Is Sierra Nevada Overvalued? The Curious Case of the “Boring” Beer

Bored_beer

Last week, we took a quick peek at some of the fallers and risers from the recently released “Best Beers in America” poll by homebrewing magazine Zymurgy.

For a sixth-straight year, Pliny the Elder topped the list, despite its relative distribution scarcity and what some described as an IPA that isn’t as good as the hype suggests. Even still, some of the biggest movers up the list from 2012 to 2014 were other specialty or rare beers like Founders Kentucky Bourbon Stout, Alchemist Heady Topper and Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout.

There’s a natural tendency for lists like this to function with a level of bias, but what I’ve become most interested in from looking over the “Best Beers” is also how it highlights our changing expectations and what we want from the beer industry.

First off, here’s a link to the entirety of this year’s list and you can see a full rundown of the past three years worth of “Best Beers” here.

As I compiled these lists, the most striking aspect was the shift in brand interest from 2012 through this year’s version. For example, here are 11 beers and their rankings the 2012 list:

20. New Belgium Fat Tire
T25. New Belgium Ranger
T25. Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale
T31. Rogue Dead Guy
T31. Sam Adams Boston Lager
T37. Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron
41. Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale
42. Victory Prima Pils
43. Great Devide Yeti
T44. Anchor Steam
T44. Sam Adams Noble Pils

Seeing these beers in a “Best Beers in America” list from 2012 makes us seem kind of quaint, doesn’t it? While they are great beers, the unfortunate truth is they have no place on such a list these days, given the vast options at our disposal and a preference to put rare or “mythical” beers at the top of rankings. Ranger is the only surviving member of the bunch to make it on 2014’s list at 46.

As mentioned in my previous post, Dogfish Head’s fall is noticeable, perhaps because people are simply getting “bored” with their beer. 60 and 90 Minute IPAs make up 68 percent of all of Dogfish’s sales, but that hasn’t stopped voters from losing interest, according to Zymurgy’s polls:

60 Minute 90 Minute 120 Minute
2012 15 3 25
2013 30 3 N/A
2014 T34 7 27

An Experiment

To shake things up a bit, I wanted to take another look at the structure of this year’s “Best Beers” list through the prism of analytics from BeerGraphs. That site uses a formula called “Beers Above Replacement” that provides numerical value to the perceived quality of beers based on the zero to five star voting habits of drinkers on Untappd.

By doing this, I wanted to better determine if people undervalue the quality of beers they can find all the time.

The numbers on the left represent the new rankings, rearranged according to descending Beers Above Replacement (BAR) value. The number that sits next to the name of the beer is its original Zymurgy ranking, as voted on by the public for the magazine. On the right, numbers above 10 are considered a “Hall of Fame” beer, 8 to 10 is an “MVP” and ratings go down from there:

New BAR Rank Beers, w/ Zymurgy ranking attached BAR value
1 5. The Alchemist Heady Topper 18.95
2 14. Three Floyds Zombie Dust 17.03
3 1. Russian River Pliny the Elder 16.51
4 28. Russian River Pliny the Younger 14.51
5 11. Founders Kentucky Breakfast County Brand Stout 12.39
6 45. Surly Abrasive IPA 12.38
7 10. Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout 12.24
8 4. Bell’s Hopslam 12.19
9 T39. Troegs Nugget Nectar 11.37
10 3. Ballast Point Sculpin IPA 11.17
11 2. Bell’s Two Hearted Ale 10.48
12 T49. Founders Backwoods Bastard 9.89
13 32. Surly Furious 9.8
14 27. Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA 9.85
15 22. Russian River Blind Pig IPA 9.75
16 9. Foudners Breakfast Stout 9.35
17 T15. Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ 9.25
18 42. Cigar City Jai Alai IPA 9.24
19 30. Russian River Supplication 8.75
20 T39. Russian River Consecration 8.49
21 17. Firestone Walker Double Jack 8.27
22 7. Dogfish head 90 Minute IPA 8.26
23 6. Lagunitas Sucks 7.63
24 13. Firestone Walker Wookey Jack 7.44
25 8. Stone Enjoy By IPA 7.24
26 T34. Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA 7.2
27 41. Deschutes The Abyss 7.06
28 43. Bear Republic Racer 5 6.96
29 37. Stone IPA 6.89
T30 26. Stone Ruination IPA 6.73
T30 29. Left Hand Milk Stout Nitro 6.73
31 T49. Odell IPA 6.6
32 33. New Belgium La Folie 6.54
33 36. Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale 6.46
34 T18. Firestone Walker Union Jack 6.39
35 25. Boulevard Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale 6.34
36 31. Green Flash West Coast IPA 6.31
37 38. Lagunitas IPA 5.74
38 12. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale 5.47
39 20. Sierra Nevada Torpedo 5.24
40 44. Oskar Blues Ten Fidy 5.05
41 T34. Founders All Day IPA 4.78
42 T47. Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter 4.73
43 T15. Sierra Nevada Celebration 4.73
44 T23. North Coast Old Rasputin 4.64
45 T23. Deschutes Black Butte Porter 4.62
46 T18. Stone Arrogant Bastard Ale 4.26
47 21. Sierra Nevada Ruthless Rye 3.74
48 T47. Ommegang Three Philosophers 3.67
49 46. New Belgium Ranger 2.37

 

Keep in mind there is inherent bias in Untappd rankings, which in turn impact Beers Above Replacement. However, looking at that list shows how voters undervalue some of the best beers in the country. Three Floyds’ Zombie Dust was ranked 14 in Zymurgy’s poll, but has an actual value from Beers Above Replacement that makes it the second-best beer on the list. Surly’s Abrasive IPA, 45 in Zymurgy, was sixth overall in the new order.

