Welcome back to CougCenter's craft beer tournament, where two spots are left in the semifinals. We had a spirited competition in our last post, and hopefully we will have another in this one. In our first matchup, Irish Death scored a surprisingly easy victory over Black Butte Porter. Before the voting began, I figured that Black Butte's widespread popularity would carry the day, but the fine folks at Iron Horse Brewery helped spread the word about our little contest, and folks came out in droves to cast their votes. Thus, Irish Death became our first semifinalist.
On the other side of the bracket, things were a bit more spirited and a lot more back-and-forth. Brown Shugga opened up a comfortable lead early, only to have Busch Light storm ahead on the strength of a grass roots campaign bent on bracket busting. The lead changed hands a few more times. In the end, Busch Light did its best L.A. Clippers Game 6 impression, and Brown Shugga came from way behind to win by a large margin. So long, Busch Light. You gave it a good run.
So now we must decide which beers will advance beside these two victors. In one matchup, we have a battle of the pale ales, as local Seattle favorite Manny's takes on a Northwest mainstay in Red Chair. On the other side of the bracket, Michigan upstart Bell's Hopslam is looking to continue its unlikely run through the Pacific bracket, as it takes on Ballast Point Victory at Sea. Let's get to it.
If this is your first visit to our tournament, you can check out the entire bracket here.
 Deschutes Red Chair NWPA (-2) vs.  Georgetown Manny's Pale Ale
Red Chair Vitals:
- Style: American Pale Ale
- Beer Advocate Rating: 92
- Average Star Rating: 4.1
- ABV: 6.2
- Style: American Pale Ale
- Beer Advocate Rating: 86
- Star Average: 3.85
- ABV: 5.0
PJ's Take: I have a feeling that a battle of these two revered northwest pale ales will be our closest vote yet. It's the cult favorite from Seattle against the widely popular and much more readily available brew from Bend, Oregon. Unfortunately, I can't offer much here (yes, I realize that isn't exactly a departure from the norm), since I know I've never had Manny's, and if I've had Red Chair it was long ago. I fully intend to remedy the latter part when I'm in Spokane next month.
I am really looking forward to cracking open a Red Chair on my parents' back patio while my two boys play some sort of game with their cousins, which will almost certainly end up with crying and blood. Red Chair does offer a slightly bigger kick in the ABV department, and if I know Cougar fans, that's probably enough to get it over the top.
Craig's Take: This is a fun one. While these are both classified as "American Pale Ales", they are two pretty different takes on the styles. Manny's is the classic formula--the type of Pale Ale you'd see breweries pumping out in the early 2000s. It's almost amber in color, and provides a balanced flavor. There's a nice floral, piney nose that meets a sweet malty backbone. It's easy to drink, and the ABV won't kill you. There's even some of the citrus flavor that is popular in a modern pales, but it's not the main event.
But in Red Chair, citrus is the dominant aroma and flavor--something very common in newer Pale Ales. The malt profile is similar, but an abundance of hops makes it a little less balanced. That doesn't mean it is bitter--much of the hop profile is up front, and it finishes nicely. It is a more aggressive, hop-forward take than Manny's overall, but doesn't have that back-end kick that would push its classification to "IPA."
Both are good choices from good breweries. I prefer the citrus-forward pales these days, so I give the edge to Red Chair.
 Ballast Point Victory at Sea (Even) vs.  Bell's Hopslam
Victory at Sea Vitals:
- Style: American Porter
- Beer Advocate Rating: 98
- Star Average: 4.4
- ABV: 10.0
- Style: American Imperial IPA
- Beer Advocate Rating: 99
- Star Average: 4.48
- ABV: 10.0
PJ's Take: Hopslam has had a very impressive run thus far in the tournament. It took care of Southern Tier Pumking and Kona Koko Brown fairly easily, and is the lone beer remaining that isn't from the west coast. Bell's has a great reputation around the country, and many of its products are widely available in the eastern part of the U.S. Unfortunately, the only area out west where you can find Bell's beers is in Arizona and Southern California. Their website is telling me that I can get Hopslam down here in the Florida Panhandle, but I've yet to find it. And even though I'm not an IPA fan, I'd love to try it for "research" purposes.
Victory at Sea is another story, as I detailed when it last appeared here. I had another one over the weekend, and it was tremendous. The label design is great, and the beer inside is even better. The contrast in styles makes this an intriguing match, as America's favorite craft beer style, IPA, goes against one of the best beers on the west coast, and one of the best beers I've ever had. Which one will prevail? It's up to you to decide. Cheers.
Craig's Take: When Arizona and Wisconsin met in the Elite Eight for the second-straight season this past March, many lamented that it wasn't a Final Four match-up. This is how I feel about Victory at Sea vs. Hopslam, which are my two favorite beers left on the board--and just behind Pliny the Elder for my tops in the tournament. This is the championship for me, because whichever brew prevails will get my vote the rest of the way.
As PJ alluded to, Hopslam is hard to find. It comes out once a year, released in January or February depending on the location. You aren't likely to just stumble upon it in a beer store or beer bar, because it usually is gone within a week of a release. In fact, some stores keep it behind the counter and just wait for people to ask for it. The good thing, though, is that Bell's is pretty open about its distribution dates and even offers a nice little availability calendar for all its beer.
On the other end, Victory at Sea has become widely available. Once a seasonal release in bombers, it can now be found in six packs across Ballast Point's not-insignificant distribution footprint.
Which to choose? It's so dang difficult. Both are standouts of their styles. Victory at Sea has its coffee-forward approach with the subtle hints of vanilla that makes you forget that porters are typically light-bodied. Hopslam is citrus and sweet and brewed with honey, and holds up to aging better than most Imperial IPAs thanks to its balance. I'm having trouble deciding, so good luck!