In the First AFL-NFL World Championship—later renamed Super Bowl I—the Bart Starr-led Green Bay Packers routed the Kansas City Chiefs 35 to 10. Al “Jazzy Jew” Hirt played trumpet at halftime, and spectators drank canned beer.
This year, Super Bowl XLVII is trumpeting Beyoncé’s halftime spectacle, while Budweiser kicks off its Black Crown golden amber lager campaign. Yet pampered palates accustomed to refilling growlers and playing name-that-microbrew with tap handles deserve better than some Busch-league spin on “thirsty for a championship.” You want to know what beer to drink on Super Bowl Sunday? I give you the Brew Bowl I.
The concept: Brew Bowl is a tournament featuring head-to-head matchups of craft beers representing cities with NFL teams that made the playoffs. On behalf of Washington, DC, for instance, 3 Stars Brewing Company battled Seattle’s Pike Brewing Company in the Wildcard round. Union Craft Brewing waved the flag for Baltimore, taking on Indianapolis’s Bier Brewery. It didn’t matter a lick to our tournament, though, that the Skins and the Colts lost before we even cracked the first cold one. Simply put, if 3 Stars and Bier were better than their competition, they advanced to the Divisional round. As kismet would have it, three of the four actual AFC/NFC Conference Championship teams advanced to our final four, as well.
What’s at stake: First, bragging rights and Super Bowl cred in the craft brew community, plus real commerce: guaranteed draft lines at Chef Robert Wiedmaier’s restaurants—including Mussel Bar Bethesda, Mussel Bar Atlantic City, Wildwood Kitchen, and Brasserie Beck, known for some of the best beer program in DC. Game on.
How I selected the beers: After researching each city’s craft beer scene, referring to my beer journal, and consulting with tastemakers on speed-dial, I went with a combination of growler memories, gut instinct, and Google. I aimed for under-my-radar brands in the first round (exception: I’d previously tasted the local brilliance of 3 Stars) and proven breweries to lead the Division matchups after first-round byes. For these top seeds, I advanced two I knew well, one brewer-recommended beer company, and one name sent over by a pal at Draft magazine. Keep in mind, these picks mirrored the NFL’s seeding, so even the most highly rated beer of Minnesota could only be put in the number 6 seed spot against Green Bay. Next, I shared the tournament brackets with each brewery and left them choose which beer to submit. Some breweries—like the football teams themselves—scouted their opponents first, while others just sent their franchise superstar.
And now, a word about our judges: The beers were judged via round-table tasting, discussion, and vote by an assembly of top-flight taste buds. Just before the NFC Championship kicked off on January 20, I gathered Richmond-based experts Bartholomew Broadbent of Broadbent Selections, An Bui of Mekong Restaurant (named Best Beer Bar in America 2012), Secco Wine Bar’s Matt Brehony, brewer/photographer Steven Salpukas, and myself: a two-time national award-winning writer, author of The Modern Gentleman, chief sommelier for Barboursville Vineyards, and daily-ish craft brew enthusiast.
The beers spanned styles (from saison to schwarzbier), alcohol by volume (between 4.8 and 8.7 percent), international bitterness units (20 to 99), and format (from 12 ounce cans to half-gallon growlers). And when excellent examples of disparate styles faced off—bock versus pale ale, for instance—we rated them individually and determined a winner after comparing scores.
Brew Bowl I Contenders:
Falcons = Terrapin Beer Company (Atlanta)
49ers = 21st Amendment Brewery (San Francisco)
Packers = Hinterland Beer (Green Bay)
Redskins = 3 Stars Brewing Company (Washington, DC)
Seahawks = Pike Brewing Company (Seattle)
Vikings = Surly Brewing Company (Minnesota)
Broncos = Great Divide Brewing Company (Denver)
Patriots = Jack's Abby Brewing (New England)
Texans = Saint Arnold Brewing Company (Houston)
Ravens = Union Craft Brewing (Baltimore)
Colts = Bier Brewery (Indianapolis)
Bengals = Mt. Carmel Brewing Company (Cincinnati)
The results: (including discussion highlights, Brew Bowl scores, and actual NFL scores):
Cincinnati vs. Houston
Mt. Carmel Brewing Company—Nut Brown Ale (12-ounce bottle, ABV 6 percent, IBU 38, OG 1.058)
Saint Arnold Brewing Company—Icon Belgian-Style Pale Ale (12-ounce bottle, ABV 6 percent)
Salpukas: “Texas has a longstanding brewing tradition. Lots of Germans and Czechs settled there, and it shows. Mt. Carmel is a little over-roasted.”
