The Best Craft Beer March Madness Has to Offer

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Unlike the National Collegiate Athletic Association, we don't look the other way and whistle when beer shows up during March Madness: We drink it an ask where it came from.

Two years ago, we introduced The Beer Dance, our craft beer March Madness bracket, just as a friendly reminder that beer plays a big role in the NCAA Men's Division 1 Basketball Tournament, whether the NCAA wants to admit it or not. The NCAA's broadcast partners at CBS and Time Warner's Turner Sports have no problem letting Anheuser-Busch InBev and SABMiller-MolsonCoors joint venture MillerCoors into the big dance. The networks have taken more than $50 million in combined ad money from the brewers each year since 2011, according to Kantar Media.

The NCAA claims that it bans alcohol sales during all its championships except football's postseason and bowls -- which it doesn't run -- and limits alcohol ads to malt beverages, beer and wine products with a sessionable 6% alcohol by volume or less. But not only will beer be readily available during this year's Final Four at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, but A-B InBev is setting up a Bud Light Hotel in nearby Dallas. Beer ads made up about 6% of all advertising during last year's Final Four and beer isn't leaving the NCAA Tournament's general vicinity any time soon.

In fact, as the nation's brewery count climbs past 3,000 toward the highest total in U.S. history, fans in just about every NCAA host city have more beer options than ever. With the NCAA's bracket broken up into convenient little regional stops, the tournament provides a great opportunity for college basketball fans to not only burn some frequent-flier miles, but to sample some of the nation's best craft beers while doing so.

Toxic Brewing Company Porn or Pawn Pepper Ale
Host city: Dayton, Ohio

Dayton's star has risen as the host city for the tournament's play-in games and one of the sites for its East regional matchups, but it still has a long way to go to catch up with Ohio's other brewing towns.

Home to a huge Boston Beer Samuel Adams brewery in Cincinnati and the home of powerhouse craft brewers such as Great Lakes Brewing, Ohio knows its beer. Unfortunately, Dayton is still kind of feeling its way around. In 2013, four months after March Madness left town, Toxic Brewing opened its doors to give Dayton its first commercial brewery in 60 years.

Toxic was worth waiting for. It's cranked out more than two dozen varieties since opening in June and hasn't kept it conservative in the least. Right out of the box, it offered an 11.3% alcohol by volume Abbey XXXX Belgian Quad, a 9% ABV Black Tonic Russian Imperial Stout, its Johnny On The Spot 9.7% ABV/100 IBU double IPA and a 6.7% ABV Hoppy Saison.

That's not to say it doesn't have more casual, drinkable brews on its roster as well. Its Three Two Throwback porter is well suited to a long day of first-round action with a scant 3.2% ABV, and a slate of 6.5% Hefeweizens are fine harbingers of the spring ahead. But the peppery version of the brewery's 5.5% ABV Porn or Pawn Pale Ale tops them all.

Brewed with roasted poblano and habanero peppers, this is more a chili beer than a pale ale. As served, it has some nice, modest spice to it without scorching wary drinkers. If it's still too tame for you, Toxic occasionally brews a hotter version, though that may have to wait until the madness dies down a bit.

Flying Bison Buffalo Kolsch 716
Host city: Buffalo, N.Y.

Another losing Bills season and millions of tax dollars going toward stadium upgrades? Another Sabres fire sale and rebuilding year? More than 10 feet of snow this winter alone?

Yeah, we'd say Buffalo's ready for spring.

The first standalone production brewery to operate in Buffalo since the 1970s, Flying Bison knows how to comfort its hometown after a long, heartbreaking season. Sticking to a solid core of traditional German and Czech styles while branching out into the occasional strong ale or IPA, Flying Bison welcomes the spring with a light, refreshing Kolsch that's eminently drinkable at 5.4% ABV.

It's an easy drinking style that isn't as heavy as winter and spring bocks and is slightly more complex than a standard pilsner. It's a familiar comfort that signals better days ahead. It's as good with a plate of wings as it is with some beef on weck. Cheer up, Buffalo: It only gets better from here.

Lakefront Brewing Riverwest Stein Beer
Host city: Milwaukee, Wis.

You can still visit the Miller beer caves, stroll by the old Pabst brewery and take in a Brewers game, but make sure you finish your day in Milwaukee at Lakefront.

This brewery is the embodiment of Milwaukee's transition from its rich history as a brewing town to its evolving present as a creative hub. It shares a spot on the same water as the city's Diego Calatrava-designed art museum and resides in a Riverwest nieghborhood known as much for its hipsters as its historic significance.

It brewed some of the nation's first organic beers and offered New Grist as one of the beer world's first gluten-free offerings. It repurposed an old electric railway and power station as its base of operations and restored lights from a World War I-era Milwaukee beer hall for its own facility. Still, the polka bands play in its own beer hall, the weekly fish fry brings out the crowds and the traditional warm pretzels and brats share menu space with gluten-free and vegan fare.

