Can RateBeer’s Best Teach Us About Beer’s Hype Train?

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More: Read my first post on RateBeer’s best in 2016

There are a lot of layers when it comes to “best beer” lists. Subjective opinion, especially on experiential goods, is perfect for controversy. A limited list is going to leave something out of consideration, then it’s left to others and an almost innate need to fill in the gaps.

This is one of the reasons I love curating my annual “best beer” list, because as much as it can, it makes the process more objective by consulting numerous people and viewpoints. It may not be perfect, but it’s an excellent way to get a feel for the trends and topics that drive a year in beer.

An initial analysis of RateBeer’s top 100 beers from 2016 has seemingly added context to a growing body of evidence documented on this blog concerning the connection between beer styles, rarity and perception of quality. This is not meant to be seen as a “good or bad” thing, although you’re free to assume how you wish. But rather, as we’re able to compile data to support our experiences, it simply becomes “a thing” that we need to address.

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Hunt Whalez or Die Tryin: 2016’s Best of RateBeer

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Last month we took a look at 2016’s best beers as selected by writers, bloggers and beer enthusiasts.

Today, we step it up to an annual celebration of “best” by one of the Internet’s main beer reviewing websites, RateBeer. The site recently held their annual RateBeer Fest where it released a collection of best beers of the year, according to the reviews of users and weighted by performance within and outside of style.

As in years past, the list of 100 beers offers a good opportunity for analysis, especially as we gain a better understanding on the psychological impacts of choice when it comes to beer and perception of quality. This collection may not break new ground in terms of better understanding trends, but it does offer insight into preferences and beer culture.

So grab your abacus and put in your pocket protector, because it’s time to crunch some numbers.

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Making Snowflakes: An Exploration into Rarity, Beer Quality and Industry Authenticity

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We find ourselves in a unique time as beer lovers. Everything and anything is available to us. Whatever we want, whenever we want it.

With a record number of breweries nationwide, more than 5,000 businesses are creating a vast array of styles and flavor experiences, often nearby where we live. According to the Brewers Association, roughly three-quarters of drinking-age adults in the U.S. live within 10 miles of a brewery.

The flip side of this freedom of choice is the natural competition that comes with it. Keeping an IPA on tap is important to satiate American drinkers’ love for all things lupulin, but today’s brewery faces challenges presented by all the other entrants into the industry, roughly two a day. Finding a niche, or, at least, creating one, is a pivotal part of the business, whether it’s as a brewery as a whole or simply providing novel experiences every time someone walks through taproom doors.

Increasingly, the process of creating something “rare” is playing a larger role for brewers. This could be a celebrated one-off beer with limited quantities or a dedicated tap on-location that serves creations never to leave the premises. As businesses grow, evolve and consider how best to position themselves, the use of rarity in all its varieties has potential to impact breweries, industry tastemakers and drinkers.

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How to Win ‘Best’ Beer and Influence People

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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:

  1. With the sheer number of breweries increasing, let alone focusing on local markets, unobtainable beers should be happening more often.
  2. 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?

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A ‘Definitive’ Guide to the Best Beer of 2016

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Ask friends and family. Look around the Internet. Talk to a stranger on the street. It seems just about everyone is over 2016.

But it wasn’t all bad, right? We drank some good beer.

With start of a new year, it’s time to reflect on the great ales and lagers we enjoyed in 2016. Just kidding. It’s only IPAs and imperial stouts.

What has become an annual tradition, I’ve compiled a collection of “best” American beer lists as a way to better determine some ground breaking brands found across the country. For all the subjectivity that goes into creating lists to rank our favorite movies, TV shows and more, I try to find some objective consensus to provide a clearer view of what pleased the palate of drinkers.

To do this, I found a collection of 15 “best beer” lists from a variety of sources, from social media to prominent magazines. Criteria for selection was simple: a list had to focus on 2016 releases (new beers or new, annual brews) with a preference toward a wide geographic representation.

That left me with 155 total beers to analyze with several clearly separating themselves as 2016’s best.

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The Life of a Professional Beer Taster

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Ken Weaver gets a visit from Andy three or four times a week. It’s been this way for more than a year.

Occasionally they’ll see each other at Weaver’s favorite local bar, but almost exclusively, Andy stops by Weaver’s house in Petaluma, California. He never comes empty-handed, either. IPAs, wheat ales, sours, stouts. Restocking a fridge has never been so easy or convenient when you know someone like Andy.

“I see a UPS or FedEx person here every single day,” said Weaver.

Andy, who works for UPS, is a regular at Weaver’s home, where he drops off boxes of beer. Sometimes he’s not the only one making that stop, either. Weekly – if not daily – cardboard boxes full of freshly packaged brews appear on Weaver’s doorstep. They’re unwrapped or pulled out of packing peanuts, the boxes are broken down and placed in the garage and later that day, Weaver pulls a bottle or can from his fridge and gets to work.

He’s no ordinary lover of beer, after all. He’s a professional taster.

Yes. He gets paid to sample beer.

