Like the players of an excited NCAA basketball team, 64 Maine beers are waiting nervously on the sidelines, as your votes start rolling in.
Brand-new buzzed-about beers, household-name beers, hard-to-find beers and readily available ones are matched up against each other and competing to be crowned the state’s favorite.
Welcome to the 2018 MaineToday Beer Bracket, showcasing the delicious beers produced by our state’s bounty of talented brewers. It was only a few years ago when there were fewer than 64 brewers in the state. Now, there’s almost too many to choose from. Almost.
This year, the list has stayed away from seasonal and one-time releases, and while your favorite may not have made it into the list, these beers are the core of what makes Maine’s beer industry’s gears turn. Like the regions of the March Madness basketball tournament, the beers have been separated out into four categories pitting beers of similar style against each other in heartbreaking match-ups, before heading into the final round.
Notable absences include the winners of previous tournaments, which are forced into retirement after winning twice. In 2014 and 2015, Rising Tide swept with its Maine Island Trail Ale (MITA), likely because of its broad appeal. MITA offered something for the hop hungry without being too bitter, and its low alcohol solidified it as an easy-drinker. After MITA’s reign ended, Foundation Brewing Co.’s Epiphany took its place as the reigning champion. The timing was perfect for Epiphany’s rise; it had become easier to get after several expansions and infrastructure investments from Foundation. It went from being a stand-in-line beer to one that you could pretty reliably purchase where good beer was sold, and Maine clearly drank it up with gusto.
The Lagers, Whites and Pales category presents some of the most difficult choices, because these beers are go-tos, some that I have in my kitchen refrigerator right now. It is difficult to choose between the delicate hoppiness of Austin Street Patina and the classic sweetness of Allagash White, the crispness of a Dirigo Lager and the complex, yeast-forward Farmhouse Pale Ale from Oxbow Brewing Co. I filled out this section four times, in varying moods, and came up with four different winners. This is anyone’s game and may demonstrate the state’s overall affinity for either lagers or ales.
Last week, I wrote about four no-nonsense stouts, and I am not surprised that three of them made the Dark Beers section of the bracket; they are all very solid entries. Among those straightforward stouts is the potential for upset. Tributary Brewing Co.’s Mott the Lesser is a monster of a beer, an imperial stout with richness that goes on and on. Waypoint from Rising Tide Brewery, now more readily found in cans, is an oatmeal stout with coffee from Tandem Coffee Roasters that is sure to delight the coffee lovers out there and is a standout from the other entries there. Personally, I’m cheering for all of these stouts, because I think they are all worthy of spots on this list, and brewers should continue to make more (please).
The IPA section will probably have some of the most heated match-ups as the “new school” battles the old. Do the hazy IPAs like Lone Pine Oh-J or Goodfire Brewing Waves have what it takes to overcome pine-dominated styles like Marshall Wharf’s Cant Dog or Banded Horn Daikajiu? Then there’s the possibility that a bigger brewery could win because of its overall availability. Sebago’s Frye’s Leap is being made in bigger batches than ever after the move to its new brewery, and few Mainers make it up to camp without packing some Baxter Brewing Co. Stowaway IPA.
The Wild Cards really boil down to personal flavor preferences. Adding hibiscus tea, blueberries or peanut butter might be too polarizing to make it all the way to the final four. I’d keep an eye out for how Allagash Curieux fares in this crowd; there are very few barrel-aged beers on the roster, and it may be the year for this boozy delight to make it at least to the final four.
You can listen to me wax poetic about my favorite Maine beers, but here the power is in your hands. The winner this year might not be one that’s the highest rated by the experts, but rather one that puts a smile on your face. Or a beer you have fond memories with, or just tried for the first time and fell head over heels for. Each week you can go online and cast your votes. The winners move on, and the losers stay behind. As to who those are, it’s up to you.
HOW IT WORKS: 64 Maine beers go head-to-head in four rounds of online voting, followed by a live event where the overall winner is determined.
WHEN: Round 1 voting begins Thursday, March 8; Round 2 starts on March 13; Round 3 on March 16; Round 4 on March 21. The final four beers will be available at a happy hour event March 28 at Portland House of Music, where everyone who attends will vote for their favorite.
WHERE: Vote at mainetoday.com/beerbracket