Through Lakefront's nearly 30-year history, the one constant has been its malty, amber Riverwest Stein Beer. It may no be the most exciting beer on its menu, but it's one of the most drinkable at 5.6% ABV. Combine that with some old-Milwaukee flavor that predates the yellow light lager people came to associate with this city, and you get a beer that -- like its hometown -- is more interesting and complex than its reputation suggests.

Orlando Brewing's Uncle Matt's Organic Grapefruit Pale Ale
Host city: Orlando, Fla.

Florida as a whole is really starting to get the hang of craft beer. Unfortunately, Orlando hasn't contributed much to the conversation until recently.

While Dunedin Brewing gets credit as a pioneer and Cigar City and Funky Buddha push craft boundaries, none of them are in Orlando proper or have drawn much attention to the city's burgeoning brewing scene.

That's a shame, as it turns breweries such as Orlando Brewing into hidden gems instead of craft favorites. With an all-organic lineup using as many locally sourced ingredients as possible, Orlando Brewing excels at making the best out of what's around. In the case of this grapefruit pale ale, it found the near perfect citrus complement to its abundance of Citra hops.

Tart without being overly bitter, this grapefruit pale ale uses grapefruit zest from Uncle Matt's organic produce to make a refreshing, warm-weather pale ale that, at 6.3% ABV, is more like an IPA than its labeling lets on. In an NCAA town where March temperatures fluctuate from the mid-70s to low 80s, this grapefruit pale ale is a citrus, refreshing Florida cooler that could benefit from a little more exposure.

No-Li Brewhouse's Empire No. 8 Session IPA
Host city: Spokane, Wash.

The NCAA just scheduled a round of play in a Pacific Northwest craft beer mecca and now fans have a decision to make.

You're going to want to try a West Coast-style IPA, but you're not going to want to be out of the game by halftime. That makes No-Li's Jet Star Imperial IPA tempting at an off-the-scale 115 international bitterness units, but a bit heavy at 8.1% ABV. Its standard Born and Raised IPA still has plenty of hop bitterness at 85 IBUs, but that 7% ABV is still a bit more potent than you'd like if you're having more than one.

Empire No. 8 -- named for the rail line that once brought the rest of the U.S. out to the Pacific Northwest -- is a bit more like it. While bending the definition of "session beer" a bit at 5.5% ABV (rule of thumb is 4.5% or less), it's still about as mild as you'll get out of an IPA without losing hop flavor. Packed with Cluster and Cascade hops, Empire No. 8 still reaches an IPA-worthy 67 IBUs and retains the citrusy hop bitterness that beer fans have come to expect from the region.

Enjoy your stay in Washington State, college basketball fans. This beer will get you from the first day's tipoff to the last day's final buzzer.

Trophy Brewing's Best In Show
Host city: Raleigh, N.C.

Yet another great craft beer state makes the list, but there's a whole lot of ground to cover in North Carolina and the NCAA's only in town for so long.

With that in mind, we narrowed our scope to North Carolina's "Triangle" of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill and came up with one beer that lives up to its name. This local take on Belgian farmhouse beer -- which is typically brewed in winter and was once used to help farmworkers through the summer -- is a masterful version of the brawnier modern variety.

With 6.7% ABV, this American Saison is far more potent than the 3%-to-3.5% ABV Saisons of yore but right in line with the Belgian beer considered the standard bearer for the style: Saison Dupont. Pale and slightly grassy and yeasty, this particular Saison differs even further from traditional offerings by adding a little citrus to the aroma and malt to the mix. It's mild, but it's a great starter Saison for beer fans weaned on light lager, pale ale and wheat beers.

If you're going to take basketball as seriously as this area does, you should give similar consideration to the beer you drink with it. Best In Show may not be the most popular beer in town, but the sum of its parts make it the best.

Freetail Brewing's Spirulina Wit
Host city: San Antonio, Texas

This probably isn't the first time someone's tried to push a green beer under a basketball fan's nose this week, but Spirulina Wit is the only one worth drinking.

We're not going to lie to you: This beer looks weird. Like grandma's-seafoam-bathroom-with-the-plastic-toilet-seat weird. The ingredient giving it that diluted-absinthe appearance -- the spirulina itself -- is a blue-green algae that dates back to the Aztecs and is used today primarily as a protein and dietary supplement.

Here, it's used as food coloring for the brewery's 4.2% ABV rye witbier. The combination of wheat, rye, coriander and orange peel still tastes like the cloudy yellow Belgian style that's gone mainstream with some help from MolsonCoors' Blue Moon and Anheuser-Busch InBev's Shock Top. It just looks a bit funky, but that's kind of the point.