“The best parts of this job are exactly what you’d hope for them to be,” Weaver said. “It’s neat to have beer arriving on your doorstep. I have access to just about anything you’d want. That’s fun and exciting and what’s most interesting on social media, and that’s the part of my job that brings people behind the scenes of what’s going on in the beer industry.”

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Zymurgy’s “Best Beers” List Loves Hops, Clings to Heritage Brands

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Death, taxes and Pliny the Elder being voted as Zymurgy’s “best beer” in America. All the things you can count on for the past eight years.

In fact, to see any change at the top of this list, you’d have to go all the way back to 2009, the last year the top-two beers *weren’t* Pliny (#1) and Bell’s Two Hearted (#2).

What makes the annual poll unique, however, is that it’s voted on by members of the American Homebrewers Association, not the public at-large from around the world, like Beer Advocate or RateBeer. On that point of information alone, you can surmise why Zymurgy’s list always includes unforgettable heritage brands made by the likes of Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head. In just about any other scenario, beers made by these breweries are long past their expiration date of relevance to the Beer Nerds controlling review boards. Not so much on this year’s list – again.

BUT … the results are still similar in at least one way: these voters love their IPAs. More than 18,000 online votes cast with up to 20 allowed per voter picked the favorite commercial beers available for purchase in the United States.

Let’s see what’s trending.

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Why Lagers Will Never Be a “Best” Beer

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There are always a typical set of reactions when discussing anything determined to be “best.” Even if the word isn’t always grounded in subjectivity – certainly there are quantifiable examples of what’s best – it does swing the gates wide open for a rush of discussions and arguments of what the word and its context means.

Which, perhaps expected, is what happened with a pair of posts analyzing RateBeer’s best 100 beers in the world and the best new entries of 2015.

Some people were surprised at specific beer choices, while a common question permeated throughout a series of other comments: where are the lagers?

From readers and fellow beer writers to this thread on Reddit, people wanted to know why their beloved bottom-fermenting beverages weren’t represented. The one bock that showed up – a weizenbock – isn’t even a lager.

Is it an intrinsic desire to find flavors that push boundaries? Is it driven by our own food culture? Or maybe, as beer continues to grow and evolve – sometimes literally – it’s part of an effort to simply move away from subtlety.

Why, when it comes to what’s “best,” might we find ourselves numb to nuance?

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Semantics and the Search for a ‘Perfect’ Beer

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What is a perfect beer?

Ask the question and subjectivity runs amok.

Would it be our favorite beer? One that holds particular nostalgic value? A sum of specialized ingredients? Something that simply stands out as so different, it’s one of a kind?

There are many ways to consider what “perfect” means to us, especially in terms of a good or product. Generally speaking, when it comes to beer, the effort to define perfect often becomes a quantitative one, relying on beer rating websites that offer numeric value to a particular brew.

Westvleteren 12 is a perfect 100 on both Beer Advocate and RateBeer. Heady Topper and Pliny the Elder, too. Sorry, Dark Lord, you missed it by five points on Beer Advocate.

If those are examples of “perfect” beers, what does that mean for us? If a beer is perfect, should it also be a favorite? Or are those things utterly, completely, mutually exclusive?

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Why You Should Care About Arkansas’ Beer

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Editor’s note: here’s a primer about why we’re exploring this topic.

With a combined “weighted rank” of 3.52 (out of 5) for it’s top-10 beers according to Beer Advocate users, Arkansas placed last out of 51 states and D.C. in my recent analysis of ratings from the website. To help prove that isn’t indicative of all that’s offered within The Natural State, I’ve enlisted the help of Jonas Schaffer and Josh Whitson, authors at Arkansas Beer Blog.

Before we get into a brief Q&A with Jonas and Josh, let’s recap some of the vitals of Arkansas as found through my Beer Advocate series:

Top 10 Beers (as of Nov 2014)

Beer Name Brewery Style ABV WR
Paradise Porter Diamond Bear Brewing Porter 6.24 3.76
Two Term Diamond Bear Brewing DIPA 8.5 3.51
IRISh Red Diamond Bear Brewing Red Ale 5.86 3.5
Pale Ale Diamond Bear Brewing Pale Ale 6.2 3.5
Presidential IPA Diamond Bear Brewing IPA 6.2 3.334
Southern Blonde Diamond Bear Brewing Pilsner 5.18 3.3
ESB Core Brewing ESB 6.1 3.68
Rockroberfest Diamond Bear Brewing Oktoberfest 5.98 3.68
Flaming Stone Boscos Restaurant Blonde 4.8 3.44
Oatmeal Stout Core Brewing Stout 5.6 3.5
 AVERAGES: 6.066 3.5204

According to results of the Beer Advocate research, the average ABV of all “best beers” was 8 percent, with states having an average of 5.5 beers at or below that threshold. Nine of Arkansas’ beers were below that threshold, which included one of the few blonde ales to get highlighted among 506 beers.

In terms of Beer Advocate user preferences, all this means not many people seem to care about Arkansas beer. Why should you? Let’s find out with Jonas and Josh.

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