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‘Top Beers’ . . . and none German?

Or Czech?

I think all the chatter about brewing innovation last week locked up my brain, but there’s nothing like a list of best beers to give it a kick start.

This time Wine Enthusiast magazine offers its (apparently first) “Top 25 Beers of 2009.” You can view the list in pdf form here and the introduction here.

To the credit of Lauren Buzzeo, whose byline is on the introduction, nowhere do I see the Enthusiast screaming BEST BEERS IN THE WORLD. In fact, I can’t really tell but it might be drawn only from beers the magazine reviewed in 2009 (did you know they review beers? I knew Stephen Beaumont sometimes wrote stories for them). And let’s remember the publication does cater to an American audience. However, if I wanted to be fair all the time I’d have to give up blogging, wouldn’t I?

So, let the ranting begin:

  • In his first Pocket Guide to Beer in 1982, Michael Jackson listed 42 5-star beers. Fourteen were from Germany. This list has zero. Same number as from the United Kingdom.
  • Five lagers, all from the United States. The Czech Pils? Sierra Nevada’s Summerfest. The bock? The doppelbock? The dunkel? Sorry, none of any.
  • Eighteen of the beers are from the United States, four from Belgium, one from Canada, one from Italy and one from Norway (a collaboration with two U.S. breweries).
  • Three Belgian White/wit beers, no German weizen beers. Is this a freshness issue? Then drink Schneider Aventinus.
  • No pale ales or India pale ales (although Avery Maharaja Double IPA makes the list).
  • Two pumpkin beers (sorry about that, Mike).
  • Only 11 styles (that’s using the magazine’s designations, with pumpkin being one of them) represented among the 25 beers listed, so not exactly showcasing a “wide range of styles” (see below).
  • Most popular style: Belgian Dark Strong, which might be why the average beer on the list is 7% alcohol by volume. Three beers less than 5%. The nine top-rated beers average 8.7%.
  • Hey, there are great beers on this list (and I can even buy almost 40 percent of them in New Mexico). My point is not that so and so brews a better such and such. I wouldn’t pretend my list of 25 would be any better (OK, I lied, you’d like mine better, and I’d probably over-represent America and stronger beers, particularly since I’d include at least one IPA.) So I better quit and let the author have the last word:

    “With so many selections currently available to the American beer consumer, it was important to showcase a wide range of styles produced in various countries and regions at all price points. From classic styles like American lagers and wheat beers to newer, more experimental styles such as American wild ales, this list demonstrates both the beauty and craftsmanship of a traditionally brewed beer as well as the excitement and cutting-edge adventure of the craft brewing scene today.”

    (The photo at the top was taken at Brasserie Caracole, which brews Nostradamus, No. 19 on the list, in the last wood-fired kettles used by a commercial Belgian brewery.)


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    15 Responses to ‘Top Beers’ . . . and none German?

    1. Andy Crouch December 2, 2009 at 2:52 pm #

      Funny you should mention this because I was just about to send Lauren an email complimenting the magazine on including a handful of lagers in its list. Perhaps it’s a sad testament to the sorry state of all things lager when I’m willing to settle for mere table scraps and a few lager reviews. It’s a pretty oddball list but so is the concept I suppose. I’m also just happy that Lauren is pushing the magazine, one whose name should pretty much outlaw any mention of the sister beverage, to cover beer in any manner.



    2. Jeff Alworth December 2, 2009 at 3:05 pm #

      I believe Lauren shows her hand when she offers two pumpkin beers, a “style” that recently sent me into a mild rant. Maybe Wine Enthusiast shouldn’t be ranking beer. Just an offhand thought.

      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.

    3. Lauren Buzzeo December 2, 2009 at 3:33 pm #

      I’d like to share an excerpt from the introduction to the top list:

      “The beers listed here represent the most diverse and dynamic offerings that were tasted this year. They are beers that offer extraordinary quality at prices that still represent affordable luxury. In compiling this list, I had to go beyond simple evaluation of numeric scores and pricing and also consider availability, buzz and balance. With so many selections currently available to the American beer consumer, it was important to showcase a wide range of styles produced in various countries and regions at all price points.”

