What Do the “Best Beers in America” Say About the Beer Industry?

blue-ribbon_best_beers

Also: check out this post about how these rankings may show bias toward Sierra Nevada brews.

Yesterday, Zymurgy, the official magazine of the American Homebrewers Association, released results of its annual “Best Beers in America” survey, completed by members of the organization. The list, which I’ve written about before, typically gears toward expectations: lots of IPAs and imperial stouts.

While I’ve only had a few hours to look over this year’s list with an advance digital copy of Zymurgy, I’ve already started comparing and contrasting between previous iterations of the “Best Beers” lists, which are determined by popular vote. To determine the rankings, voters selected up to 20 of their favorite beers in an online poll.

I plan to offer up full details of this year’s list next week, but I wanted to share a few initial reactions when comparing lists from 2012, 2013 and 2014. While Russian River’s Pliny the Elder and Bell’s Two Hearted IPAs have held the #1 and #2 spots, respectively, in each of the past three years, there has been some shift with other brews. (you can also see the top-10 beers for 2014 here)

The Risers

First, let’s look at five beers that have been moving up the charts over the last three years:

Ballast Point Sculpin IPA Alchemist Heady Topper Goose Island BCBS Founders KBS Boulevard Tank 7
2012: T17 2012: N/A 2012: 29 2012: T37 2012: N/A
2013: 5 2013: 16 2013: 25 2013: T17 2013: T32
2014: 3 2014: 5 2014: 10 2014: 11 2014: 25

 

You may have heard of Heady Topper, The Alchemist’s beer so mythical people will go to jail for it. Heady Topper has been brewed since 2003, but it’s just in the recent years of our craft beer craze that people have gone gonzo for it, which might explain its meteoric rise. Ironically, it has success in spite of a major restriction: you can’t really find it outside of its very minor distribution in Vermont or immediate New England area.

Even though so few people can actually buy the beer, it has gone from obscurity to one of the most highly-regarded beers in the country. Trading certainly helps. When hosting a popular vote, hype means a lot.

The higher ranks of Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout and Founders Kentucky Brand Stout shouldn’t come as a surprise, either, given their imperial stout nature (people love ’em) and general rarity. I’m curious to see if Goose Island’s national roll out of Bourbon County Stout this year might impact rankings moving forward.

What really got me excited was seeing Boulevard’s Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale moving up. Partially, it’s confirmation that people are getting more into saisons and farmhouse-style ales, but it’s also due. If you care for this kind of thing, it scores a 98 on RateBeer and a 93 on Beer Advocate. Personally, it’s one of my favorites.

The Fallers

Here’s where it gets interesting and rather indicative of our current beer culture:

Sierra Nevada Torpedo North Coast Old Rasputin Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale Dogfish Head 60 Min Bear Republic Racer 5 Stone Arrogant Bastard Ale
2012: 9 2012: 10 2012: 14 2012: 15 2012: 13 2012: 5
2013: T12 2013: T12 2013: 19 2013: 30 2013: T21 2013: 7
2014: 20 2014: T23 2014: 36 2014: T34 2014: 43 2014: T18

 

What do all these beers have in common? They’ve been around for a while and aren’t the new kid on the block any more.

Even though all these beers are highly regarded – Torpedo is the best-selling IPA in America – they’ve also been around for years. Arrogant Bastard Ale has been made since 1997. Dogfish Head’s 60 Minute IPA was among the first of the style to really break through. North Coast Old Rasputin, despite being rated as one of the best imperial stouts on the market, is available everywhere North Coast distributes, which is nearly the entire US.

Comparing and contrasting this list to the “Risers,” it’s easy to see – being new, hip or rare is a big deal to consumers, who will provide higher ranks. It sounds blasphemous to say, but 60 Minute and Torpedo are probably boring IPAs at this point, especially when you consider the flood of IPAs on the market and increasing prevalence of local options all across the country.

Wild Cards

Here are two beers that stood out to me for other reasons:

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale Russian River Pliny the Younger
2012: 4 2012: T48
2013: 15 2013: T39
2014: 12 2014: 28

 

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is often cited as the second best-selling craft beer in the US (behind Sam Adams Boston Lager) and even though it’s not overly “special” in today’s world of IPAs and double IPAs, it still clings on to relevancy among beer drinkers. While some of the “Fallers” might suffer from consumer fatigue, this beer hasn’t, really.