Here are some other beers that had strong discrepancies between Zymurgy ranking and Beers Above Replacement (BAR) ranking:

Troegs Nugget Nectar Founders Backwoods Bastard Cigar City Jai Alai
Zymurgy Rank 39 49 42
BAR Rank 9 12 18
Dogfish 60 Minute Bear Republic Racer 5 Stone IPA
Zymurgy Rank T34 T34 37
BAR Rank 26 26 24

 

An Interesting Find

Looking at the change in ranking numbers for all these beers helps shine a light on potential bias for Zymurgy’s voters, but raises a question: why do people seem to like Sierra Nevada beers so much?

Two of the best selling craft beers in the country, Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale (12) and Torpedo (20), rank in the top half of Zymurgy’s list, but fall to the tail-end (Pale Ale – 38, Torpedo – 39) when ranked by Beers Above Replacement.

Sierra Nevada’s Celebration, a fresh-hopped IPA seasonal release, was ranked 15 by Zymurgy voters, but falls to 43 in the new rankings. Ruthless Rye, originally 21, fell to 47.

I think Sierra Nevada makes great beers and I enjoy all these brews, but this instance highlights an important aspect of perceived value: marketing. Whereas hype may boost Pliny the Elder to the top of annual Zymurgy rankings, Sierra Nevada benefits from being a nationally-distributed brand.

Which brings us back to the issue of “boring” beers. Sierra Nevada is available everywhere, but in the grand scheme of “best beer” rankings, their beer might not be classified as “special” enough. Their Pale Ale and Torpedo IPA have a place among the best brews craft can offer, but in light of how quickly other nationally-marketed beers fall off the Zymurgy rankings (see top of post), why are Sierra Nevada brews still there, let alone ranked so highly?

Granted, there is a downward trend in the last three Zymurgy “Best Beers” list:

Pale Ale Torpedo Celebration Ruthless Rye
2012: 4 9 7 12
2013: 15 T12 T9 8
2014: 12 20 T15 21

 

Each is slowly losing ground, following the trend of the other “boring” beers, but they’re not fading fast. That makes me think there is some kind of bias involved in their Zymurgy ranking, perhaps aided by their mass distribution and overall appeal, even if they may not actually be “best” for their respective styles. There’s a certain level of “legacy” appreciation beer drinkers may have toward Sierra Nevada, too.

But then again, this is just a beer ranking list and not rocket science. Everyone’s taste buds will lead them in their own direction.

Related:

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

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12 thoughts on “Is Sierra Nevada Overvalued? The Curious Case of the “Boring” Beer

  1. Pingback: What Do the “Best Beers in America” Say About the Beer Industry? | This Is Why I'm Drunk

  2. This is some serious number crunching. You’re the second site I read that has employed the WAR/BAR. I guess this means I should finally figure out what the hell it actually means.

  3. Wait…are you telling me you wrote this AFTER completing The Point 262? That’s hardcore.

    I have some thoughts on all of this, but I’m not entirely sure what those thoughts are. Selfishly, as a brewery that doesn’t specialize in hoppy beers, I find the top eight more than a little uniform and disheartening.

    At the same time, it means we’re well-positioned to double down on our differentiating factor. The worrisome part is the constant need to reinvent and entertain people, and avoid the perils of groupthink (where a fan base turns against you for undetermined, and perhaps uncontrollable, reasons).

    • Beer only fuels my fire, Sean! Plus, I had a nice warmup for the .262 with a seven-miler in the morning. It was a full day.

      It’s funny you mention the differentiating factor, as that’s a third post that’s germinating in my head right now. I have a few more data points related to the “Best Beers” list I wanted to share, but as I finished up this post it started to become clearer.

      What a wonderfully vague tease. Hope you come back for the next post!

  4. SN beers have never left much of an impression on me. I just tried to remember what one of them tastes like and I have no recollection. I don’t know that I would call them “boring” but it’s the sort of beer I order when there are no other options left. Take that for what you will.

    • I think your sentiment is my impression of what this is – they’re perfectly fine beers, but probably don’t belong among the “best” America has to offer. I will gladly try a new brew of theirs to give it a shot, but I can’t remember the last time I had a Torpedo or Pale Ale.

  5. Pingback: Zymurgy’s “Best Beers” Ranking and the Search for a Non-Boring Beer | This Is Why I'm Drunk

  6. Love the number crunching. I think there is some interesting tales to be told when you look at the different angles. As for SN, from a retail standpoint, they offer a nice price point and are approachable for new drinkers. Mainly because of brand recognition but also because they have a quality and consistent product. Price point is nice too, 3.99 for a 24 oz Torpedo (avg price), easy sell for a new drinker wanting to explore.

    Keep up the great writing

    • Thanks, Frank. You hit on a very important point. As “gateway” beers go, Sierra Nevada’s offerings are an excellent choice. There are few craft breweries you’ll see across bottle shops, grocery stores and convenience stores, so it certainly benefits them to have such wide distribution.

  7. Pingback: RateBeer Ranked: Comparing “Best Beer” of the Last Two Years | This Is Why I'm Drunk

  8. Pingback: Copy Cat: A ‘Best Beer’ List Loves IPAs, ABV. Again. | This Is Why I'm Drunk

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