It's a refreshing brew for marking the changing season, but it's also a big step up from that keg of light lager that the local pub spiked with green food dye to make more "Irish." The Spirulina Wit looks more like a green agave margarita and is just as welcome in warmer weather.

Ballast Point Brewing's Sculpin IPA
Host city: San Diego

AleSmith, Stone, Pizza Port, Lost Abbey, Green Flash, Societe, Modern Times ... those are just some of the dozens of great breweries in San Diego whose beers we aren't going to get to here.

Listen, it's pretty much impossible to screw up getting a beer in this town. It's a craft beer hub, even waitstaff are incredibly beer savvy and there's a whole lot on tap to choose from. But if you had to have one to start out with -- or could only have one for your entire stay -- this is the one you need to go with.

In a town filled with excellent IPA, this is arguably the best of the bunch -- if not the best in the entire country. Stone's "Enjoy By" series and Alpine's Nelson make strong arguments to the contrary -- and we encourage you to sort this out for yourself by trying all of them -- but Sculpin's crisp, fruity, powerful IPA has been so consistently excellent for so long that it gets our vote in a walk.

With 70 IBUs that deliver as much of a sting as the beer's namesake fish and more bitterness than some 100 IBU offerings out there, this is an absolute beast. But with a middling 7% ABV and a finish that's sweet, citrusy and complex -- and doesn't feel as if someone took a hop-flavored scouring pad to your tongue -- Sculpin is one of the most enjoyable high-octane IPAs available.

It drinks like a beer that the geeks would wait in line overnight for, but is available year-round and just about ubiquitous in San Diego. Ballast Point makes draft-only variations of Sculpin, but the original recipe is San Diego Beer 101.

Schlafly Beer's Dry-Hopped APA
Host city: St. Louis

This is the winner of our one and, so far, only craft beer bracket, and it's incredible to see how far the brewery has come since.

Distribution has expanded throughout the Midwest and into Mid-Atlantic states including Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey. The brewery itself was sold to a shareholder group that included local St. Louis ownership and the brewery's own employees. Its offerings, meanwhile, have expanded to a line of canned session beers, a barrel-aged series, a bottle-conditioned lineup and a series of special releases that became so popular Schlafly was forced to defend the early release of its pumpkin ale.

But in a portfolio that contains no shortage of IPAs and hoppy beers, the Dry-Hopped APA is still Schlafly's best foot forward. Heavily on the Cascade and Chinook hops without being overly bitter -- it clocks in at a scant 50 IBUs that falls well shy of most West Coast IPA -- it is just hoppy, bitter and aromatic enough to be a step up from Schlafly's standard pale ale but sweet enough to keep a city weaned on Budweiser from fleeing in terror.

It still packs a modest punch at 5.9% ABV, but that's fairly mild for a beer this flavorful and not a bad thing if you plan on having more than one. In a beer town like St. Louis, it's hard not to.

Brooklyn Brewery's Brooklyn Blast!
Host city: New York City

When you're a brewery that's been cranking out craft beer for 26 years, there's a fine line between keeping it fresh and cutting ties with your past.

In the absence of Rheingold, Ballantine and many of the other great New York area breweries that left their stamp on the city, Brooklyn is the city's hometown beer. This writer has been drinking Brooklyn beers for nearly two decades and remembers when it, Samuel Adams, Redhook, Harpoon and Rogue were just about the only craft beers you could regularly find on East Coast shelves among the imports.

We'll cling to old favorites such as '55 Pennant Ale, Black Chocolate Stout and Post Road pumpkin ale long after a new generation of drinkers renders them relics, but brewmaster Garrett Oliver prefers to keep it current with his Brewmaster's Reserve and his bottle-fermented Big Bottle series. Rarely does the year-round portfolio get an update quite as jarring as when Brooklyn Blast! joined the lineup, though.

Brooklyn already has a year-round IPA in its East India Pale Ale, but that balanced IPA has been sitting around for a bit and looks a bit underpowered compared with more recent offerings. The English would say its 47 IBUs are just fine for an IPA and, in the '90s, they were. Now that looks like a mild East Coast IPA compared with the big brews that Brooklyn's neighbors such as Sixpoint Brewing are cranking out.

While East India's Centennial and Willamette hops were heavy hitters in their day, Oliver decided recently an update was in order. He held on to the the last vestige of the traditional British IPA by using Maris Otter malt and some Fuggle hops, but surrounded them with Willamette, Magnum, Cascade, Aurora, Zythos, Bravo, Simcoe, Sorachi Ace, Amarillo and experimental hops.

