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Ale Asylum Bedlam

Ale Asylum Bedlam was the winner of last year's Beer Bracket.

Every year, the Beer Bracket — which returns Wednesday — begins with a question: How the heck are we going to do it this year?

This contest, sponsored by Festival Foods, relies on beer fans to determine the winner of head-to-head matchups of Wisconsin beers. And the bracket always begins with an organizing principle for the field.

At various times since the first Beer Bracket in 2012, that has included geography (the bracket once was not limited to Wisconsin beers), style and alcohol content. There also was a run of a few years where the selection committee slotted the field of 64 beers more or less randomly into regions. That gave the committee’s work the most weight, with four true No. 1 seeds and balanced regions, but let’s be honest, that’s kind of boring.

This year’s concept — brewery age — was the near simultaneous idea of Twitter users @delfntaco and @bourbonaged. It pits breweries of similar vintages against one another until the final four. Each brewery only gets one beer in the field.

To determine the age tiers, I simply sorted the 64-brewery field by opening date and drew a line every 16 lines. Kind of, as there was some interpretation involved for a few breweries. For example, Potosi Brewing’s opening date is counted as 1852, the earliest in the field, rather than its revival as a craft brewery in 2007, because that’s more fun.

Looking at the state’s breweries (and a representative beer for each) this way was more insightful than I was expecting.

First, there are several generations among the state’s craft brewers, and they line up pretty closely to the Beer Bracket’s four regions, though not perfectly. The Blue Blood region with the oldest breweries has a handful founded in the 1800s (Potosi, Gray’s, Point and Leinie’s), the state’s first true craft brewers (Sprecher, Capital and Lakefront), and the leading edge of the booms in brewpubs (Great Dane, South Shore, Grumpy Troll, Titletown, Milwaukee Brewing) and craft production breweries (New Glarus, Hinterland, Central Waters, Tyranena).

The other regions — which span 1999 to 2010, 2012 to 2014 and 2014 to 2017 — are composed of breweries with more similarities than differences in size, mission and production levels.

The evolution of the industry is evident, too. The middle two regions are populated mostly by businesses that are primarily production breweries (Sand Creek, Lake Louie, O’so, Karben4, Wisconsin Brewing). Some (Vintage, One Barrel, Next Door) began as brewpubs or taprooms but grew into packaged beer, either through expansion or contract brewing. The youngest “Diaper Dandy” region — people do remember Dick Vitale, still, right? — includes more breweries that were conceived in smaller scale with on-site sales driving the business (Rockhound, Lone Girl, Parched Eagle). But there are quite a few breweries with rapid growth in this freshman class, too (Raised Grain, Good City, Third Space, Untitled Art).

The age of these breweries also showed up in the regions’ mix of beers. If you’re picking one beer to represent each of Capital, New Glarus, Sprecher and the like, you’re going to end up with a lot of traditional styles in that Blue Blood region. Half of the 16 region’s beers are lagers, and there are only three other lagers in the other three regions.

The Diaper Dandy region, on the other hand, is loaded with hoppy beers, adjuncts and imperials. Two of the beers have “Juice” in their names, and two more are “pastry” stouts. It has about half of the beers above 8 percent ABV in the field.

Will it be a matchup of traditional vs. avant-garde in the final four? Will Ale Asylum continue its Beer Bracket dominance? Will a brewery outside the Madison metro area finally take the crown?

As always, it’s up to you.

Got a beer you’d like the Beer Baron to pop the cap on? Contact Chris Drosner at chrisdrosner@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @WSJbeerbaron.

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