East bracketBoston: 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.