The result is a big 8.4% ABV IPA that's far more complex that its stablemate, but only slightly more bitter at 53 IBUs. With flavor and aroma of a beer twice as bitter, Brooklyn Blast! isn't some older brewery's stab at a West Coast IPA: It's a seasoned brewer meeting beer drinkers where they're at. As more craft brewers race to create a drinkable, middle-of-the-road IPA to put on mainstream taphandles, experienced brewers such as Oliver are figuring out that just a little tweaking can give an increasingly sophisticated market what it wants.

Wiseacre Brewing's Tiny Bomb
Host city: Memphis, Tenn.

Nashville likes to make it look as if it has all the craft beer worth drinking in Tennessee, but Memphis occasionally ships it a 12-ounce can of shut up.

Wiseacre's Tiny Bomb is just that kind of beer. While not afraid to put an IPA such as its Ananda out there, Wiseacre is also well aware that roughly 75% of the beer drunk in this country is still light lager or something like it. Armed with that knowledge, there's no better gateway beer than a better version of the beer that a drinker is clinging to for dear life.

This take on the traditional Czech Pilsner goes heavy on the malt, light on the hops and passes on adjuncts such as corn and rice altogether. Throw in some local wildflower honey to feed the yeast, however, and you get an American pilsner that's far more flavorful than the standardized, mass-produced versions that preceded it while still maintaining their slight 4.5% ABV.

This isn't session beer and it isn't marco beer: It's just a dominant beer style brewed the way it was supposed to be brewed before issues such as scale and margins entered the equation. This is ballgame beer, and Tiny Bomb would feel right at home watching some March Madness.

Noble Ale Works' Big Whig IPA
Host city: Anaheim, Calif.

It's not San Diego and it's not San Francisco or the Bay Area, but Anaheim has a brewing scene that might just put nearby Los Angeles to shame.

Orange County is stacked with impressive brewers such as The Bruery, Bottle Logic, Valiant, Left Coast and even an extension of San Diego's Pizza Port, but Noble Ale Works does Anaheim city proper proud. With a catalog of beers stacked with strong ales, big stouts and big imperial IPAs, Noble is no joke.

Ordinarily, we'd advise going with whatever beer happens to be in their "showers" series of double IPAs -- its current Amarillo Showers uses a heavy dose of those namesake hops -- but you want to start out with a beer that's not only consistent, but guaranteed to be on the brewery's tap. Big Whig is just about pure hop resin. At 6.8% ABV and 77 IBUs, it's a bona fide West Coast IPA that doesn't hold back on the hops. Citrus and honey come though in the aroma, while a bit of rosemary breaks through in its bitter bite.

This isn't just some IPA they threw on the taplist because they're in California, where it's unwritten law your portfolio needs multiple big IPAs. It's a well-crafted, well-balanced IPA that doesn't apologize for its bitterness, but doesn't punish drinkers with it either. It's a beer that makes Orange County a must-visit spot on the beer map and wins well-earned bragging rights among West Coast brewers.

Sun King Osiris Pale Ale
Host city: Indianapolis

Indy's been fortunate enough to host the Final Four and Super Bowl in recent years, but Sun King's been even luckier to have fans from each event check out its pale ale and spread the word back home.

Indiana brewing is no lightweight, with Sun King bolstering a growing Indianapolis beer scene and 3 Floyds across the state in Muenster making its Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout known around the world. Sun King's Osiris Pale Ale, however, is a beer built for big sporting events and made to convert gameday big beer fans into craft beer believers.

Available year-round on draft and in cans, Osiris is just hoppy enough to seem like a sedate IPA, but just tape enough at 5.6% alcohol by volume to let drinkers have more than one without fear. It's bitter, but not knocked-out-in-the-first-game bitter.

Deep Ellum Brewing's Dallas Blonde
Host city: Arlington, Texas

All right, you've made it to the Final Four and to Dallas/Fort Worth and all the barbecue you can eat. What do you get to wash down that championship feast with?

The folks at the Bud Light Hotel certainly have their suggestion, but Dallas has a whole lot more than that particular beer is offering. The folks behind Deep Ellum know that and have brought Big D some big double IPAs, Imperial stouts and barleywines in recent years. But sometimes it takes a lighter touch to beat back the big boys.

Dallas Blonde is just about a perfect Dallas/Fort Worth craft beer. Mild, a bit citrusy and just flavorful enough thanks to its blend of Summit, Glacier, Meridian and Palisade hops, Dallas Blonde is an easy-drinking beer that woos converts in a way that's just a bit more forceful that a mild pilsner and far more restrained than an IPA.

At just 5.2% ABV, Dallas Blonde is the all-day beer a light lager fan is used to with flavor that's just a bit more refreshing. It isn't the type of beer that would find a regular spot in Jerry World during Cowboys games, but it's a beer that you'll want to have before the game and leave you wishing you could have another before it ends.

There are cans of its scattered throughout the Dallas/Fort Worth area, so at least consider making it a part of your Final Four tailgate party.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.

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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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