The success of craft beer has made Best Beer lists impossible to create. We should let them go.
In this age of online listification and struggle for superlatives “Best Of” list are commonplace – in part because they are inherently fun. A good “Best Of” list is ripe for enjoyable debate. But a good debate also requires common ground. For example, think of ranking the best Star Wars movies. You only have seven (debatably!) to choose from, and a large number of people have seen all of them. That creates a spirited discussion that lots of people can participate in. However, in a world closer to home, the beer world, we’re seeing less common ground than we ever have before.
When I first got involved with beer, my favorite beverage lent itself pretty well to a “Best Of” classification: Beers were a relatively small pool to pull from and they were drinks almost everyone could relate to. But as craft beer has evolved, especially over the past decade, things have changed: The number of commercially available beers has grown at an explosive clip. Though this growth has been amazing for beer diehards (myself included), knowledge of what’s actually available at any given moment has been diluted, and many casual drinkers feel more intimidated by what was once an everyman’s drink. As a result, modern “Best Beer” lists feel far less fulfilling than the more authoritative lists of yore. Maybe it’s time we let them die with dignity.
The biggest obstacle to compiling a truly authoritative beer list these days is the sheer number of breweries and beers. I started drinking craft beer in 1997. That year, the first craft beer boom was reaching its peak with the number of US breweries approaching a then-record 1,400. From 2000 to 2005, the number of breweries in America actually declined, hovering around 1,500 before exploding again around 2009 – the second craft beer boom. Today, over 5,300 breweries are in operation, nearly four times as many as when I first started drinking hoppy pale ales and Hefeweizens back in ’97 at the wide-eyed age of… uh… let’s say 21.
But even as recently as 2008, a comprehensive knowledge of the entire craft beer scene actually still felt manageable. According to the Brewers Association, 1,521 of the breweries in operation in ’08 were craft. Of those, 1,009 were brewpubs, which do often make world-class beer, but could be reasonably set aside by anyone trying to get a picture of the beer landscape. So what you were left with was 512 production craft breweries. At that number, you could try an offering from every major brewer in the country in a single year by drinking around a beer and a half per day. If you found a bar with dozens of draft lines and a massive bottle list, you could probably knock out ten percent of the brewers in the country in one location.
In 2016, still lopping off brewpubs (to get a fair comparison) there were 3,318 craft brewers in the US. To try a beer from every brewer in America, that “one and a half per day” number shot up to over nine beers a day. Let that sink in for a second: Starting from scratch, if you wanted to try a single beer from every off-site-focused craft brewer in a year, you would have to drink over two-and-a-half cases of beer every week. And that’s just to try one beer from each brewery – never mind digging into their entire portfolio.
Of course, as a beer lover and professional, I am not starting from scratch. My job is to keep up with new breweries as they open. But in the past year, the amount of non-brewpub craft breweries jumped by 554. More opened last year alone than even existed when I began my career in 2008.
Still, though the number of breweries has become more logistically insurmountable, that’s obviously not unique to beer. The number of restaurants in the United States far outpaces the number of breweries, and people still make “Best Restaurant” lists. But the brewing world has also seen another sea change in the past decade that complicates the construction of a definitive list: The numbers and styles of beers that individual brewers make.
Back in 1997, most breweries made beers in a mix of distinct but common styles—a typical list might include basics like a pale ale, a wheat, a brown, a porter and a stout. And generally what you’d see on the shelf one day would be the same thing you’d find the next day, month and year.
No longer. Many modern brewers brew what they want, when they want. Gone are the days of focusing on consistency. Note here I don’t mean a lack of quality, just a lack of similarity from one batch to the next. Limited-edition, special release and rare beers are the hottest things going today. And many mercurial brewers will make new beers every week.
Counterintuitively, at the same time that many brewers are increasing the number of beers they make, the diversity between these beers has often shrunk. Many brewers no longer feel the need to satisfy every possible palate by stretching across the spectrum with both a pale ale and a brown. New breweries will have more of a laser focus, perhaps only making hoppy beers or only stouts or just trendy sours. The same brewer might use the same IPA base with slightly different hops from batch to batch – Nelson Sauvin this time, Motueka next, Pacifica after that. For beer geeks, such small variations are interesting. But average drinkers might not even be able to tell the difference. It also makes it increasingly difficult to select a “Best” even within a single brewery.
“I think determining ‘Best Beers’ has become harder because so many people are making world-class beers... that are all kinda the same,” fellow beer writer Aaron Goldfarb said to me. “Who doesn't make a killer juicy New England-style IPA you can buy hours fresh? Who doesn't have a thick, fudgy imperial stout loaded with crazy adjuncts. And the constant need to pump new beers into the marketplace, and ‘Best’ is only ‘Best’ for a short lifespan.”
Sometimes that lifespan is so short, a beer isn’t even available anymore when a list is set to be published. I’ve reached out to breweries of all sizes and reputations for pieces featuring their work only to have them say they don’t want a particular beer added to a list because they don’t plan on making it again. You’d think such praise might inspire them to break out the recipe, but lots of brewers simply move on.
Plenty of publications and writers continue to fight the “Best Beers” fight though, because digestible, numbered lists seems to be what the public wants. “Here Are Some Interesting but Not Necessarily Amazing Beers I Tried Travelling to Boston” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as “The 10 Best Beers in Massachusetts.”
The way the craft industry has evolved has made all “Best Beer” lists inherently flawed. The variables have become too great and the intricacies too subtle to leave the debate as enjoyable as it once was. Limiting the scope of a list can sometimes help. Paste Magazine, for example, has seen a lot of success with their massive blind tastings – “246 of the American IPAs, Blind-Tasted and Ranked” or “116 of the Best Saisons, Blind-Tasted and Ranked.” At least in these “Best Of” lists, the pool is set. But even they are flawed, not by omission, but because, as we know, today’s beer is not necessarily tomorrow’s beer. It’s like ranking the Star Wars movies just before George Lucas goes and tinkers with them again. Where does that leave us?
There’s a better way: Skip the beer shorthand of “Best Of” lists and invest more time in learning about beer as a whole. I realize it’s a cliché, but the truth still stands that the “Best Beer” is the best beer for you, and you only figure it out as you learn to appreciate what you’re drinking. Learn about malt and yeast, hops and off flavors. Spend less time digesting beer lists and more time digesting actual beer.