Bui: “But Mt. Carmel wins on aroma. Nut Brown’s got the nose, but the pale ale tastes way, way better. Very clean, very balanced.”
Broadbent: “Mt. Carmel is very molasses-y, but good nose and balance. Very attractive orange muscat color. Delicious.”
Brew Bowl: Houston 17, Cincinnati 10
NFL score: Houston 19, Cincinnati 13
Minnesota vs. Green Bay
Surly Brewing Company—Furious American India Pale Ale (16-ounce can, ABV 6.2 percent, IBU 99, OG 15)
Hinterland Brewery—Maple Bock (1-pint bottle, ABV 6.8 percent)
We took Hinterland’s Bock off the ice and served it at cellar temperature so as not to suppress its flavor and body. Brewed with maple syrup, it had a lovely tawny port color. Surly was crisp, bracing, and hoppy, but some took issue with its whimsical, colorful can.
Broadbent: “This is not serious packaging.”
Brehony: “I would pass this by thinking it was an energy drink.”
Salpukas: “But what if it’s up against a bunch of other beers like this? It does stand out, but I’m not crazy about the bottle size of Hinterland though. It’s something you would share. I think my mouth would get tired of maple after a whole pint.”
Broadbent: “Two totally different styles. I’m a strong voter for the Hinterland. Deep Madeira color, roasty and malty. Very high quality, good intensity.”
Bui: “Hinterland is not true to style. Surly has great aromas, citrus, and freshness. It’s much better balanced. A crisp, modern IPA that slaps you in the face and says, ‘Have another one.’”
Our judges were initially split. One wanted the Maple Bock to have more body. Another said she was going for Hinterland but “I can’t tell if it’s because I love Green Bay.” We went to overtime on this one, retasted, and scored them on a 100-point scale. Surly won it by a citrusy nose in overtime.
Brew Bowl: Minnesota 24, Green Bay 21 (OT)
NFL score: Green Bay 24, Minnesota 10
Indianapolis vs. Baltimore
The Bier Brewery—Megalodon Imperial Red American Strong Ale (22-ounce bottle, ABV 7.8 percent, IBU 20)
Union Craft Brewing—Blackwing Lager Schwarzbier (half-gallon growler, ABV 4.8 percent, IBU 27)
Bui: “Fresh malt barley in the Union makes me want to dive right in. Like a lady just out of the shower with fresh lotion.”
Broadbent: “Blackwing you can drink the whole day. I put Bier ahead of Surly though.”
Bier tasted like an Imperial version of Newcastle, but Megalodon’s nose was off-putting. Mekong Restaurant’s slogan is “Beer is the answer,” but in this matchup—Bui admitted—“Bier is not the answer.”
Brew Bowl: Baltimore 21, Indianapolis 7
NFL score: Indianapolis 24, Baltimore 9
Seattle vs. Washington, DC
Pike Brewing Company—Space Needle Golden Anniversary 2012 Vintage IPA (22-ounce bottle, ABV 6.5 percent, IBU 58, OG 1.066)
3 Stars Brewing Company—Peppercorn Saison Belgian Style Farmhouse Ale (half-gallon growler, ABV 6.5 percent)
We admired the deep golden hues of both and agreed that 3 Stars brought terrific aromatics as well.
Brehony: “Terrific colors. Both teams have great uniforms.”
Bui: “Pike is an old-style IPA, like an I-formation offense. A running game with no passing game.”
Broadbent found both to be alcoholic, with more muted hops, caramel and citrus in the Pike. Pike had a big mid-palate burst, yet 3 Stars was plainly more interesting with its creamy mouthfeel and complete game.
Brew Bowl: Washington 35, Seattle 10
NFL score: Seattle 24, Washington 14
Coming Thursday: The Divisional and Championship rounds, which determine the beers that advance to the finals of Brew Bowl I.