Pliny the Younger is a specialty version of top-ranked Pliny the Elder, released annually to just a few markets on draft in California, Oregon, Colorado and Philadelphia. So few people get to actually try the beer, yet it’s seen a stunning climb on Zymurgy’s list, despite lack of distribution.

Again, we come back to the role of hype and what that may do for the beer. If thousands of people are voting in Zymurgy’s survey, it must get a tremendous push from the limited number of people who actually get to try it, nullifying its rarity.

What’s next?

Over the last week, I’ve been working on a series of posts analyzing Boston Beer’s growth and what that means for the craft industry. That’s pushed aside for now, as I hope to dive a bit deeper into these rankings and (hopefully) come up with some more ideas on what this means in relation to the industry and beer enthusiasts.

In the meantime, what is your reaction to this?

Related:

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

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17 thoughts on “What Do the “Best Beers in America” Say About the Beer Industry?

  1. Something you said really resonates with me and my thoughts on this list ” It sounds blasphemous to say, but 60 Minute and Torpedo are probably boring IPAs at this point.”

    Pliny The Elder is one of the most unexciting IPAs I’ve ever had. There I said it, let the trolls of the internet loathe me and decry my wicked and ignorant ways.

    • Definitely a great beer, but follows the normal cliche of beer enthusiasts trying for the first time:
      “WOW. This is good. But [insert local IPA] is better.”

      Myself included.

      Worst of all, I don’t know the last time I had Torpedo. 60 Minute is a bargain as a pitcher at a local sports bar, but I’ll never seek it out at a bottle shop.

  2. Are the number of votes each beer received reported, or just the rankings? Could a beer drop on the list receiving about the same number of votes as previous years because other beers are simply getting more votes? Is that even possible with the way the voting is set up? It’s too early for me to be thinking this deeply.

    • All voting is year to year, so no bearing from one to the next.

      It’s been so long since I voted, I’m not entirely sure, but I believe it literally was just listing the beers you wanted. There may have been a drop-down menu with pre-selected, alphabetized options as well as write-in ones, too.

      • “no bearing from one to the next”, says the guy who is about to write several articles comparing them LOL. No, I meant if Torpedo gets about the same number of votes in 2014 as it did in 2013, if it could still slip down the list in 2014 because other beers picked up more votes in 2014 then they had in 2013. I’m thinking yes, but not enough to drop a beer from 7 to 25. Maybe a spot or two at the most.

      • I’m so confused. I think all you’re saying is more votes means higher ranking, but I’d imagine there’s enough discrepancy – even if it’s a few votes – to create that change. Given the proliferation of options and knowledge that AHA members would have, it seems to make sense, at least.

        Then again, I’m so confused.

      • Maybe I’m confused too. Does more votes NOT mean a higher ranking. Ok let me try it this way. I was wondering if a beer falling in the ranking MUST be because less people are voting for it, or if it is possible, that it’s still getting the same number of votes, but other beers have picked up more votes, thus moving ahead of it and pushing it down the ranking. Ok now I’m confused.

      • Right.

        So everyone who voted could vote for up to 20 beers – not weighing them in order from 1 to 20. Rankings are based on total number of votes.

        I think this is progress?

      • Getting there. So since the number of voters is not constant from year to year and new beers come on the market, a beer like Torpedo could have gotten 1000 votes last year and only say, 900 votes this year. That’s only a 10% decrease. But in the ranks it could look like a huge drop if say 8 or 9 other beers (combination of old and new beers) happen to get more votes which pushed them above 900 pushing it’s ranking down from 10 to around 20. Rankings to me always seem like the Electoral College, its basic design makes it look like there’s a huge margin of victory when in reality the difference between the popular vote could be small. Anyway, thanks for hanging in there with me. In the end, I’m not sure the question deserved this much effort.

  3. I’m traveling through North Carolina and have been checking out beer here for the last couple days (reviews are up on my blog with more to come). After sampling 13 of the astounding Wicked Weed Brewing’s 27 beers on tap yesterday in Asheville, the idea of “Best Beer in America” based on popular vote seems ludicrous. Exploring the sheer breadth of what is available seems to be the preoccupation of many craft beer enthusiasts, and exploring what is possible seems to be the focus of the cutting-edge brewers. While I think Bell’s Two Hearted Ale is a delicate, delicious IPA, there are a few others I like more, and probably most of the people voting haven’t tried some of them. Lists like these are really more lists of “Best Distributed and Marketed Craft Beers in America”.

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