Best in the World?

Beer review/social networking site RateBeer just released their annual Best-of-lists: the best beers, best breweries and best beer bars in 2011, as determined by their aggregate (and, I believe, weighted) ratings on the site. Being a beer geek who loves lists (but who, strangely, only just recently signed up to RateBeer – I’m HenrikO if you want to friend me), I naturally checked it out first thing. Some thoughts:

For Best Brewers in the world, the dominance of US breweries is clear. There are 33 non-US breweries in the top 100 for 2012 (up ever-so-slightly from 2011 when there were 32 – non-US breweries have in fact held relatively steady at around 1/3 of the list since 2006). There’s always an argument to be had whether this reflects the biases of the community or whether it simply reflects the fact that US brewers in general are better. I’m inclined towards the latter explanation, actually – for a long time, the US was the world leader in craft brewing in terms of innovation and quality, and it’s only in the past five or ten years that the rest of the world has been catching up.

The first non-US brewery on the list is at #9, Belgium’s finest De Struise (up from #11 last year). The top names in general are very much the usual suspects (which is not anything negative, these are indeed breweries that have built a reputation for consistent excellence over time): Three Floyds, Founders, Bells, AleSmith, Cigar City, Hill Farmstead, Stone and Russian River are at #1-8, respectively. The highest-placed non-US brewers are also mostly what could be expected: De Molen (#12), Westvleteren (#13), Mikkeller (#16), Dieu du Ciel (#19), Rochefort (#30), St. Bernard (#32), and then at #39, the first UK brewery: Kernel. UK breweries make a pretty poor showing compared to for example Belgium – you have BrewDog (#57), Samuel Smith (#71), Thornbridge (#71), and Harviestoun (#79), so Kernel’s the only UK brewery in the top half of the list, and one of just five UK brewers. The competition on the list is stiff, to be sure, but I have a feeling that we may well see more UK brewers on this top 100 list in the future.

On that note, it is great to see Magic Rock listed as #2 (of 5) among the Best New Brewers – the only non-US brewery on the list! I think it is probable that Magic Rock will make the overall Best 100-list next year, and there are several breweries in the UK that has top-100 potential as well (Summer Wine and Camden Town come to mind).

In terms of best beers, the trend that has driven a lot of the craft beer revolution is definitely ‘extreme’ beers of various kinds – big, Imperial Stouts and IPAs in particular. I like extreme beers as much as the next guy, and they definitely dominate the list (Westvleteren 12 at #1, Goose Island Rare Bourbon County Stout at #3, Bells Hopslam at #6  and Russian River Pliny the Younger at #7, to mention just a few example from the top 10) – but so is Cigar City Pilot Series Passionfruit and Dragonfruit Berliner Weisse (which as far as I have been able to find out is below ABV 4.5) at #8 and Cantillon Don Quijote (ABV 5.0) at #22 and Cantillon Lou Pepe Pure Kriek (ABV 5.0) at #48 – OK sure, these are the only three “normal-ABV” beers I could find on the top 50, but still – it means it is possible to appeal to the geek community without loading up on the booze (hard, but possible). I think extremes will probably rule the top 50 for years yet to come but I would also not be at all surprised if more and more low-to-normal-ABV beers would break in to the list. More and more brewers are experimenting with this (presumably in part because they like the challenge) – witness BrewDog’s Blitz! (ABV 2.8) and Fullers Mighty Atom (ABV 2.8) , for example.

And while the extremes rule the roost, there’s still considerable variety within that genre: the top 50 features many different beer styles: Alongside the Imperial Stouts and IPAs, you have the Belgian Triples and Quads, the Lambics, the Barleywines, the Old Ales… so things are definitely moving towards greater diversity, which is great.

Finally, looking at Best Beers by part of the world, the top 50 of the British Isles reads like a one-brewery show: a whopping 21 of the 50 are Kernel beers (I’m of course very pleased to see two of my personal favourites at the top, the Breakfast Stout at #2 and the Imperial Brown Stout 1856 at #4). And I must confess my ignorance: I’d not even heard of the #1, Old Chimneys Good King Henry Special Reserve Imperial Stout, but I’m looking forward to trying it at some point! If any of my readers have tried it, feel free to let me know what you thought in the comments! Other UK mainstays like BrewDog, Thornbridge, Oakham, Dark Star, Marble, and yes, Magic Rock, are of course also there, and I got some new tips of breweries I have not yet checked out but clearly should: Buxton, Arbor Ales, and Tempest are three breweries I’ll definitely seek out in 2012.

Because that’s what I think the main utility of this type of lists is: since you cannot drink everything, and you’re invariably going to miss something, these lists provide suggestions of beers you might want to seek out. Of course, the fact that everyone else likes them is no guarantee that you will – but the RateBeer community is large and they have some very experienced reviewers, so my view is that if a beer is in the top 50, it’s at least worth trying! Really deciding once and for all on the “best” beer or brewer in the world is of course a futile exercise, and everyone knows that – so for me, these lists are all about the inspiration. There are plenty of people out there who know more about beer than I, and I am happy to take their advice.

Anyone else got specific comment on the RateBeer top lists, please do share them in the comments!

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Posted on January 28, 2012, in Feature and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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