Along with all the data parsed from my recent analysis of 2016’s best beer, there was one particular trend that caught my eye.
Beyond the use of specific hops and the never-ending stronghold IPAs have on our collective consciousness, more than ever before, I noticed that some of the beers deemed “best” by amateurs and experts alike were also products I would never get to try, let alone see with my own eyes in real life.
This makes sense for two reasons:
- With the sheer number of breweries increasing, let alone focusing on local markets, unobtainable beers should be happening more often.
- As more breweries grow and diversify, the potential to include barrel programs and make beers unique to each business also goes up.
But those aspects may not tell the full story. Of the 155 beers I collected for my 2016 best beer analysis, 75 (by my own subjective review) would likely be classified as “rare” for the sake of release and quantity, and an additional 20 would be “rare” based on the need to travel to the brewery or an area directly nearby to actually get the beer. By my own account, 61% of the “best” new beers released in 2016 and included on my collective list aren’t going to be available to nearly all beer drinkers – even card-carrying beer geeks such as myself that might try harder to find certain brands.
Which made me wonder. First, what are rare beers doing to us? Second, is this a paradigm shift that will continue to influence our expectations going forward?
To answer the first question, there is sure to be plenty of insight in last year’s post on “The Power of Scarcity“:
In an era of Untappd badge one-upmanship, bottle shares and limited releases, the Whalezbro culture of beer thrives because our brains are attuned to it.
There is an amount of psychology at play when it comes to rare and one-off beers, an area additionally explored by Aaron Goldfarb and his analysis of Beer Advocate’s top beers as well as recent posts on this blog, looking at how attributes of beers may influence scores for lists on Beer Advocate and BeerGraphs. In each case, the conclusion is the same: the “specialness” of a particular product weighs on our mind when we’re subjectively deciding its quality.
Which raises an interesting scenario for the “tastemakers” who have the ability to drive consumer curiosity and tell us what’s good and trendy in beer. Do they go for what’s most special or find balance in what satiates their curiosity, considering what impact those choices have on others? Generally speaking, the use of ratings will influence perception and most of all, experts have a statistically-determined impact on value and price.
Determining “best” beer is a problematic cycle: the most unique or rare ales (lager being forever a bridesmaid) are bestowed on a select few or made hard to come by, creating a hierarchy of not only who gets one of these high-end brews, but ultimately what others are seeking to create as brewers or enjoy as drinkers.
For example, consider the growth in barrel-aged specialty beers, as found for my 2016 collective list. One-off creations made from barrels or unique processes took a step forward in 2016:
|2015 % of Total Beers||2016 % of Total Beers||Change|
It’s a long-winded way of saying: we may be underestimating the power wielded by the growing number of one-off programs and specialty releases. Emphasized through last 2016’s collection of best beer, there should now be a growing expectation that the most celebrated beers are often going to be ones we can’t enjoy ourselves. When there are over 5,000 brewers across the country and a business has to separate itself from everyone else, it makes sense to seek market efficiencies to stand out.
At this time, it’s not necessarily about making a killer flagship. It’s about what’s rare, too.
Consider notes from this interview with Jeff Griffith, head brewer of the 4-year old Fate Brewing:
- “At any given time, Griffith has up to 25 house-brewed beers on tap at Fate.”
- “To fill the demand for IPA in a city like Boulder, though, Fate will have as many as five hop-forward offerings on tap.”
- “Griffith also pushes the limits by aging his Gose in tequila barrels, creating a kind of sour, salty margarita beer.”
A decade ago, at the initial boom of this latest craft beer craze, “extreme” was all the rage as breweries worked to see how high an ABV could go or how bracingly bitter a beer could become. Rare is our new “extreme,” a way to differentiate products with unique attributes, but with rules lax enough to allow anyone to play the game, so long as you have a barrel or some adjuncts. (I kid, sort of)
For many reasons, this change is a good thing. Creative boundaries are being pushed in all sorts of ways, as expectations of flavors evolve and hard definitions of styles fade away. But as more attention is paid to unique experiences that can be had on-location, breweries young and old are also finding ways to make sure those visits can’t easily be replicated, whether at their own business or elsewhere.
Which, ultimately, leaves me with more questions: will this change our perception of value for all beer? How will prominent voices address this? If it becomes clear what ranks as “best,” do we start considering more styles or brands in a spectrum? (“This beer is good, but not as good as barrel-aged X”)
Because, finally, we’re starting to have a clearer, more definitive picture of what specialty characteristics mean for a beer and its quality. As the industry continues to become more specialized, these are things that can offer additional context and understanding.
And maybe help us think, with more consideration, what it means to be “best.”
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac