The Starting 5

The comments section has been popping lately with discussions of top 10 breweries and Boulevard's place inside and outside of that top 10. But I don't know how one would even judge a top 10. Do you get judged higher for having one great beer and the rest of your offerings are just okay? What if you all of your beers are good and enjoyable but you're not sporting a best in class amongst them? What if you make a super great beer but it costs $20 and you only make 100 cases of it? Does that count the same as pumping out 100,000 barrels of quality session beers? I don't know.

Ground Rules
In this post I'm going to opine that the best judge of a brewery's excellence is its starting 5 session beers. Every brewery has something they call their flagship, it's usually their most popular or iconic brew; it's the brew that finances the brewery, the marketable star, the Kobe Bryant, Lebron James or Dwayne Wade of the team. For this game we're going to go 5 deep. But, the 5 beers have to come come in sixer or 4 pack form (4 packs can't be more than $15 and must be the dominant packaging form of the brewery or the we won't count Goose Island Bourbon County Stout as a starting 5 beer), bombers and tap only beers will not count. If a brewery doesn't have 5 beers that count, they can't be considered as part of this exercise, you don't see too many teams running 4 players deep in the NBA playoffs. The last rule is the beers have to be available in the KC metro area. In rare cases, a seasonal beer has been added to the starting 5 to get a brewery to qualify.

I choose these rules for 2 reasons. The first, if you say a brewery is great and I can't find one of their beers in my local liquor store, you sound like a pretentious schmuck. There's nothing I hate more than saying I like a really great beer, say the Saint Bridgets Porter I'm drinking right now, and having some jerk say that I have to try the porter they make in a remote village in Borneo where Nick Nolte was once king. If I drank that porter I wouldn't even think Saint Bridgets Porter was any good. Now, really, how does that make anyone feel good? Second, you want a brewery to be accessible to a beer drinker looking to expand his horizons a little bit. Some people don't like certain styles of beer, so limiting the list to a brewer that only makes one or two styles of beer, makes this list less accessible for a more novice drinker. Also, if a brewer has a strong starting 5, you're going to trust anything that they brew enough to give it a shot. For a novice beer drinker, trusting what you're going to drink is key.

Extending the Metaphor
Since I'm comparing the starting lineup to a basketball team, it's necessary to give each beer a position. So each position is based on the style of beer. Typically, in this system, pale ales, wheats and lagers are guards, IPA's and ambers are small forwards and porters and stouts are power forwards and centers. Since each lineup is so different, some modifcations are needed and lineups without stouts and porters will be considered undersized and/or athletic and lineups stocked with darker/heavier/hoppier beers will be considered oversized. Without this (and perhaps with this) the starting 5 ranking system makes no sense.

The Brewery Power Rankings
Can't Field a Team Division
Lagunitas - Doesn't have 5
Strong competitor, they just don't distribute 5 six packs in the KC region. I think they'd be ranked in the middle of the pack because their seasonals are big beers and they wouldn't measure well in this system.
He'Brew - Doesn't have 5
Another good competitor but just doesn't have the breadth of selection needed to score well in this system. Would do well in a 3 on 3 game.
Southampton - Doesn't have 5
I really like their Altbier, but Southamption would definitely be in the lower tier if they had enough beers. Plus, they don't really have a bench of big beers to be considered very highly.
Caldera - Doesn't have 5
Caldera has some fine, somewhat expensive beers in a can. It should be noted that if someone would have bought me sixers of Caldera IPA , the Royals wouldn't have had such a horrible year last year.
Can't Stay on the Floor Division
31. Weston - O'Malley's Cream Ale, O'Malley's SunRye's Ale, O'Malley's Emerald Lager, O'Malley's ISB, O'Malley's Festival Ale
Let's start out making some enemies, something's wrong with Weston brewery. Not one of their beers is drinkable. None of them match up well with any other beers listed here. The Cream Ale is the flagship of the brand and it's just not that easy to drink. I don't even give them a chance anymore, they're the Washington Generals of the KC beer scene.
30. Saranac - Pale Ale, Adirondack Lager, India Pale Ale, Brown Ale, Black and Tan
Saranac has always struck me as a brewery that just threw together beers to get in on the craft brewing craze. Saranac is the Pittsburgh Pythons without Moses Guthrie and the astrologist.
