Deconstructing What It Means to Be Best: Is It Beer or Experience?

The past week was a wild one of lines drawn and heated tempers – all over a logo.

Or, rather, a logo released by the Brewers Association to separate their “small and independent” members from other businesses managed to rile up beer enthusiasts, creating collateral damage of their good intentions. No matter what the success of the effort is in the long run, it’s clear that the business – for the geekiest and most committed – is entering a stage of new definitions in which “us vs. them” is merely a starting point for breweries to pledge their independence with a physical commitment of space on packaging.

But still, non-Brewers Association defined beer makes up about 87.5% of sales in the U.S., making it a mathematical impossibility that any significant number of drinkers will choose this battle as their last stand. “Small and independent” matters to consumers, but not in a way that any kind of majority (or “silent majority,” even) will create some kind of beer-focused coup and overthrow the centuries-long fact that humans really like drinking lager.

Among all this, I posed a question on Twitter inspired by a (civil!) Reddit thread: was the “best” beer you’ve ever had about the beer or experience?

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What If You Don’t Have to Make ‘Good’ Beer Anymore?

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Earlier this month, Brian Grossman, the son of Sierra Nevada’s founder, Ken, and a leader at one of America’s pioneering breweries, said something that may raise an eyebrow.

“We all know it’s a dying art,” he opined at the act of brewing, a curious statement captured by Good Beer Hunting’s Dave Eisenberg.

In some ways, one could argue brewing and many other acts of production have been on life support for centuries during humanity’s slow march forward with machinery and automation. Our innovation and ingenuity has dwindled romanticized approaches we hold dear, as “artisans” shift from laborious hands on work to efforts that require more button pushing than muscle straining.

But art doesn’t “die,” it merely evolves with the times. The same can be said about brewing. Just because computers can do more work in the process of creating a fermented beverage doesn’t mean human beings are suffering from a lack of creativity. It’s likely to be a successful argument that rather than dying, brewing has never been more alive.

So perhaps the issue Brian Grossman brings up isn’t a life-or-death scenario. Rather, it’s a worried thought about what it means to be associated with the “craft” of brewing and the quality of what comes from it.

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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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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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Examining the Value of ‘Best’ Beer: BeerGraphs

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Quantifying aspects of beer is easy. We have definitive numbers that tell us about alcohol content, color, flavor and more.

But the question at the core of my last post, analyzing the value of “best” beer, asks about the potential of determining context for rarity. Given that the highest rated beers typically share common traits of style, ABV and availability, is there a way for us to better define what a lack of obtainable bottles or cans means to beer enthusiasts applying numbers to quality?

At worst, it’s a fool’s errand, trying to get into the minds of beer raters. At best, it’s an unscientific process that may scratch at the surface of a full effort, although we do have a good idea of what rarity means when it comes to product sales:

“Scarcity has this effect of making people perceive products as more valuable simply for the fact that they’re scarce,” business psychologist Nir Eyal told NPR in 2014, when, naturally, the network was covering the hype of Pliny the Elder, the sister beer of Pliny the Younger.

To build on the analysis of what we might have learned from Beer Advocate’s top 250 beers, I thought it’d be worthwhile to also peek at what we might learn from BeerGraphs.

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Examining the Value of ‘Best’ Beer

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As we close in on the end of the year, it means we’re soon to be swamped with a variety of “best of” lists. This website is no different … although a little.

In the last two years, I’ve created my own unscientific, objective-as-possible best beer lists analyzing the compiled efforts of others scattered across the internet. You can still read 2014 and 2015 results to find out which “best” beers you might’ve missed.

With my attention shifting in that direction in recent weeks, I’ve decided to get a head start in another corner of “best,” taking a look at ratings, style and rarity. As we’ve seen in the past, all three seem to be linked, and I’ve turned to two popular beer rating websites to gain a better understanding. First up: Beer Advocate. (You can read an analysis of BeerGraphs data here.)

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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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The Best Breweries and Beer of 2015 are also the Best of 2016 (So Far)

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Back in January, I shared a two-part compilation of the “best” American breweries and beer of 2015, as selected through an unscientific method. In its second year, the effort offers something of a different view of what “best” is in the industry, trying to take a little subjectivity out of an otherwise very subjective effort. In February, I followed it up with a look at RateBeer’s “best” beers and what it showed us, too.

Now that we’re a quarter of the way through 2016 (!?), it seems the momentum carried by some businesses in 2015 is carrying right into this year.

Over on Beergraphs, Eno Sarris shared yesterday the At The Moment leaderboard of the best new beers of 2016 based on the data-driven site’s Beers Above Replacement methodology. In layman’s terms, it’s the top-20 new beers of 2016 as calculated by Untappd ratings and fancy math.

As I scoured the list, something stood out easily – 13 of the 20 were hop-forward beers, including seven double IPAs and five IPAs. Of course. But the breweries listed weren’t just the At The Moment darlings of the beer world, but they had also come up in my own analysis from a few months back.

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Reporter’s Notebook: The Best Beer You Almost Never Had

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Trying to quantify something as “best” in beer is often a laborious task, if not a disastrous one.

Beer is subjective, offering an array of tastes and experiences, and even when writing my own analysis of best beer lists compiled by websites like RateBeer or Beer Advocate, I try to write “best” in quotation marks because I realize the results of each poll or survey aren’t necessarily indicative of what that word means to everyone. What is a top beer for me isn’t the same for you.

Except, perhaps, when it comes to one particular beer.

Never have I seen and heard such consensus to elect a single beer as best as I have with Brasserie Dupont’s Saison Dupont Vieille Provision. Or, as you probably know it, simply Saison Dupont.

This Belgian saison, which almost disappeared several decades ago, is truly the benchmark for the style. That certainly made it deserving to be the focus of a recent feature for All About Beer, highlighting Saison Dupont in the magazine’s regular Classic Beer column.

“It’s always a good idea, when you’re learning about beer, to have benchmarks,” said Wendy Littlefield, who, along with husband Don Feinberg, were responsible for first bringing Saison Dupont to the U.S. through their Vanberg & DeWulf import company.

In my conversation with Wendy, time and time again she noted the wide recognition of Saison Dupont as a pivotal beer. Not just for the style, but for the industry as a whole. It’s a beer that has launched hundreds, if not thousands, of imitators. And, as I note in the story, there was a time when it was set to be erased from history.

“There was every intention to discontinue it,” noted Mike Battaglia, brand manager with Total Beverage Solution, which now imports the beer. “Saison Dupont represents heritage, quality and history and it nearly went extinct.”

On March 12, people celebrated Saison Day, another one of those made up beer holidays meant to excite drinkers about a particular style or brand, but when it comes to this beer in particular, it seems an appropriate reason to celebrate. How often can you actually pick up a best beer at your leisure? You can walk into a higher-end grocery store like Whole Foods or your local bottle shop and find Saison Dupont, considered by many to be perfect.

“It’s hard to make a beer with that simple a recipe that also has as much flavor and character,” said Gordon Schuck, co-owner and brewmaster at Colorado’s Funkwerks. “It’s masterful.”

Learn more about Saison Dupont and how this best beer almost went away for good in my All About Beer story.

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