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How to pick the best 25 beers in the world

In the midst of the discussion about the Wine Enthusiast list of top 25 beers, Jeff Alworth posed a question:

Stan, just to throw a hot potato back at you: if, under penalty of death, you were compelled to come up with a list of the world’s 25 best, what would it be? Actually, I don’t care what the list is as much as I wonder what criteria you would apply to come up with it.

I’d probably rather Jeff provide the criteria and I do the list, but that’s not the real question is it? So, understanding I’m bound to overthink this, here you go.

  • Diversity. When Michael Jackson came up with the list of 42 5-star beers I often refer to he picked only one beer within a “style.” I wouldn’t be that pedantic, so just because I’d make Saison Dupont one of my very first picks doesn’t mean I wouldn’t end up with a second saison. Though probably not a third. (And the point isn’t that it’s a particular style; see the next criterion.)

    Am I changing the rules? If you look at the annual (or semi-annual) lists from Rate Beer and Beer Advocate they damn the torpedoes and if three imperial stouts, two doppelbocks and four strong dark ales fermented with yeast from Belgium end up in the top 10 that’s fine. I’d rather read a list that includes 25 beers that represent the best in and the breadth of the world. A cheat? Sorry, I want a helles to have a chance to make the list.

    Whose palates will be served? Only those who love big hefty, maybe hoppy, beers? Only those who appreciate pale, delicate beers? Why not everybody.

  • Style is a diversion. Do you decide how much you enjoy a beer based on how good it tastes to you or how well it matches some description of what’s “classic?”
  • Price. Not part of the discussion.
  • Longevity. Many brewers have won gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival with an initial batch of beer. How many great batches must you brew over how many years to prove it’s not a fluke? Any answer is arbitrary. As the great publican Mark Dorber once said, “Consistency is not the god of beer.” I don’t insist that a beer always be the same; only that is always be great. Once is not always. Three times is not always.
  • Availability. It’s no longer OK to call Courage Imperial Stout the best of the world, even if you can locate bottles of the last batch brewed in 1993. The “best 25 beers in the world that hardly anybody really drinks” is a different list. Once-a-year limited edition beers are eligible, but only after multiple releases.
  • Judging credentials. I know I’m not qualified. I’m not quite sure who is. You’ve got to drink all the world, including a boatload of American beers. You can’t claim that a traditional hefeweiss or pilsner or brown ale is better than some new wave beer brewed with chestnuts and a lock of John Wilkes Booth’s hair under a full moon unless you’ve tried them all. Nor can you vote for innovation over tradition unless you’ve tasted plenty of tradition.
  • It’s not a matter of starting with some list, say 10, of the best pilsners from the Czech Republic and hauling them fresh to a judging arena. You must go there and taste them where they are brewed. Same with wheat beers in Bavaria (though not all 1,000 or so available). Timothy Taylor Landlord is not going to be the same on cask in Chicago (site of the next World Beer Cup) as it is anywhere in the U.K. Drink multiple pints or half liters or chalices. If it’s one of the best 25 beers in the world you should rip the arms off of somebody who tries to keep you from finishing your glass.

    Did I answer your question? This is another fool’s errand, so feel free to add what I left out in comments.

    Curiously, the exercise has helped me focus on why I find trying to identify the very best in the world pointless. If you love beer, on any given Sunday the 343rd best in the world may be better than the 14th.

    15 Responses to How to pick the best 25 beers in the world

    1. Ron Pattinson December 9, 2009 at 2:34 am #

      Courage Russian Stout is the best beer in the world. There, I’ve said it. I’ve still got enough to last a lifetime. And you never know, I might get someone to recreate the 1850’s version.

    2. Mike December 9, 2009 at 6:20 am #

      I agree with many of the points you have made here. But, why isn’t there a list for the best chicken salad sandwich in the world? And where is the list for the best songs in the world? How about a list for the best wife in the world (easy one for me, my wife would win).

      Beer, like most other things, is a matter of personal taste. What tastes great to me, probably tastes like sewage to someone else (and vice-versa, of course). Take a look at Westvleteren 12 on Ratebeer, for example. One guy wrote: “Pour is muddy brown with small brown head. Aroma burns your nostrils with alcohol and funk. The flavor is terrible. Alcohol and bad sour was all I tasted.” He gave the beer a 1.

      “Best of” lists (whether beer or anything else) are pointless. I’ll pick my own bests, thank you.

    3. Stan Hieronymus December 9, 2009 at 6:47 am #

      Mike – The scary thing is there are lists for best chicken salad sandwiches and best songs. They make sense to the people who compile them. But who find the notion of a best beer list utterly ridiculous.