29. Anheuser Busch - Budweiser, Bud Light, Michelob, Busch, American Ale
When your advertising stresses the fact that you're product is drinkable it doesn't really set the bar too high. Their beers are drinkable in the same way that water is drinkable, tasteless and offers you nothing in return. Sometimes that's not a bad thing, but I like a little flavor with my beer. Their offer of drinkable is similar to the UMKC Kangaroos saying you should come to their basketball games because "It's basketball". They may be able to compete with beers of a similar style, but that's not very big competition.
28. Miller - Miller Lite, Miller Genuine Draft, Miller High Life, MGD 64, Miller Chill
Miller Lite can dominate a game on its own, its really the best of the macro American lager division, but the rest of the team is so weak, it's not really a strong competitor. Miller is like an Israeli league team with an NBA star like Shane Battier on it. Battier is a nice player but he doesn't really do much of anything to wow the fans and the rest of the team can only aspire to be as good as him.
There May be Something Worthwhile, But Mostly Not Division
27. Coors - Coors, Coors Light, Keystone Light, Blue Moon, Killian's Irish Red
Blue Moon is a legitimately good beer can play with many of the beers in KC. Coors and Coors Light are less than impressive but can do a couple of things pretty well. Killian's Irish Red is pretty bad example of a not that great style, like having a 5'11" rebounder. Coors just can't run with many of the breweries sold in KC and will be a perennial loser.
26. Tallgrass - Ale, IPA, Kold, Buffalo Sweat, Wheat
All of the beers in the lineup are similar to the successful breweries, but each one has significant flaws. Tallgrass is trying to do the right things and maybe someday they'll figure it out. They're just not there yet and they're going to get pushed around by the competition.
25. Leinenkugel - Sunset Wheat, Original, Classic Amber, Creamy Dark, Red Lager
Sunset Wheat is a nice undersized guard that can match up well with bigger, stronger guards. No one else on the team does anything special. Under the right circumstances, Sunset Wheat can take over and lead Leinenkugel to victory.
24. Flying Dog - Doggie Style Pale Ale, In Heat Wheat Hefeweizen, Old Scratch Amber, Road Dog Porter, Tire Bite Golden Ale
Flying Dog is the first brewery we've come to with a malcontent jailbird type player in Doggie Style Pale Ale. Doggie Style is an embarassment to the team especially the class of the team, Road Dog Porter. In Heat Wheat and Tire Bite are decent beers but definitely not the best in the league at their position. Ultimately Flying Dog will lose to most of the competition because Doggie Style is going to get posterized constantly.
23. Abita - Turbodog, Purple Haze, Jockamo IPA, Amber, Golden
When your lineup sports an Amber and a Golden not much can be expected of you. It's like having a couple of Division II players in your starting lineup. Purple Haze is a dazzling guard who can't really do anything of value but dribble through his legs and make spectacular no look passes. Jockamo and Turbodog just aren't good enough on their own to make up for the flawed lineup structure.
Solid But Without a Star
22. O'Fallon - 5 Day IPA, Gold, Smoked Porter, Wheat, Goat's Breath Bock
O'Fallon is an innovative team, they're willing to try some things other breweries aren't doing. Smoked Porter is an example of O'Fallon doing things a different way and they're a tough matchup for a vanilla team like Abita. Where they fall short is depth and quality in the IPA and Wheat positions. The IPA and Wheat are fine players, just unspectacular and ultimately beatable.
21. St. Peter's - India Pale Ale, Pale Ale, English Ale, Old Style Porter, Organic Ale
St. Peter's is a collection of overpriced talent. They have every skill covered that a brewery needs to cover but the talent is just too expensive and not quite good enough. Think the New York Knicks, they're an attractive package but overpaid and ultimately leave you wanting more.
20. Fort Collins - Retro Red, Kidd Lager, Major Tom's Pomegranate Wheat, Z Smoked Lager, IPA
Fort Collins is another brewery trying to play the game a different way. They create matchup problems for a lot of breweries, but they just don't have enough talent to compete. None of the beers are bad, but none are stars and ultimately Fort Collins has a little trouble selling tickets.
19. Bridgeport - IPA, ESB, Porter, Haymaker Extra Pale, Beertown Brown
Bridgeport is a solid brewery that plays without a star. All of their beers leave you happy and refreshed but with no beer really possessing any big skills. No stars, just a solid team playing the game the right way.
