The Beer Dance: The Final Four Of Our Craft Beer March Madness Bracket

NEW YORK -- ( MainStreet) -- Craft beer is a fickle mistress, and nowhere is that more evident than among our Beer Dance beer bracket's Final Four.

It's an industry where favored beer styles change with season and whim. Where a long-established brewery can be immediately challenged by a fresh-faced upstart, but can turn the tables with one small batch of the right brew. It's a world where, as Boston Beer ( SAM) founder Jim Koch has said on several occasions, the favorite beer of a large subset of the consumer base is the beer it had last.

This is about the only way we can make heads or tails of last week's results. Portland, Ore., and its huge craft beer community sat on the sidelines for much of last week as BridgePort Brewery -- one of the oldest in the city -- watched its IPA fall to the mighty Kilt Lifter from Four Peaks Brewery in Arizona. Sweetwater Brewery in Atlanta was up by 15 votes heading into Friday and had sent us a press release about an expansion that could increase capacity to 500,000 barrels. That would make their operation nearly three times larger than Delaware-based craft beer darling Dogfish Head and roughly the size of Texas regional beer mainstay Spoetzl Brewery, which is considered the fifth-largest craft brewer in the nation by Beer Marketer's Insights and produces Texas favorite Shiner Bock.

It wouldn't help Sweetwater hold a lead, however, as fans of New Orleans powerhouse Abita Beer erased a 15-vote deficit on the last day and forced a four-hour overtime vote. Abita's Turbodog wound up besting Sweetwater's 420 Extra Pale Ale by nine votes and harshing its very pleasant buzz.

Now the bracket that began with a very crowded case of 14 craft brews is down to a four-pack. What was once a fine balance of hops and malt is now a predominantly sweet and malty field with just a bit of hops thrown in for good measure. The drinkers know what they like and even with winter slowly yielding to spring, they're still not ready to pour out that caramel, chocolate and baked-goods flavor just yet.

It's been a tough slog, but here are the four shippable, savvy brews still standing:

East bracket

Boston: Samuel Adams Boston Lager
Sam's flagship brew faced a strong test in the last round, but gave the bracket a firm reminder of why this company grew from a kettle in Jim Koch's kitchen to a nearly 2.5 million-barrel operation in three breweries since 1984.

Boston Lager resonates with a big audience that would otherwise be blindsided by Sam's stronger beers. The same drinker who finds a Boston Lager pleasant might find the hoppy Whitewater IPA from the company's spring pack to be a bottle full of bitter nonsense. By trying a gateway beer that's a bit more hoppy than some of the mass-produced alternatives, though, a drinker is training his or her palate to gradually accept something beyond his or her comfort zone. From Boston Lager, it's an easy transition to Sam's malty, smooth Octoberfest or to its slightly zesty Sam Summer.

Folks who like either of those might shift to an Old Fezziwig during the winter or a hoppy Noble Pils during the spring. From there, it's a few simple steps to a stronger West Coast IPA or a Midwest porter. Just like that, a craft beer fan is born.

That's how you do it, but it's a game Sam's been playing well for years. Craft beer fanboys squabble over whether Sam is still craft, but Boston Lager's easy-drinking 4.9% ABV and lovely balance of hoppy aroma and malty flavor does all its own talking. When you don't scare off new drinkers and, instead, give them something they'll both handle and enjoy within their comfort zone, the battle's half won. Sam made our Final Four thanks to its wide umbrella, and that inclusiveness has rained pain on its worthy opponents.

New Orleans: Abita Turbodog
Abita got a bye in the first round and used its rested legs to dance all over an opponent who seemed to have the last round sewn up.

What turned the tide? That New Orleans tie doesn't hurt, but name association only gets you so far. The New Orleans party may bring in the newcomers, but it's the brew itself that makes them stay.

What's lost on many upstart brewers is one simple truth: Your brewery's name can be hilarious, your labels can be incredibly detailed and artistic and your marketing can be the slickest that start-up seed money can buy, but unless you have the brew to back it up, your product is just going to be another pretty resident in a package store's expiring-goods clearance rack.

Abita grew nearly 15% last year and is a 125,000-barrel enterprise because of tasty raspberry wheat brew such as its Purple Haze and the dark, mellow malt of Turbodog. A simple English brown ale that mixes Willamette hops with pale, crystal and chocolate malt, Turbodog has a mild chocolate-and-toffee flavor and an inoffensive 5.6% ABV.

A drinker may have his or her first one on Bourbon Street or in some local crawdad-and-catfish cooking outpost named Bourbon Street in their city's bar district, but that smooth drinking flavor is what lingers in fans' memory. Even if fans never throw another bead in their lifetime and keep their shirts firmly in place once gravity and time takes its toll, they may still drink Abita. Even when the party's over, the quality stays the same. That quality and year-after-year dependability are what a loyal customer base is built on.

Which Final Four beer would you prefer?

Samuel Adams Boston Lager
Abita Turbodog

West bracket

Phoenix: Four Peaks Kilt Lifter Scottish Ale
Perhaps the best example of the humorously named beer that backs up the belly laugh, Kilt Lifter took down Portland and stormed through the early rounds on one tenet: Extreme beers wow, but simplicity wins.

A Scottish ale is one of the more benign styles a brewer can offer. Brewed well, though, it can be a pillar of business when selling to a session crowd that craves more than one. Kilt Lifter beat not one, but two IPAs on the way to the Final Four by offsetting their strong, hoppy profiles with smooth, settled malt while keeping its kick at 6% ABV.

Four Peaks has been just about as mellow through this process as its beer. It posts bracket updates to its social networks, it casually reminds fans to get out the vote and it sits back and watches its followers give it a lead and never let up.

It's a simple plan, but it's steady and it's been working. It's also a huge contrast in beer and promotional approach to its upcoming opponent ...

St. Louis: Schlafly APA
Schlafly provided this bracket with perhaps the best craft beer lesson of all: If you want people to follow your brewery, you have to go out and get them.

Schlafly's performance in The Beer Dance has been a free lesson in do-it-yourself promotion. During each round, the brewer sent multiple reminders to fans to get out and vote. It kept its Twitter feed filled with updates and provided links from Facebook.

We suggested that fans of all breweries involved vote early and vote often. Schlafly not only took that advice, but turned it into a campaign slogan. Their supporters have worked harder than some of the political campaigns to bring their voters to our polls and push the button for Schlafly's Dry Hopped American Pale Ale. The results have been hundreds of votes in each round and a more than 90% margin of victory in the last round.

Take note, young brewers, because this is how you not only succeed, but thrive in the shadow of the Anheuser-Busch ( BUD) brewery. The Cascade and Chinook hop-heavy Dry Hopped American Pale Ale is hoppy, bitter and aromatic enough to pack a punch, but sweet enough not to scare away the newcomers. It's not a powerful pale ale at 5.9%, but neither are the Schlafly beers sneaking onto the taps during Cardinals games at Busch Stadium.

Schlafly's been the beat of this bracket because it has willed itself to be. Much like its craft beer competitors, nobody gave Schlafly a share to the market space. They had to step up and take it. When you can do that in the backyard of one of the biggest beer companies in the world, you can do it anywhere. Schlafly's fans know that, and it's frightening to think of what they'll do now that they're two pints away from a title.

Editor's note: Our antiquated poll tool couldn't handle all of the votes that we received for this heated rivalry (sorry about that), so we're extending the voting until March 30th and shopping out the tallying to our friends at Flisti. Again, our apologies.

Which Final Four beer would you prefer?

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post,, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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