The Washington Post is doing something interesting. To coincide with March Madness--college basketball's single-elimination tournament--the paper is conducting a similar competition of 64 beers. Nothing new there--and in fact, this is the fifth year they've done it. What is interesting is that the bracket quadrants have been broken into general types: malty, hoppy, fruit and spice, and roast.
So for the first four rounds, each beer will be competing against a slate of similar styles of beer. Only when the competition reaches a final four will the styles go head-to-head. These kinds of competitions are never satisfying in the sense of determining good beers--the variables are just too abundant (beer availability and freshness, regional preferences of judges, etc.), and the pool far too small to qualify as a genuine test of quality. (Gaze at the list and you'll see some fun little beers--Abita Turbodog, Full Sail Session Black--that no one would expect to do well in this kind of competition.) The best of them have the capacity to make us think more deeply about beer, though, and in this regard, the Post's competition is beguiling.
It seems to borrow from the dog show process. First beers compete within a general category, then they move to best of show. The final could pit an Irish ale, a Belgian strong, an imperial IPA, and a vanilla porter against each other. Which bee wins this competition won't be nearly as interesting as the very effort to judge such disparate beers against each other. It raises the question about what we mean when we say "best." And that is definitely a worthy inquiry.