Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier, Duvel, Schneider & Sohn Aventinus, Unibroue La Fin du Monde, and even Bell’s Two Hearted Ale…all beers now ranked in the top 20 on Beer Advocate’s newly redesigned Top Beers on Planet Earth list. And for once, I couldn’t agree more.
For many of us who closely follow the general goings-on of the craft beer world, and wait with bated breath as brewers announce the next offering in their [insert name of rare beer series here] or host limited release parties of draught-only mega-hopped DIPA’s and waxed bombers of Russian imperial stouts, you likely fall into one of two camps when it comes to how you’ve historically viewed the Beer Advocate Top Beers list. You either 1) look at the list as holy scripture, a true reflection of the beer zietgeist that accurately ranks the top beers on the planet based solely on objective ratings by site reviewers, or 2) a list of beers that are generally considered by most to be “the best” to be had, but also a list that’s significantly contaminated and largely driven by hype and limited availability versus objective sensory evaluation.
Clearly, I’m in camp #2. And I’ve always looked at the list with a skeptical eye, questioning how beers such as Russian River’s Pliny the Younger, which I recently reviewed with a firm tongue in cheek, could be considered to be one of THE BEST in the world (I think #2 on their old list) when only a few hundred people ever had the opportunity to try it. Is it a good beer? Of course it is. But given the relatively small sample size of reviewers, can it legitimately be considered the best in the world? According to the Alstrom Brothers — the founders of Beer Advocate who recently changed the minimum number of reviews for any beer to potentially make the list from 10 to 1,000 — the answer was a firm no.
And in my opinion, here’s why: Beer Advocate has done a great deal to raise awareness for craft beer made with passion and love by the more than 1,500 craft breweries around our country, and beyond. However, over the years, the community has slowly drifted from fulfilling part of its original stated mission, which is to “wake the masses to better beer options.” In short, it went from truly advocating for craft beer, to acting more as a repository of incredibly inside reviews and discussions on ultra rare, difficult to find beers that only the most determined of beer geeks could ever hope to lay their hands on. Not necessarily what I’d call a truly representative take on how most of the country views the beer category.
So now that Westy 12 is no longer the king of the hill (for now), who are the top contenders? They are beers with critical mass behind them…offerings that a significant number of people view as the best of the best. And in creating a high bar for admission, in one fell swoop we’ve eliminated the majority (not all, of course) of the hype driving many of the old rankings.
To that end, they’ve also created a handful of new sub-lists that break out the rankings by geography, by how poorly they’ve been rated (a “bottom of the barrel” list), and even by how new a beer is to the marketplace (in other words, what beers are getting “buzz”). These newer, often highly limited beers of course have their place…but at least for now, not at the top of the beer world until more folks get on board with them, the economic principle of scarcity be damned.
I can see only good things from this change. This is a much more credible and realistic list. Regular folks who may not be exposed to the craft world may now truly have an opportunity to understand what this thing is all about, and why people like you and me get so excited when talking about the beer we tried the night before. And in looking at the current list, I couldn’t agree more with how many of the highly available beers, including many that are standard bearers of their respective styles, are positioned.
No matter what system or criteria you employ, it will never be a perfect representation. But I believe that this change in criteria was truly a move in the right direction. So now that I’ve made my case, what say you?
* Huge footnote to this post…in many ways, my commentary above was significantly negated, considering moments after publishing this, the “Bros” announced that their shift to a 1,000 review minimum to make the top list was in fact an “experiment” meant to solicit feedback on how the lists were generated. Instead of 1,000 reviews as the threshold, they’ve set the criteria at the mean number of reviews across all beers listed on the site, which currently sits at 105. Is 105 better than 10? Yes. Is it statistically more equitable than using an arbitrary number such as 1,000? Yes. But do I agree with the notion that they’ve significantly minimized the hype factor involved in their ranking system by going this route? Absolutely not. The amended list is largely unchanged, and does nothing to fulfill their stated mission of bringing greater awareness and visibility to “better beer options” for the masses.