Drink Magazine

What Do the “Best Beers in America” Say About the Beer Industry?

By Bryan Roth @bryandroth


Yesterday, Zymurgy, the official magazine of the American Homebrewers Association, released results of its annual “Best Beers in America” survey, completed by members of the organization. The list, which I’ve written about before, typically gears toward expectations: lots of IPAs and imperial stouts.

While I’ve only had a few hours to look over this year’s list with an advance digital copy of Zymurgy, I’ve already started comparing and contrasting between previous iterations of the “Best Beers” lists, which are determined by popular vote. To determine the rankings, voters selected up to 20 of their favorite beers in an online poll.

I plan to offer up full details of this year’s list next week, but I wanted to share a few initial reactions when comparing lists from 2012, 2013 and 2014. While Russian River’s Pliny the Elder and Bell’s Two Hearted IPAs have held the #1 and #2 spots, respectively, in each of the past three years, there has been some shift with other brews. (you can also see the top-10 beers for 2014 here)

The Risers

First, let’s look at five beers that have been moving up the charts over the last three years:

Ballast Point Sculpin IPA Alchemist Heady Topper Goose Island BCBS Founders KBS Boulevard Tank 7

2012: T17 2012: N/A 2012: 29 2012: T37 2012: N/A

2013: 5 2013: 16 2013: 25 2013: T17 2013: T32

2014: 3 2014: 5 2014: 10 2014: 11 2014: 25

You may have heard of Heady Topper, The Alchemist’s beer so mythical people will go to jail for it. Heady Topper has been brewed since 2003, but it’s just in the recent years of our craft beer craze that people have gone gonzo for it, which might explain its meteoric rise. Ironically, it has success in spite of a major restriction: you can’t really find it outside of its very minor distribution in Vermont or immediate New England area.

Even though so few people can actually buy the beer, it has gone from obscurity to one of the most highly-regarded beers in the country. Trading certainly helps. When hosting a popular vote, hype means a lot.

The higher ranks of Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout and Founders Kentucky Brand Stout shouldn’t come as a surprise, either, given their imperial stout nature (people love ‘em) and general rarity. I’m curious to see if Goose Island’s national roll out of Bourbon County Stout this year might impact rankings moving forward.

What really got me excited was seeing Boulevard’s Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale moving up. Partially, it’s confirmation that people are getting more into saisons and farmhouse-style ales, but it’s also due. If you care for this kind of thing, it scores a 98 on RateBeer and a 93 on Beer Advocate. Personally, it’s one of my favorites.

The Fallers

Here’s where it gets interesting and rather indicative of our current beer culture:

Sierra Nevada Torpedo North Coast Old Rasputin Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale Dogfish Head 60 Min Bear Republic Racer 5 Stone Arrogant Bastard Ale

2012: 9 2012: 10 2012: 14 2012: 15 2012: 13 2012: 5

2013: T12 2013: T12 2013: 19 2013: 30 2013: T21 2013: 7

2014: 20 2014: T23 2014: 36 2014: T34 2014: 43 2014: T18

What do all these beers have in common? They’ve been around for a while and aren’t the new kid on the block any more.

Even though all these beers are highly regarded – Torpedo is the best-selling IPA in America – they’ve also been around for years. Arrogant Bastard Ale has been made since 1997. Dogfish Head’s 60 Minute IPA was among the first of the style to really break through. North Coast Old Rasputin, despite being rated as one of the best imperial stouts on the market, is available everywhere North Coast distributes, which is nearly the entire US.

Comparing and contrasting this list to the “Risers,” it’s easy to see – being new, hip or rare is a big deal to consumers, who will provide higher ranks. It sounds blasphemous to say, but 60 Minute and Torpedo are probably boring IPAs at this point, especially when you consider the flood of IPAs on the market and increasing prevalence of local options all across the country.

Wild Cards

Here are two beers that stood out to me for other reasons:

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale Russian River Pliny the Younger

2012: 4 2012: T48

2013: 15 2013: T39

2014: 12 2014: 28

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is often cited as the second best-selling craft beer in the US (behind Sam Adams Boston Lager) and even though it’s not overly “special” in today’s world of IPAs and double IPAs, it still clings on to relevancy among beer drinkers. While some of the “Fallers” might suffer from consumer fatigue, this beer hasn’t, really.

Pliny the Younger is a specialty version of top-ranked Pliny the Elder, released annually to just a few markets on draft in California, Oregon, Colorado and Philadelphia. So few people get to actually try the beer, yet it’s seen a stunning climb on Zymurgy’s list, despite lack of distribution.

Again, we come back to the role of hype and what that may do for the beer. If thousands of people are voting in Zymurgy’s survey, it must get a tremendous push from the limited number of people who actually get to try it, nullifying its rarity.

What’s next?

Over the last week, I’ve been working on a series of posts analyzing Boston Beer’s growth and what that means for the craft industry. That’s pushed aside for now, as I hope to dive a bit deeper into these rankings and (hopefully) come up with some more ideas on what this means in relation to the industry and beer enthusiasts.

In the meantime, what is your reaction to this?

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

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