By Jason Notte
It's March Madness, and you know what that means: Pretending beer doesn't exist. At all. Whatsoever. And certainly not around colleges.
Last year, we launched 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 I basketball yournament 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 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. Even at that, beer ads made up less than 6% of all advertising during last year's Final Four.
That doesn't mean there isn't plenty of beer to go around come tournament time. 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.
While we're not running our Beer Dance this year, here's just a sampling of the best beers available to basketball fans making their way through the host cities during the next few weeks. Though your on-court allegiances might lie elsewhere, don't be afraid to support the home team when it comes to tournament beers:
Dayton's star has risen as the host city for the tournament's play-in games and one of the site's for its East regional match-ups, 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.
Listerman has been fighting the good fight as a small brewery since 1991, though, and has supplemented its income by selling home brewing equipment since 2008.
During that time, it's also produced this smoky rauchbier that gets its roasted flavor straight from the grain and malt, pulls a little more maple flavor out of said malt and hits a drinker with just a little hoppiness at the finish. At 7 percent alcohol by volume, this amber beauty is going to be downright beastly for fans who enjoy their beers light, fizzy and bought in pairs during game breaks. But it's a must-drink brew that's a great -- if gimmicky -- example of Dayton's brewing potential.
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 game day 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 tame 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.
Go ahead, name the largest American-owned brewery in Missouri.
Anheuser-Busch, you say? Sorry, but that little InBev bit is Belgian. The big all-American brew in the Show-Me state doesn't live in St. Louis, but cranks out nearly 200,000 barrels a year right in Kansas City. The scary part about Boulevard is that even with a growing distribution radius that already reaches from coast to coast, it still hasn't reached its 600,000-barrel potential.
A few more sips of 80 Acre Hoppy Wheat in far-flung places and that won't be the case. A witbier-IPA hybrid, 80 acre combines the citrusy flavor of a Belgian wheat with the hoppy aroma of a West Coast IPA. At 5.5% ABV, it's mild enough to get you through game day. With that combination of flavors, however, it's one departing fans will want to keep on file for warmer days once the nets have been cut down and school is out.
In the past, there was little beer-loving college basketball fans dreaded more than an opening-round NCAA tournament matchup in Utah. Private drinking "clubs." Watered down 4% alcohol beer. It was beer purgatory.
All that's changed in recent years, however, as Utah eased up its alcohol restrictions and let its brewers sell their full-powered beers in their home state for the first time. That was great news for Uinta, which has been brewing in Salt Lake City since 1993 and couldn't go full-throttle at its brewpub until 2010.
With that over, sips of Hop Notch IPA once reserved for out-of-staters now await Salt Lake City's sports visitors. Don't let that old 4% alcohol limit fool you: Hop Notch is 7.3% ABV in SLC these days and packs a wallop in potency and aroma. That huge helping of hops is just as floral and bitter as anything drinkers will find farther west, with just enough malt to make it as smooth as a laid-back Utah beer should be.
San Jose itself doesn't have a whole lot to offer beerwise. Fortunately for fans, it's just close enough to San Francisco and other key California craft beer addresses that it doesn't have to do much but sit back and let the beer pour in. So what do you pick? Do you go classic and crack open an Anchor that was first brewed more than a century ago and made California Common "steam beer" famous? Do you go hyperlocal and get some organic brew from Argentinian beer and empanada joint Cerveceria de MateVeza?
Or do you take the path of least resistance and get a can of 21st Amendment that you have a fighting chance of finding back home? Good choice. 21st Amendment has been kicking around since 2000 and, more recently, made its name by putting its extremely strong pub beers in extremely unsuspecting cans. Its Back in Black is no exception, with 6.8% ABV and an extremely bitter brew loaded with Columbus hops packed into its container. The dark malts make Back in Black look far more sinister than its sunnier California IPA cohorts and its potent aroma and flavor gives drinkers little reason to think otherwise.
L.A.: Great basketball city, terrible beer town. What's the problem? Is it all the driving? That hasn't killed the bars or made the cocktails suck, so no. Is it the real estate prices? Fickle tastes? The logistical difficulties of squeezing a kettle and mash tun into a food truck?
We're not sure, but basically Los Angeles has way fewer breweries per capita than its California neighbors and shamefully few for a city of its size. Eagle Rock, the first brewery in Los Angeles in nearly 60 years when it opened, has been trying to change that a bit by giving L.A. a small brewery and tasting room while not playing it safe with the offerings.
Equinox is a mild, barrel-aged Belgian sour blonde ale that blends citrus with earthier, fruitier flavors that overwhelm palates accustomed to more Teutonic brews. At 6% ABV, though, it's not nearly as potent as the Belgian styles it's emulating and is a great gateway beer for L.A. drinkers baby-stepping away from Heineken and Old Fashioneds.
So the University of Kentucky didn't make the tournament this year after winning the whole thing last year. Louisville's in and playing here in the first round, and the bourbon's still flowing. It's not an ideal day in Lexington, but it's close. West Sixth isn't about to go messing with that equation by foisting any old beer off on folks who've been looking for some bourbon since they and their buddies got into town.
That's where Snakes In A Barrel comes in. An imperial stout aged in Pappy Van Winkle bourbon barrels and packing a 11% ABV wallop, Snakes In A Barrel is just about as close to pure bourbon as a beer is going to get. Chocolatey and roasty on the tongue and fiery going down, it's a shot as fierce as any as fans will see on the court during their stay.
Just as the city recovers from South By Southwest, yet another contingent of out-of-town rowdies starts taking up seats at The Draught Houseand asking what's on tap despite the list staring them in their faces.
If you're one of these folks and have already spent much of your time in town defaulting to Shiner Bock at the moment of truth, might we suggest this off-kilter offering from a local favorite. As a company, (512) hasn't seen much need to stick with standard formulas and gives its mix of crystal, chocolate and black malts a little extra kick by adding locally grown pecans to the equation for aroma and flavor.
At 6.7% ABV, it's already a tough customer. Double down on the pecan and malt, throw it all into a whiskey barrel and let the vanilla and whiskey flavor soak in for a while and you get a special treat that should still be available during the Big Dance: Whiskey Barrel Double Pecan Porter. Kicked up to 8.2% ABV, it keeps Austin's beer weird in just about the tastiest way possible.
For more beers go to TheStreet.com.