East bracketBoston: Samuel Adams' Boston Lager
You don't get to be this big a craft brewer by playing small ball. Despite a fired-up base of hop heads in Columbus, the mighty Sam Adams machine rolled over Columbus IPA by racking up nearly five times as many votes. It helps that Boston Lager has a pretty broad footprint and is produced in multiple breweries (including one right in Columbus' backyard in Cincinnati), but it also helps to have an established product the fans love. The craft fanboys likely don't like this win at all and don't think much of Sam's 2.5 million barrels, multiple brewing facilities and George Thorogood-laden videos. Guess what? Nobody cares. The Brewers Association actually bumped up its barrel limit for craft beers to 6 million just to accommodate Sam, and Sam returns the favor by continuing to make small batch and barrel products that appease even the most pedantic craft nerds. Oh, and here's a fun fact for you: When the first batch of Sam Adams was brewed in 1987, nobody playing in this year's NCAA tournament was alive. They've been at this a while. Pittsburgh: Penn Brewery's Penn Gold
Penn Gold was actually losing its matchup with Yazoo Brewing's Dos Perros early in the week, and not by a little. But as Sidney Crosby proved in his return to the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins for a 5-2 drubbing of the conference-leading New York Rangers, you don't count out Pittsburgh until the season's over. That Munich-style session beer stormed back to win by all of 10 votes. And Yazoo was actually trying! There were Yazoo twitter updates, a get-out-the-vote campaign and nearly 100 votes worth of support. Yet anyone who's enjoyed session beer before can tell you that the joy of it isn't in a potent, high-octane start, but a pleasant, hangover-free finish. Dos Perros was a session beer that came on like an imperial in the beginning, but faded to near beer at the end. Now Penn Gold faces a big test in Boston Lager. Even worse, it faces a flagship beer that's also technically a cross-state rival brewed at a facility just outside of Allentown, Pa. Let's see whose state this really is.
South bracketNew Orleans: Abita Turbodog
After sitting on the bench for the first round biding its time, the Final Four city's beer is looking to earn its place in our semifinal as well. A member of our staff familiar with Abita seemed more inclined toward the brewery's Purple Haze raspberry wheat beer, but Turbodog is the player you want in the game at clutch time. The English brown ale combines Willamette hops with pale, crystal and chocolate malt for a mild chocolate-and-toffee flavor to match its 5.6% ABV. It's a good late-winter beer with a bit of a spring in its step and it's not a bad way to get through the late rounds. If you have more of a hankering for hops, however, it may be tough to pass up the first-round winner ... Atlanta: Sweetwater's 420 Extra Pale Ale
In a battle of hoppy pale ales, 420 Extra Pale buried the higher-alcohol Foothills' Hoppymum IPA (6.2% ABV to 420's 5.4%) out of North Carolina by a margin of 92 votes to 40. A bit part of the credit goes to Sweetwater itself for making a fruity, citrusy pale ale that doesn't punish drinkers for having more than one. It's the kind of beer you wait a long, hard winter for just so you can taste a bit of spring and sun again. It also helps that Sweetwater really had fun with this, tweeting out posts and instructions to its fans and answering an editor's query about how 420 got its name with a simple "We don't remember." Great stuff. When folks from Greensboro show up in the comments field saying things like "Have to say that Foothills is not the best brewery in Greensboro," though, you just have to feel bad for Foothills. Our field is made up of single beers, not brewers' entire beer lineups. That said, that's the clannish, self-important kind of craft beer town you want to be? A place that can't even back a great local beer because it's from the wrong brewery? Somebody from a friendlier craft beer city such as Asheville, N.C., needs to drive out to Greensboro and shake their snobs until they see the light. Sweetwater had a whole community behind it, which is exactly what it will need if its going to take New Orleans' best shot.
West bracketPortland, Ore.: BridgePort Ale's IPA
We wouldn't blame Marble Brewery's Marble Red Ale for feeling like our bracket's equivalent of UNC-Asheville. Just as that team was poised for an upset against No. 1 seed Syracuse University before factors beyond its control killed its momentum, Marble Red Ale's very realistic chances of pulling an upset against the best of a beer-crazed town such as Portland were dashed by polling problems. But despite its best efforts and a rallying call to its Twitter followers, Marble goes home after losing to BridgePort's IPA by just six votes. That doesn't make the balanced IPA any less formidable, especially at a near-sessionable 5.5% ABV. It's still a nice blend of malt and hops that doesn't come on too bitter for newcomers or too weak for seasoned hop lovers. It's a fruity, all-inclusive IPA that still stands a puncher's chance in a bracket that's similarly balanced between malty and hoppy hopefuls. Phoenix: Four Peaks' Kilt Lifter Scottish Ale
Kilt Lifter's performance in the first round was a bit like a Scottish Ale itself: mild, benign, unassuming, but ultimately sweet and satisfying. Upstream Brewing's Flagship IPA from Omaha put up a tough fight in securing little more than 44% of the vote, but Kilt Lifter never trailed and rode to victory on a margin as thin as the lacing it leaves on a pint glass. Don't let this Scottish ale's caramel-and-malt sweetness or soft amber hue trick you: It has 6% ABV and means business.
Midwest bracketDayton, Ohio: Great Lakes Brewing's Edmund Fitzgerald Porter
This beer wasn't even playing in the first round and still managed to cause controversy. How does a motor-oil-black porter that tastes like sugar, caramel, chocolate and coffee manage to offend by its mere presence? How does a beer that pays tribute to those lost in one of the Great Lakes' most prominent maritime tragedies draw so much bad energy? Blame us. Dayton has no craft brewer of its own and, instead of choosing a beer from a brewer in closer proximity, we chose the best craft beer from Ohio readily available in Dayton. The folks from Dayton have the right to be upset because it's not really "local"; the folks from Cleveland are definitely upset with Great Lakes going under the "Dayton" header and told us so. For us, it's a lose-lose situation. Were we to choose a lesser beer from a closer brewer, it would likely have been from the Columbus area. The problem is we've already picked the best beer in Columbus for this bracket. That left Edmund Fitzgerald Porter as the best possible representative for Dayton. As it's a mighty fine beer that any city would be fortunate to have on tap regularly, we humbly suggest that Dayton and Cleveland grin, bear with us and revel in the fact that they have regular access to it and most of the rest of us don't. St. Louis: Schlafly Beer's Dry Hopped APA
Schlafly's first-round matchup with Bluegrass Brewing's Dark Star Porter from Louisville, Ky., was easily the best battle of the bracket so far. There were 433 total votes cast. There were votes cast by Bluegrass Brewing fans in the comments field. There were multiple vote pushes and Twitter prompts by each side. The folks at Bluegrass wondered what they'd done wrong to have "two No. 1 seed playing this early." As we told them, it was a ridiculously tough draw and watching these two great beers go at it was like watching parents fight. Not fun for anyone. Yet Schafly's Cascade and Chinook hop-heavy Dry Hopped American Pale Ale is still standing. It's hoppy, bitter and aromatic brew and 5.9% ABV proved a bit too strong for the last porter it faced, and now it goes up against yet another of the nation's best porters. Think that scares Schlafly or its drinkers? This is a beer that just pulled in more votes that Samuel Adams' big, bad Boston Lager. This is a brewery that has to operate with Anheuser-Busch InBev's ( BUD) iconic brewery and Clydesdales just down the street. Schlafly went into this tournament facing a bruising first-round matchup and a tough bracket and emerged a week later with what's possibly the beer to beat in this tournament. Keep an eye on that APA.
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