18. Shiner - Bock, Blonde, Hefeweizen, Black Lager, Frost
With the Bock, Shiner has a good, marketable star. It's a good small forward, but teams rarely win big with good small forwards, they need either a great big man or good guards. Shiner has adequate guards in the Blonde and Hefeweizen but down low Black Lager and Frost get dominated.
17. Avery - India Pale Ale, White Rascal, Ellie's Brown Ale, Out of Bounds Stout, Redpoint Ale
Avery's bench is the real star of this team. Since they're not eligible in this system, Avery ends up as just an adequate team. No real star here, White Rascal, Ellie's Brown and Out of Bounds make a good guard, PF and Center combination that can certainly dominate. India Pale and Redpoint hold their own against most competitors but can be beaten by good competition.
16. North Coast - Red Seal Ale, Blue Star Wheat, Acme California Pale Ale, Acme California IPA, Scrimshaw Pilsner
Like Avery, North Coast has their best player, Old Rasputin, on the bench, ineligible for the starting lineup. The starting lineup is pretty weak without Raspy. Scrimshaw Pilsner is a nice player as well as Red Seal Ale. But, ultimately, North Coast gets dominated by better beers in everyone else's lineups.
15. Lakefront - Cream City Pale Ale, Riverwest Stein Beer, Klisch Pilsner, New Grist Beer, Fuel Cafe
Lakefront doesn't have a bad player in the bunch and they're playing a fun up tempo style. Fuel Cafe can really run the floor well for a big man and Riverwest and Klisch's guard play can dominate many a night. Nothing fancy here, just solid play night in, night out. They might be a little undersized at forward with New Grist and Cream City playing out of position.
Star Driven
14. Boulder - Hazed and Infused, Singletrack Copper Ale, Planet Porter, Pass Time Pale Ale, Mojo IPA
Hazed and Infused dominates virtually every other guard in the league, but his teammates aren't quite up to that talent level. Hazed is a point guard who can shoot and run the offense. Mojo IPA is a nice shooting guard but ultimately unneeded when paired with Hazed and Infused. If they could, a nice trade would be Mojo IPA for a solid big man, like Kalamazoo Stout. Boulder is undersized with a bunch of guard type players at forward and Planet Porter holding down the Center position. They get dominated by bigget teams, but run the floor well and are quite competitive.
13. Breckenridge - Avalanche, Agave Wheat, Vanilla Porter, Oatmeal Stout, Lucky U IPA
Avalanche is a guilty pleasure, the best player of an unheralded style. Vanilla Porter is a great power forward who can dominate and Oatmeal Stout is a nice Center who does a couple of things well. Agave Wheat is a fine point guard and Lucky U IPA is a star small forward in the making. Breckenridge does many things well, but Avalanche, an Amber, ultimately makes the team weaker.
12. Founders - Dirty Bastard, Centennial IPA, Red's Rye PA, Dry Hopped Pale Ale, Porter
Founders is a technically solid team, they just don't make mistakes. But, they just don't have enough talent to make it big in this league. Red's Rye and Centennial are solid players, some would say stars. Dirty Bastard brings bad baggage and ultimately creates weakness in the team.
No Weaknesses
11. Sam Adams - Boston Lager, Boston Ale, Hefeweizen, Black Lager, Blackberry Witbier
What can be said about Sam Adams? Boston Lager is an exceptional guard that can take over any game. His brother Boston Ale, while being just the opposite, is equally dominant. The problem is no big men. They play the game well, strong fundamentals and have a virtually unlimited bench they use to run teams to death.
10. New Belgium - Fat Tire, Sunshine Wheat, 1554, Mothership Wit, Abbey
New Belgium has a very recognizable superstar in Fat Tire, unfortunately for New Belgium, Fat Tire isn't very good, just popular. Sunshine Wheat is one of the best wheat beers in mass production and is an excellent guard.
9. Schlafly - No. 15, Pale Ale, Dry-Hopped APA, Hefeweizen, Stout
Schlafly has an underrated, quiet superstar in No. 15. Depending on when I'm asked and my mood, I've been known to say that No. 15 is my favorite beer (usually when asked, I don't consider more exotic beers otherwise I may answer Maharaja or Saison-Brett). The rest of the starting 5 is average to good. Dry-Hopped APA is a pleasant rebounder with great hops. The Hefeweizen is a nice change of pace guard and Stout mans the middle with authority. Schlafly also has a deep bench of varying quality.