    4. Jeff Alworth December 9, 2009 at 12:22 pm #

      I believe the mention of Saison Dupont was an effort to appease me, knowing as you apparently do that it would be in my top five as well. Actually, I like your criteria a great deal (and the bit about trying beers in situ is what prevents me from jumping on this bandwagon).

      Ultimately, the idea of bests is misguided. I suspect we could assemble a list of 500 beers meeting your criteria that we could find no earthly reason to exclude. When you have this proble, fingering the ‘best’ beer is much like arguing for a ‘best’ color. Jackson was smart to talk about styles and offer a selection of great examples. I appreciate you walking through the exercise–it demonstrates the myriad problems that inevitably mar attempts at identifying the ‘best’ beers.

    5. Lew Bryson December 9, 2009 at 2:48 pm #

      For God’s sake, Jeff, Stan, this one’s easy. I’ve got a gun to my head and the triggerman wants the 25 best beers in the world? The first 25 beers I think of, there you go, where’s the exit, thank you very much BYE!

    6. Bill Aimonetti December 9, 2009 at 3:47 pm #

      I have always thought that the perfect tee shirt for beer festivals and serious tastings would say “Palates Are Like Assholes”

    7. Sean Inman December 9, 2009 at 5:21 pm #

      Top 10 (or 20 or 30) lists are only created to generate discussion. Whether that discussion stays within the bounds of civil discourse is another matter. I prefer to stay away from lists because they breed second guessing. If I really enjoy a beer like Mikkeller Nelson, but I don’t see it ranked as high as I believe it should be then the doubt creeps in. Conversely, if I ever have the fortune of opening up a Dark Lord and if it doesn’t set the choirs of angels singing, then my palate becomes suspect.

      Maybe we need to change the terminology. Instead of Top whatever, how about benchmark?

    8. Andy December 9, 2009 at 9:19 pm #

      Whenever I have been asked what my favorite beer(s) is(are) I have to ask in what the context is for drinking this beer. While I am not a huge fan of trying to perfectly match beer and food, there are plenty of beers I won’t drink with dinner and some I only drink with food. Alternatively, am I in some dive bar where I am excited that PBR is on the list or am I at a real “beer bar” where I am going to order Cuvee Rene. Maybe I just over think things though.

    9. Alan December 9, 2009 at 9:23 pm #

      “Price. Not part of the discussion.” This makes the rest meaningless. Overpricing underwhelms and undermines. Beer consumption is, after all, a commercial activity which includes (wonder of wonders) a buyer making a decision.

      Besides that, “best” is meaningless. It’s meaninglessness itself. It’s like “top” or “foremost” in that respect. Why not have “my favorite 25” or “25 from Ohio you may well like” or even “25 beers you should try if money was not an object” … but that last one is still hard to imagine. Beer that is part of a rip off laughs at you. Beer should not laugh at you.

    10. Stan Hieronymus December 9, 2009 at 10:15 pm #

      Alan, if you read the last paragraph it should be clear that I find “best” elusive.

      But I think that if you feel compelled to pick a favorite 10 or 25 or 1001 it is difficult enough without citing price and adding an extra equation to compute “best value.” Talk about subjective.

      That said, in writing the post I almost pointed to Kout na Šumave Svetlý Ležák, which might be the best pilsner I’ve ever had and cost us 80 U.S. cents per half liter in the Czech countryside last year. Of course there is the expense of getting there . . .

    11. Alan December 10, 2009 at 6:19 am #

      I was concurring with you on bestestness, just elaborating. And how sweet the modest gem. One southern Polish beer from near the Bohemian border had in 1991 is my 50 cent equivalent.

      You know, it is not that I am solely value based in my thinking but I am starting to think that there is no one best structure of analysis for beer pleasure and conviviality. Each basis, each starting point for beer like style, value, objective taste, pairing, historical truth are all partial and to a degree tangential yet also illustrative.

    12. Jason December 10, 2009 at 2:07 pm #

      I enjoy reading people’s Favorite 25 beer list. I hate reading people’s Top 25 beer list. (Again, like Alan, I agree with you.) But as a newish drinker (compared to many of those who have commented before me), I like to see what others recommend. Maybe I will try it. If it is good, it is good. I will try it once. Heck it might only be good enough to have while eating wings, but it might be that special beer to be drank on a special day. I want people to give me a list so I can be introduced to more, and when I see it, remember that I should try it.

      But please, no Top 25 lists.

    13. Andy December 12, 2009 at 9:37 am #

      I had never seen MJ’s list before. I see it was published in 1982. Given the evolution in beer and beer styles, as well as the explosion in American Craft Brewing creativity, I wonder how his list would be different if he were around to do it again.

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