Are RateBeer’s “Best Beer” Rankings Destined to be Dominated by America?

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“Here’s the deal. I’m the best there is. Plain and simple. I wake up in the morning and I piss excellence.”
– Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights

This week, RateBeer releases its annual “best beer” compilation, spanning individual beers, beers by style and more. It culminates on Friday with the “top brewers in the world.”

Curiously, RateBeer decided not to rank their “best beers” in order from top to bottom – as far as I can tell the first time they’ve ever decided to go this route. The only other change over the years has been switching between ranking the top 50 and top 100.

So while we may not get to find out which imperial stout undoubtedly gave Westy 12 a run for its money in 2013, we at least have an idea of what RateBeer voters liked the most. No surprise, it’s a lot of big stouts and IPAs, with the occasional quad and barleywine thrown in for good measure. However, if you recall, there is a changing palate for beers of lesser heft, including some saisons, lambics and more.

This year’s list got me thinking, courtesy of a post over on Fuj on Tap, where The Fuj ponders Upstate New York’s place among the list. Or rather in this year’s iteration, it’s lack thereof despite the presence of many US-based brews.

As a native of that region I had particular interest and it got me to thinking … is it the manifest destiny of American breweries to become a hegemony of the RateBeer “best beer” lists?

At the current status of the American beer culture, our beer and breweries are tailored to make a run at the best beer list. Glance at the best beer by style and you’ll see. Big stouts and IPAs – styles that perform best on the overall best beer lists – are dominated by US breweries.

But before we get into that, there’s this…

Here are percentages of American beers represented on RateBeer’s “best of” lists in the past five years. I use percentages because in 2012 and 2013 only 50 beers were listed, with 100 the other three:

ratebeer-american beers-graph

There’s a nice bump going into the latest list which is buoyed by a high of 82 American beers out of a total 100.

We know that historically, the highest performing beers on these lists are imperial stouts and big IPAs, even if that trend is slowly changing. So when we think of BIG BEERS, what country do you think of? For me, it’s America, where we go hard or go home, hopefully with a designated driver. The study of RateBeer’s top 20 beers also shows a growing trend toward American breweries.

If beer raters are swayed by high ABV stouts and hopped-up IPAs, American streets are paved with barley and lupulin. Which is why as the number of American breweries continues to grow, there is even greater potential to dominate these ratings.

rate beer logo red white blue

RateBeer’s rankings are distinctly red, white and blue.

Don’t just think these lists are swayed by pure patriotism, either. RateBeer admits that a “majority” of reviewers are American, but currently, only 31 of the top 100 most-active users hail from United States. There is certainly bias with the rankings thanks to beer distribution and geography of raters, but it’s also important to consider something like Zymurgy’s “best beer in America” voting, in which American voters across the country have picked Pliny the Elder as the best beer five years in a row – despite the fact the beer is only distributed to a few West Coast states.

Yes, places like Hill Farmstead provide an assortment of artisan ales and session IPAs are all the rage, but while these are beers are highly regarded, they still don’t play well into the RateBeer hierarchy of “best beers.” Maybe it’s as simple as them not being “special” or rare enough. Either way, it’s just what the numbers tell me.

With America’s established breweries already knocking out high-ranking stouts and IPAs, all those new breweries opening up across the country are following in their footsteps. By my count, eight new US breweries are included on this year’s RateBeer list, producing 10 beers: four imperial stouts, two big IPAs and one each of a hoppy pale ale, sour, saison and a porter. The porter only stands out among “typical” RateBeer best beers until you know it’s made by the mad scientists at Funky Buddha and includes white chocolate and coconut.

Which brings me back to the Upstate New York scene. Here’s a portion of my comment on Fuj’s post, where I mention the probability of more New York breweries crashing the RateBeer party:

I expect the drought won’t last forever, especially with Upstate’s slowly growing hop business and state laws that emphasize local biz-to-biz sales of agriculture. Everyone wants to have a big IPA these days, so I’d suspect it’s just a matter of time.

So while 82 percent of this year’s “best beer” list seems pretty damned high given the phenomenal beer created worldwide, I wonder if that number can’t be pushed higher. But as American breweries continue to influence countries around the world, maybe others are bound to catch up … eventually.

What do you think? Are these “best of” lists destined to be all red, white and blue?

Related: What RateBeer Rankings Tell Us About Preferences and Bias

+Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

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27 thoughts on “Are RateBeer’s “Best Beer” Rankings Destined to be Dominated by America?

  1. Is it down to hype or marketing which borders on propaganda perhaps? I like to think that Ireland is capable of producing world beating beers, distribution may be the only obstacle!

    • Therein lies a problem, for sure. If the majority of RateBeer raters are in the US even if the most prolific are spread across Europe, sheer volume may override the potential for beers from Ireland or elsewhere to crack the list. However, the combination of rarity, distribution and hype for many American-made, well-performing beers is also curious. Not nearly enough American raters may be able to get their hands on the top IPAs or imperial stouts, so we’re talking about a smaller fraction of American raters.
      (I hope that makes sense)

      I’d say marketing has very little to do with placement, especially since American breweries that perform well on this list don’t advertise. It’s all about word of mouth and hype. In that vein, I’d love to know about some of the Irish beers you think should be considered!