8. Odells - Easy Street Wheat, 90 Shilling, 5 Barrel Pale Ale, Cutthroat Porter, Levity Amber
Odells runs the floor with a dominant Center, Cutthroat. Easy Street Wheat and 90 Shilling provide a nice guard tandem that can eat up a poor defensive team. 5 Barrel Pale Ale is a nice, though undersized, power forward and Levity is fine as a small forward but lacks any style since it's an Amber.
The hometown brewery has 5 quality offerings with Wheat and Pale Ale the popular guard tandem. Boulevard Pale Ale is a dominant guard that dominates most others. Wheat is a flashy 3 point bomber that is a crowd favorite. Bully! Porter is also a great power forward that makes up for Dry Stout's less than dominant play in the middle. Single Wide IPA is also a crowd favorite at the small forward position. When Dry Stout is your weakest player, and he's certainly better than most Centers, you have a pretty good shot at winning a lot of games.
6. Sierra Nevada - Pale Ale, Porter, Stout, Kellerweiss, Torpedo
Sierra Nevada is very nearly the equal of Boulevard. Pale Ale is better and, for my money, is the best pale ale available in KC. Porter and Stout are inferior big men to Boulevard's. Kellerweiss is a bit surly to gain widespread recognition as a great shooter, but is actually better than the crowd favorite Boulevard Wheat. Torpedo and Single Wide bring different things to the table, but are pretty equal overall. The best of Sierra Nevada is at the guards, with good perimeter shooting, they can beat Boulevard.
5. Left Hand - Milk Stout, Haystack Wheat, Polestar Pilsner, Sawtooth Ale, Jackman American Pale Ale
Milk Stout is a dominant center which makes up for the rest of the undersized lineup. All the players are extremely athletic and Left Hand will run most teams off the floor, which is necessary when you have an American Pale Ale playing Power Forward. Left Hand will go for 130 a game, unfortunately they'll give up 120 with most of the points given up in the paint.
4. Goose Island - Honker Ale, Nut Brown Ale, 312 Wheat, India Pale Ale, Oatmeal Stout
Goose Island has a couple of dominant big men in the Nut Brown Ale and Oatmeal Stout. With Honker Ale shooting the lights out, Goose Island can dominate most teams. 312 Wheat is a perfectly adequate point guard and India Pale Ale is an unheralded star at small forward. Goose Island has no weaknesses and has a strong bench to boot.
3. Samuel Smith - Nut Brown Ale, Taddy Porter, India Ale, Oatmeal Stout, Old Brewery Pale Ale
No one admits to it, but most breweries are trying to better Samuel Smith. It's an established team, a champion for many years, but may be declining just a bit as its stars mature. No team can score inside with the forwards and center of Samuel Smith able to shut down anyone's low post game. Samuel Smith isn't a fresh team, they're old classics and well worth drinking at any given time.
2. Bell's - Two Hearted Ale, Kalamazoo Stout, Pale Ale, Porter, Third Coast
Two Hearted Ale is the Kobe Bryant of the KC beer scene and Kalamazoo is Shaquille O'Neal. The other 3 of the starting 5 are just average, but Two Hearted and Kalamazoo make up for it in much the same way the early 00's Lakers were dominant. Pale Ale, Porter and Third Coast are valuable role players and Bell's has a dominant bench capable of taking over any game.
1. Great Divide - Titan IPA, Saint Bridgets Porter, Denver Pale Ale, Hoss Rye Lager, Samurai Rice Ale
I can't make a case for any of the starting 5 to be the best at any position, but Great Divide is reinventing the way the game is played in the KC beer scene. Hoss Rye Lager and Samurai Rice Ale are unlike any other guard tandem in the league. Hoss is like Magic Johnson at the point, an extremely large point guard that can pass, drive and shoot better than most guards in the league. Samurai is a smooth, super athletic, small shooting guard that can hit from anywhere on the court. Titan IPA is an undersized Power Forward that plays at least 8 inches taller than he actually is, he's the Charles Barkley of KC beers. Saint Bridgets Porter is a small 6'9" Center that covers the floor better than any other Center in the league creating serious matchup problems for every other team. The 5 of these beers together are greater than the sum of their parts. A better starting 5 can't be found and Great Divide has a dominant bench as well.

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