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

header-unique-beer

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 near 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 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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A ‘Definitive’ Guide to the Best Beer of 2016

2016 best beer header

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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Examining the Value of ‘Best’ Beer: BeerGraphs

HolyGrail-lager

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

HolyGrail-lager

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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New England IPA and Creating Beer Culture

hazy-goop-ipa

The more I read and write about the beer industry, the stronger I feel that American beer culture should often be seen through hop-tinted glasses. The IPA, a defining American style, is “almost like an adjective for American brewing,” as recently pointed out by Jeff Alworth.

Everywhere you turn, IPA is having some sort of impact on consumer buying decisions, brewery production choices and the fate of some of our beloved, heritage brands. Jeff and I are on the same wavelength: hops have done incredible things for the American beer industry and through this prism, evolution and innovation continues to happen. American ingenuity pairs well with America’s favorite craft beer.

Which is all part of the reason why I’ve been watching with great interest the most recent development of the Northeast/New England IPA. There have been many stages of growth from when Sierra Nevada and Russian River started the modern hop-forward movement to today, bringing us from bitingly bitter, malt-balanced, fruity and cloudy IPAs. But what we see now with the NE IPA is a giant venn diagram converging. Aspects of our brewing culture are coming together, showing maturation of the industry and its drinkers.

The NE IPA isn’t just a trend. It’s a part of the broader cultural implications of beer.

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The Perfect Tap List as Determined by Beer Nerds

beer taps

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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Tracking the Evolution of American IPA

united staes of hops

It says a lot about our country’s love for all things hop, considering how easy it is for us to talk about it.

(Flips through dozens of posts on this blog)

A week ago, the folks at Willamette Week did a Portland, Oregon-based IPA taste test to determine the best in Beervana, USA. The winners? Beers “influenced by Heady Topper, Julius and Sculpin, beers that present hops as a reward rather than a challenge.”

That got me thinking.

Then Jeff Alworth chimed in, sharing some excellent insight and expertise as to why the best IPAs in Portland are more influenced by aroma and taste than bitterness.

Which got me thinking some more.

In our natural evolution as a beer drinking country, it seems our manifest destiny to have arrived at this place, where the hop is king and we are continuously searching for more ways to celebrate our love of lupulin, albeit in a different way than we did five, 10 and especially 20 years ago.

So why have our collective tastes shifted from biting bitterness to flavorful concoctions? Let’s think about this together.

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