Craft beer connoisseurs are dedicated folks. We build vacations around brewery stops and bottle shops. We find joy in buying rare bombers and sharing new plunder. We wear our beer snob badge proudly, despite Super Bowl commercials that depict us as fussy, mustache-twisting hop sniffers.
We don’t need an excuse to partake, but a little drinking game every once in a while never hurts. And while we enjoy healthy competition as much as any frat boy, we’re not about to chug and flip a Solo cup of high gravity IPA, or taint a glass of Dark Lord with a quarter. What fans of craft brewing need is a game with substance, a contest that employs more strategy than the ability to shotgun a beer in a single breath—a thinking man’s drinking game.
Our society is at peak gamification, with online fantasy leagues for everything from baseball to hockey to MMA. While lamenting the inevitable end of fantasy football season with friends at a local brewery, it struck me that the same basic principles could be applied to beer tasting. The result became our new obsession: Fantasy Beer League.
The concept is simple: It’s like fantasy football, with some important distinctions. Each team owner in the league drafts a roster of local and regional breweries. Large craft brewers that distribute nationally like New Belgium, Dogfish Head and Lagunitas are available for pickup as well. Our six-man league met at a local brewery to sip drafts while drafting in February. Team names spanned the spectrum of eye roll-inducing beer puns, from Guns n’ Goses to Lambic Pentameter (my team). We populated our draft board using the distribution tracking site SeekABrew (in addition to some collective brainstorming), allotting seven roster slots per team. Then we used each brewery’s Beer Average on BeerAdvocate to numerically rank the list, with Brasserie Cantillon in Belgium sitting at a Jamaal Charles-esque number one overall.
But here’s the thing: Cantillon didn’t get drafted first. In fact, it didn’t get drafted at all, which illustrates the complex strategy behind Fantasy Beer League. Games take place once a month, and are each focused on a specific style of beer (March was Stouts & Porters, August will be IPAs, November will be anything High Gravity).
On game day, owners select and conceal a beer of the indicated style from a brewery on their roster to submit into a blind taste test. Team owners must bring sufficient supply of their chosen beer so that each person ends up with an adequately-sized taster (for our league, 3 ounces each for six members is conveniently achieved with a 22-ounce bomber or a couple of 12-ounce bottles). All submissions—which have been discreetly poured into a coded tasting flight by a spouse or friend—are then sampled by members of the league. Each league member then ranks the samples from best to worst, and points are tallied. After tasting, the beers are then revealed and those with the highest scores win. Instead of just tracking cumulative total, teams are placed head-to-head, simulating the way games are scored in most fantasy leagues. Then we do it all again the following month with a different style.
Depending on your plan of action, you could try to specifically draft the best brewery available for each type of beer, though this blueprint could be risky: Cantillon would be a great play for Belgians in May, but would be warming the bench for much of the rest of the year, stealing a spot that may be better served by the versatility of a Founders or Three Floyds. So instead you pack your roster with well-rounded breweries that produce a greater variety of styles, though this lack of specialty means you don’t have any real home runs.
Or perhaps you balance your lineup by having a few all-purpose breweries alongside a couple of sure-fire winners. Everyone approaches the draft with their own pseudo-scientific theories, even if they’re as logically unsound as that guy in your fantasy football league who took two Kickers last season.
It’s the nuances of the competition that make Fantasy Beer League more than just a creative tasting party—anticipating what flavors will most strongly appeal to the taste buds of your competitors; analyzing their previous six-pack proclivities and strategizing accordingly. For Sessions month, should you submit a session IPA, even though everyone else is likely to bring an IPA as well? Or should you go with something distinctly different, like a low-ABV Berliner weisse? Hours are spent digging through bottle shop shelves and scrolling through BeerAdvocate scores while at work. We’ve incorporated a Waiver Wire (new or undrafted breweries) and Flex (once per season you can play a beer not distributed in the area). Even better, you’re not bound by 16 weeks or 162 games. Beer league can take place year-round, on your schedule. We’re currently playing a 10-month season.
Though Fantasy Beer League may just be an imagined sport, team ownership is taken seriously. Trash talking is practically a pre-game ritual, and I record the standings, schedule and statistics in a shared Google Spreadsheet. All members have chipped in league dues, and at the end of the season the team with the best record will receive a hefty monetary prize to spend on beer, so precious craft suds are quite literally on the line.
The Fantasy Beer League outline in this article is just a template, open-ended so as to allow everyone to add his or her own personal touch, like cooking or lovemaking. There are other Fantasy Beer League models out there. Critics may argue that turning drinking into a fantasy sport is akin to ESPN airing a poker tournament, and traditionalists might say good beer doesn’t need a prize or point-spread to be enjoyed. But I’d counter that Fantasy Beer League approaches craft brewing through a new analytical eye, one that pushes patrons to truly think about their beer.