepoint proves once and for all that Long Island is good for much more than schadenfreude.
8 Three Philosophers vs. 2 Bluepoint Toasted Lager
Although the American flag boxing trunk-wearing Bluepoint puts up a valiant fight, Three Philosophers, with its enigmatic, brooding depth and Ommegang's knack for perfect Belgian simulation, proves too mighty. Like a beer Apollo Creed, it shows Bluepoint who's boss, knocking it clear out of the ring in one round. Screaming something indecipherable in Flemish, Three Philosophers has the lower-left-bracket crown placed atop its fancy corked bottle, and the day is won.
Come back next Wednesday for Mitchell Frye's quadrant. The upsets will rock your world.
Come on, Eldrick.