BUSINESS

The Beer Dance: The Final Four Of Our Craft Beer March Madness Bracket

Tickers in this article: BUD SAM

NEW YORK -- ( MainStreet) -- Craft beer is a fickle mistress, and nowhere is that more evident than among our Beer Dance beer bracket's Final Four.

It's an industry where favored beer styles change with season and whim. Where a long-established brewery can be immediately challenged by a fresh-faced upstart, but can turn the tables with one small batch of the right brew. It's a world where, as Boston Beer (SAM) founder Jim Koch has said on several occasions, the favorite beer of a large subset of the consumer base is the beer it had last.

This is about the only way we can make heads or tails of last week's results. Portland, Ore., and its huge craft beer community sat on the sidelines for much of last week as BridgePort Brewery -- one of the oldest in the city -- watched its IPA fall to the mighty Kilt Lifter from Four Peaks Brewery in Arizona. Sweetwater Brewery in Atlanta was up by 15 votes heading into Friday and had sent us a press release about an expansion that could increase capacity to 500,000 barrels. That would make their operation nearly three times larger than Delaware-based craft beer darling Dogfish Head and roughly the size of Texas regional beer mainstay Spoetzl Brewery , which is considered the fifth-largest craft brewer in the nation by Beer Marketer's Insights and produces Texas favorite Shiner Bock.

It wouldn't help Sweetwater hold a lead, however, as fans of New Orleans powerhouse Abita Beer erased a 15-vote deficit on the last day and forced a four-hour overtime vote. Abita's Turbodog wound up besting Sweetwater's 420 Extra Pale Ale by nine votes and harshing its very pleasant buzz.

Now the bracket that began with a very crowded case of 14 craft brews is down to a four-pack. What was once a fine balance of hops and malt is now a predominantly sweet and malty field with just a bit of hops thrown in for good measure. The drinkers know what they like and even with winter slowly yielding to spring, they're still not ready to pour out that caramel, chocolate and baked-goods flavor just yet.

It's been a tough slog, but here are the four shippable, savvy brews still standing:

East bracket

Boston: Samuel Adams Boston Lager
Sam's flagship brew faced a strong test in the last round, but gave the bracket a firm reminder of why this company grew from a kettle in Jim Koch's kitchen to a nearly 2.5 million-barrel operation in three breweries since 1984.

Boston Lager resonates with a big audience that would otherwise be blindsided by Sam's stronger beers. The same drinker who finds a Boston Lager pleasant might find the hoppy Whitewater IPA from the company's spring pack to be a bottle full of bitter nonsense. By trying a gateway beer that's a bit more hoppy than some of the mass-produced alternatives, though, a drinker is training his or her palate to gradually accept something beyond his or her comfort zone. From Boston Lager, it's an easy transition to Sam's malty, smooth Octoberfest or to its slightly zesty Sam Summer.