      • Galway Bay Brewery’s Of Foam and Fury is a fantastic double IPA and White Gypsy’s Russian Imperial Stout is definetely up there with the best of them… both ‘big beers’ funnily enough!

      • Hopefully, one company has begun to facilitate wider distribution within Ireland itself, who knows where that could lead!

    • Saying that Irish beers is capable of brewing world beaters is like saying Rhode Island should be brewing the best beers in the US. As far as I know the Irish beer scene is at a stance while we have some really interesting up and coming breweries coming up in the UK like Kernel, Partizan, Thornbridge and more. Things are changing for the better. Best beer from Ireland I´ve had is the Porterhouse Celebration Stout, darn good stout but his big uncles from across the pond easily outclass him.

      The thing people need to realize is the incredible number of breweries in the states vs Europe. Also think globally, think about the size of the US compared to the size of Europe! I would think about 20 European beers on that list is a pretty decent result.

      There is one thing that explains why some US breweries have many beers on that list. Being rare is considered cool. If the beer is brewed in the middle of nowhere, gains reputation then people will go to lengths to obtain it and give it maybe a slightly biased result. I adore Shaun Hill and Hill Farmstead but I think that the number of beers he has on that list is pretty generous.

      PS: People also need to realize that Ratebeer is a community of nerds. there was a big debate on Reddit about this list where people did not understand why the hell beers that they don´t know are outclassing European lagers they consider good.

      • All good points, Haukur. A very telling one is your last. The best European lagers – probably the best in the world! – won’t sniff this list because that’s not what people are in to when it comes to this kind of voting. The culture of the US beer scene (rarity) and styles of beer that perform best (imperials) both match up well with the RateBeer base, which is majority American.

        While the volume of US breweries certainly gives Americans an edge, it’s also worth considering how many of those breweries are still tiny shops. The businesses coming online now are geared hyper-local so while that rarity certainly comes into play, it also means they’ll have to hit a certain threshold before getting consideration for the overall “best beer” list. I also get the impression RateBeer tries to weed out outliers through their rating formula, which may help.

      • On reflection, I may have conceded too quickly there. Feck it, Irish beer is brilliant and as a nation we have never been accused of being overly modest!

      • Oh and ratebeer have just voted Dublin’s J.W. Sweetman’s #4 Best New Brewery in the World!

  2. I think this comes down to the bulk of the users being in the US. Even if the more active ones are in Europe, the more casual users will make sure to check into anything by Hill Farmstead, Tired Hands, or any other hyped up brewery just for the bragging rights. A well articulated review on a great German dopplebock isn’t going to outweigh 75 rating-only reviews for the latest IIPA and will skew the standings to the American side.

    • I certainly agree that the numbers are a bit hard to ignore. I think the ultimate crux of it is that American breweries produce beers en masse that kill on these kinds of lists. You’re definitely right about the hype aspect. Reviewing one of these rare beers that appear on the annual list is a notch on a beer drinker’s belt that many in the craft community would love to have, I’m afraid.

      Is it just me, or has the prospect of bragging about your cellar or the latest one-off you tried reached higher volumes than ever before?

      • Oh, for sure. The first time I was able to check into a Hill Farmstead beer I felt like I had legitimately accomplished something, which is ridiculous (though Everett is easily the best porter I’ve ever had). The cellar has gotten even more insane, myself included for a while. I had a bottle of Zombie Dust that I just couldn’t bring myself to drink just because I wanted to have a bottle of Zombie Dust in my fridge, which is idiotic. I realized it started to take the enjoyment away from actually drinking the beer though, and that’s a damn shame.

  3. The thing is that the majority of ratebeer users are American. If Ratebeer was say an English site, than I suspect the majority of top beers would be from the UK.

    I personally use Ratebeer as a guide, rather than a legitimate beer ranking site. If you really want the best beers in the world, than one should follow the actual tournaments and international awards rather than a website filled with armchair brew masters!

    • Andrew – your point is most definitely … on point. The reason I initially followed the RateBeer rankings for my research was because of the site’s archives and the fact that it provided the opinion of the craft drinking masses. A selection of the masses, for sure, but the masses nonetheless.

      Anecdotally, I believe my conversations and interactions with people definitely align with how the rankings are created – rare or one-off beers are considered holy and imperial-style beers almost always rise to the top.

      Coincidentally, there does seem to be an ability to collect better data from RateBeer, but you have to pay for a “premium” membership in order to access it. I believe that would lend itself to greater scrutiny of the process and voting, but for now I’ll stick with what I can get.

      I’m like you – I don’t use beer ranking sites as anything other than a data collecting tool. My palate is so different from everyone else that I’m more than happy to just try something because I want to, not because a site tells me I should.

      Are there tournaments or international awards you hold in high regard?

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