Homebrewers Vote, We Listen: Zymurgy’s “Best Beer” and National Trends

Pliny the Elder’s reign is over. Since 2009, the beloved double IPA has sat atop the annual “best beer” poll held by Zymurgy magazine, but no longer.

Over that same period of time, Bell’s Two Hearted has been Pliny’s #2. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride? No more.

The magazine of the American Homebrewers Association released this week its new rankings as voted on by AHA members, who were able to choose up to 20 of their favorite commercial beers available for purchase in the United States through an online voting system. The flip-flop of Pliny the Elder and Two Hearted isn’t the only thing worth paying attention to, however.

Per annual tradition, let’s take a walk through the results.

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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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Carlos Brito and the Fallacy of Too Much Choice

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What a terrifying world we live in. Two breweries opening up each day. Stores stocking week-old beer. Shelves lined with bottles and cans as far as the eye can see.

“Our customers are thinking, ‘how much more of an assortment can you carry?'” AB InBev CEO Carlos Brito recently told Just Drinks, adding that consumers are “a bit tired of choice and go for fewer brands.”

The end is nigh. Or, at least, that’s how the leader of the world’s largest beer company would like you to see it. Because let’s be honest, beer drinkers aren’t taking to the streets to protest the volume of what’s available to them. In many ways, they’re embracing it.

There are specific problems facing beer sales, from maintaining flagship brands to warding off wine and spirits, but the idea of choice seems more like a welcomed challenge than worrisome threat. Brito’s belief that “[t]here’s only so much shelf space that you can share and cold box that you can split,” is a factually accurate representation of store layout, but presenting an array of options isn’t as cut and dry as he’d like you to think.

Instead let’s focus on what’s getting the most attention: the brunt of Brito’s assertion. Are consumers “tired of choice”?

Evidence suggests he’s wrong.

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The Perfect Tap List as Determined by Beer Nerds

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Over on VinePair, writer Will Gordon recently shared an interesting game/exercise: creating “16 Perfect Taps” at the hypothetical bar of your dreams. It gained some traction among beer enthusiasts across social media as drinkers compiled their own lists picking out their favorite ales and lagers to take up each tap.

I thought an interesting twist might be to make the process a little more objective, from my point of view, by using the subjective ratings provided by beer lovers across the world.

Taking Will’s outline from his post, which breaks the tap list down into 16 categories, I sourced choices from four rating sites: RateBeer, Beer Advocate, BeerGraphs and Untappd. Each website offers its own proprietary ranking system, whether a formula devised by RateBeer and Beer Advocate or the “Beers Over Replacement” of BeerGraphs. Untappd, of course, has the bottle cap rating system.

Using that base, I picked the top-ranked beers from each site with the caveat that choices from RateBeer or BeerAdvocate needed to have at least 100 rankings. I have no interest in including a beer that is very highly rated, but has only been “checked in” a dozen times.

Let’s take a look at what we’ll be drinking…

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A ‘Definitive’ Guide to the Best Beer of 2015: The Beer

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Yesterday, we looked at the “best” breweries of 2015.

Today, we use the same unscientific process on the best beers we might have enjoyed last year.

To do this, I used a collection of 2015’s “best beer” lists from a variety of sources, from blogs to newspapers and prominent magazines. Criteria for selection was simple: a list had to focus on 2015 releases (new beers or new, annual brews) with a preference toward a wide geographic representation. There are more city/state best beer lists than we could shake a pint glass at.

That left me with an eclectic group of lists, ranging from three to 25 beers. In all, there were 193 total beers to analyze with a handful of beers vying for best of 2015.

Nine made the cut.

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Reporter’s Notebook: The Hidden Game of Buying Beer

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We are all unique snowflakes.

We pride ourselves for the power of individual thought. Nobody else is like us. Nobody else can influence us.

We do what we want, what we like and what we need.

Except when we don’t.

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The High ABV Beer is Dead! Long Live High ABV!

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Lagers make a comeback. Session IPAs steal share from their imperialized counterparts. Dogs live with cats!

It’s mass hysteria.

Or, at least, if you’re ready to buy into the latest publicized trend in beer by market research company Mintel, who noted the rise of high ABV beers in recent years. According to their estimate, just 6.6 percent of new beers globally were “high strength” in the early 2000s at an ABV above 6.5 percent. But in recent years, that’s jumped significantly:

  • 2012: 14 percent
  • 2013: 25 percent
  • 2014: 23 percent

Keep in mind those percentages reflect a global growth with new breweries opening nearly every day, so in America in 2013, it could be 25 percent of beers created by the 2,456 and then in 2014 it’s 23 percent from 2,917 breweries, per Brewers Association estimates.

“A potential backlash against this [high strength] trend is almost inevitable because there is far too much high ABV innovation happening,” said Jonny Forsyth, global drinks analyst for Mintel. “Beer remains fundamentally a volume and refreshment beverage and high ABV beers quickly take modern health-conscious consumers over the recommended limit.”

While it’s true beer’s success is partially driven by an opportunity for volume-based consumption, it feels a bit risky to contend that a backlash is on its way, especially when high-ABV beers are widely considered some of the best you can find. For example, look at the alcohol by volume of RateBeer’s top twenty-five best beers from their “Best Beer” lists covering 2006 to 2015:

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Among the items RateBeer prides itself on is its global user base. Glancing at the website’s top user rankings, it’s easy to see that potential fans for these best beers are coming from all over.

So perhaps reports of high ABV’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

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6 Charts That Show We Love Being Boozehounds, or: An Analysis of ABV and Ranking Bias

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In recent weeks, I’ve been slowly pulling together research for a special project to compile nearly all the work I’ve performed in regard to ABV, style and beer rating bias into one compendium of sorts.

As I put the finishing touches on the effort, I’ve created several new charts to help tell the story of drinker preferences based on research from Rate Beer and Beer Advocate.

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RateBeer Ranked: A Historical Analysis of “Best Beers”

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After looking back at RateBeer user preferences for 2014 as all as a comparison of the last two years, it’s time to take a step even further back.

RateBeer’s “best beer” list goes back as far as 2002 – missing in 2004 and 2005 for some reason – so what I’ve done is taken the past 10 years of data from the annual rankings and selected the best of the “best” to try and gain some kind of insight.

What we have now is historical proof of our drunkenness. Or, at least, signs that demonstrate if we’re sipping on world-class beer, it better bring the heat.

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