The Beer Dance: The Championship Of Our Craft Beer March Madness Bracket

NEW YORK -- ( MainStreet) -- Our craft beer bracket is down to two brews and two fervent fan bases. Let the final beer battle begin.

Just a few weeks ago, we had a full 14-pack of craft beers from NCAA tournament host cities. Much as the NCAA's field of 64 winnowed down to the University of Kansas Jayhawks and University of Kentucky Wildcats, our case is down to just two beers sharing the top shelf of our fridge: Samuel Adams Boston Lager and Schlafly Dry Hopped APA.

It's been a strange road to the final for both squads, but one that's been fairly fun to travel. Sam opened up the tournament by breezing past Columbus, Ohio-based Columbus Brewing's IPA despite a strong show of online support from Columbus fans. It spend the second round fending off a potent combination of Pittsburgh pride and sessionable Munich lager, but pulled out the win over Penn Brewery's Penn Gold. The Final Four gave Sam an early scare as Abita Brewing's Turbodog surged into the lead, but Boston Lager recovered and came back for a slim victory over the beer from Final Four host city New Orleans.

Samuel Adams was by far the biggest beer in our bracket. Boston Beer ( SAM) produces dozens of varieties of it a year and nearly 2.5 million barrels of it last year. Depending on who you talk to, that's either tied with D.L. Yuengling & Son of Pottsville, Pa., for the biggest craft and regional brewer in the country or lags just slightly behind Yuengling's production. Either way, Sam is just about as big as craft beer gets in this country and Boston Lager is a big part of its success.

Not that such things concern its competition at Schlafly. For more than 20 years, Schlafly has been producing its craft concoctions in what is basically an Anheuser-Busch InBev ( BUD) company town. The A-B brewery looms large, the Busch family name is on the Cardinals' stadium and the Clydesdales come clopping through for all the big city events. If anyone knows how to play underdog, it's Schlafly.

Underdog may be the wrong adjective for Schlafly when it comes to this bracket, though. Despite strong support in Louisville for Bluegrass Brewing's Dark Star Porter, Schlafly fans came in and crushed their competition with a surge of votes at the end of the first round. What should've been a clash of rabid fan bases in the second round became a laugher for Schlafly as neither Cleveland, Dayton nor Great Lakes Brewing showed up to support Edmund Fitzgerald Porter.

Nothing -- not even Schlafly's beer bracket campaign posters -- compares with what happened during the last round. We're willing to take the blame for the first poll imploding and doling out 18,000 votes to one side in an hour. When the replacement poll started clocking a vote per second for Schlafly and Four Peaks Brewing's Kilt Lifter Scottish Ale, though, we just threw up our hands. The last thing we wanted was for half the workforce in Phoenix and St. Louis to spend its Friday workday hitting the vote button for its favorite brewery and only taking breaks to hit the boss button when a supervisor strolled by. What we really didn't want was for the poll to be turned into a big game of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robots, with bots for each side trading blows on our poll.

With nearly 800,000 votes by the poll deadline and more than 1 million votes overall, the Schlafly/Four Peaks matchup seemed a bit bloated for a craft beer poll. That said, though, both breweries' Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and fan posts lit up by Friday. For the first time in The Beer Dance, we had smack talk in the comments fields. That's passion, and it's part of a formula of do-it-yourself marketing and quality product that helps a craft brewer succeed. Schlafly won and Four Peaks put up a valiant fight because their supporters willed them toward the championship. That loyalty is what makes a good brewer great and can turn a beer from a regional success to a nationwide and global force.

Samuel Adams Boston Lager made that leap. Schlafly Double Hopped APA has the support to get there. Enough with the buildup. Let's see who wants it more.

Boston: Samuel Adams Boston Lager
Sam's flagship brew fought its way into the third round, but re-established itself as the big beer in this race.

Boston Lager has a big following of drinkers who've either used it as a springboard to bigger, bolder beers or discovered it as a step up from the safety of pale yellow suds. Its balance of hoppy aroma and flavor with a malty finish meets new drinkers where they're at instead of pushing them into a brew that will make their face pucker and send them running for the nearest 30 pack.

Boston Lager is a mild pick at 4.9% ABV and lends itself to sessions where drinkers want more than one. It's subtle, it's consistent and its making a lot more friends lately. Bracket watchers may imply that Boston Lager's success stems from the size of the brewery making it, but evidence suggests it's the other way around.

St. Louis: Schlafly APA
Schlafly and its fans have made no secret about their intentions in this bracket. They want to win, they want to win by the biggest margin possible and the want to do it by beating the biggest competitors the bracket throws at them.

Well it doesn't get much bigger than this.

Schlafly is facing a beast in Samuel Adams Boston Lager, but both its beer and fans appear up to task. 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 on the taps during Cardinals games at Busch Stadium.

This isn't a brewery that seems satisfied with just giving its best shot. When Schlafly fell behind by thousands of votes in the last round, it sent out email blasts, plastered its Facebook page with pleas and sent out multiple tweets on Twitter imploring fans to get out the vote. Their fan base isn't exhausted by the experience: It's energized.


Which craft beer deserves eternal 'Beer Dance' glory?



-- 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, Esquire.com, 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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