True madness is when a good brew is hard to find

One of these years, I’m going to get this March Madness thing right.

I don’t mean the NCAA brackets – I’m a terminal loser when it comes to predicting the winners. Each year, I bet the equivalent of my 401(k) on various pools – running the 64 teams through the office Pentium, researching the RPI rankings, playing bone-headed hunches – and I’ve yet to cash in on a single one of them.

But that’s just wasted money.

Where I get fouled up is with the actual watching of the tournament’s marathon of games. On the first weekend alone, we’re talking, what, 48 games in four days?

Back in the days when ESPN carried the tournament, this was no sweat. Just stock up the fridge with a coupla cases of cold beer, send the spouse shopping (“don’t forget to pick up chips, honey”) and grab the remote. Now that CBS has glommed the game, serious hoops-watching during March Madness takes some actual effort.

The problem is that the network shows just one game at a time. And it’s almost always the WRONG GAME. I mean, who cares about Cincinnati vs. George Mason? Give us Tennessee-Delaware, dammit.

I had a plan this year.

The new Shula steakhouse in University City (35th and Chestnut streets) has something like 3,000 TV sets hanging from the ceiling. The joint is stunning – about a quarter-million square inches of glowing screens irradiating a roomful of roundball freaks. The tubes are hooked into space satellites that orbit the earth at 22,000 miles just so they can bounce us Nike commercials.

Without even moving your neck, you could watch Kent/Temple, Oklahoma/Arizona and Wisconsin/Southwest Bleeping Missouri State. Following all those games is daunting, unless you are a terminal hoopsaholic. The conversation at our table went something like:

Mike (watching Rhode Island): “Oh, man, nice jam.”

Dave (watching Miami): “Time out! Call time out!”

Me (watching “SportsCenter”): “Digger Phelps is a dope.”

Somehow, it all makes sense. In the end, we all agree that we hate the Tarheels.

The problem at Shula’s – the problem that you find at every sports bar I’ve ever visited – is the beer. The conversation at our table went something like:

Me (watching Temple): “What kind of beer do you have on tap?”

Waitress (watching her fingernails): “We’ve got them all.”

Me (watching Utah): “Um, every one of them?”

Waitress (still watching fingernails): “Yeah, Bud, Miller. . .”

We’ve all had this conversation before, so I won’t bother you with further details. My buddies finally decided on Dock Street. It arrived damn near frozen in a frosted mug.

The point of all this is not to bore you with my complaining. You wanna hear whining, let me tell you how I picked Minnesota to go to the Sweet 16 after half its team was suspended for cheating on tests. No, the point of this rant is that “sports bar” is a contradiction in terms. Yeah, they get the first part right with their TVs and old photographs of teams of yesteryear. But, for a beer-lover, a bar that doesn’t serve a decent pint is not a bar at all.

One of these days, I’m gonna get March Madness right:

Wall-to-wall TVs glowing with every college basketball game in the world and a decent beer.

In the meantime: Go Owls!

Beer Radar

Spring – one of my four favorite seasons for drinking beer – is upon us, and so is a slate of vernal brew festivals.

Among the biggest and best – and I say this with strict objectivity, even though it’s sponsored by my employer – is Philadelphia’s Favorite Beer ’99. The event features a blind-tasting of 40 area craft brews in which reg’lar beer-swillers like you and me (not professional beer-sippers) will judge the best brew in the city.

The $25-a-head festival benefits the Leukemia Society of America and will feature a semi-conscious appearance by Joe Sixpack. It’s Thursday night, April 22, at the Reading Terminal Market. Call 215-232-1100, ext. 33, for info, and look in this space for further details in coming weeks.

Elsewhere, look for these excuses to drink beer in coming weeks:

* Tuesday, March 23, and Wednesday, March 24 – Rub elbows with Lew Bryson, author of “Pennsylvania Breweries,” in a pair of beer tastings featuring Keystone ales. On Tuesday, he’s at Samuel Adams Brew House (call 215-563-2326), where brewmaster William Reed will be serving cask-conditioned real ale. The next night you can tip a few and chow down for dinner with Lew at Mount Airy’s McMenamin’s Tavern (215-247-9920).

* March 27 – The tutored beer tasting with Brit beer dude Michael Jackson at the University Museum (215-898-3900) may be sold out by the time you read this. But this fest is so good, I advise you to try to sneak in. What’s the worst that could happen?

* March 28 – A pair of Belgian beer dinners. One features Jackson, at Monk’s Cafe (215-545-7005). The other’s at Cuvee Notredame (215-765-2777), where local beer guru Jim Anderson will be cracking open bottles. Excellent grub at both.

* March 31 – International Title Fight, featuring local beers matched with famous labels from the other side of the pond, at The Khyber (215-238-5888). See how Victory St. Victorious squares up against Spaten Optimator.

* April 3 – Split Thy Skull, the World’s Most Dangerous Beer Festival, is an afternoon of barleywine consumption, at Sugar Mom’s Church Street Lounge (215-765-3169).

Joe Sixpack (written this week with a bottle of Victory Old Horizontal) appears every other Friday.

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