      This is not a list like others, claiming to be the top XX beers of all time, or even just released that year. This list reflects ONLY what was reviewed in 2009, and since the beer buying guide itself only began with the June 2009 issue (meaning 9 issues worth of reviews at 5-6 beers per issue), selections for consideration in the list were quite limited. Hopefully, with a full year of diverse tastings in 2010, we should be able to present a more complete and well-rounded list next December. As far as international selections go, what can I say? Domestic brewers are just better at submitting samples!

      You’ll also note the other factors that were assessed when creating the list: quality, value, availability, buzz and balance. I know some people might not put Sam Adams Boston Lager on their top 25 beers of all time list, and I’m not saying it is my 18th favorite beer of all time, but for the tastings I did in 2009, this beer was a high scoring lager (you have to admit it is a well made beer!) with extremely good availability at a very reasonable price point. (And thanks Andy for the support!)

      Same goes for the Pumpkin Beers. Jeff, I don’t know why you just went on a rant about them, but there are some pretty well made pumpkin beers out there. I seriously wowed half of my Thanksgiving table (15 people – yes, I had 30 people for Thanksgiving) with the Southern Tier Pumking. Well balanced, good but not overpowering spice, nice hop presence, long finish, and delicious with turkey with chestnut stuffing… what else could you ask for?

      This list, and the reviews I generate year round in the beer buying guide, are a starting point of reference for so many people. My reviews and rankings are not the words of the gods, but simply one journalists educated opinion and assessment. I don’t want people to just trust my reviews, I want them to read them, become interested or intrigued, and go out and try the beers for themselves and formulate their own opinions! Wine and beer tastings are subjective and personal, and while there will always be people who disagree, the ultimate goal of education, information and spreading the word remains achieved.

    4. Joe S. December 2, 2009 at 4:01 pm #

      That is pretty damn silly. But I’d probably say that about any list that wasn’t my 25 favorites. At least it’s interesting.

    5. Tim December 2, 2009 at 4:51 pm #

      Lauren, fair points on including the beers reviewed this year, but one thing I cannot let slide… pumpkin beer.

      I haven’t seen Jeff’s want but I know what sent him on one. I know beer and wine are subjective topics, but all pumpkin beers are crap, including Pumking. Cloying sweetness and spice. Nutmeg and cinnamon clashing with hops. And the pumpkins, I don’t think they actually add any flavor, body, color or fermentables. They are nothing more than a novelty, made to wow people that think they don’t like beer. “Oh this tastes like pumpkin pie.” When I want pumpkin pie I’ll have pumpkin pie. I find it pairs best with a tall glass of milk.

    6. Stan Hieronymus December 2, 2009 at 5:07 pm #

      Hi Lauren,

      Thanks for the clarification and please don’t take it personally. I like to make fun of everybody’s lists.

      As you might tell from my intro I had to guess on how you came up with the list. Perhaps my bad – but I looked for the magazine yesterday at Border’s and the new one wasn’t in.

      Not that I expect you to read everything here, but as much as I love what American breweries are doing – and I have told several importers I’d be happy to write about only American beers – I’ve written more than once about how lack of international perspective bother me.

      I understand that your magazine is geared toward Americans, but your website is read by everybody in the world.

      PS – Kudos for having the guts to put Boston Lager on the list.

    7. Jeff Alworth December 2, 2009 at 5:15 pm #

      Lauren, I don’t know why I assume I’m having a private little chat here with Stan and his friends, when after all this is a post on the world wide intertubes and you never know when you’ll actually be talking to the person who wrote the article you’re discussing. Had I considered that, I might have reconsidered my comments.

      They would probably run something like this: I guess we should just call this year’s list a mulligan. Given the way it was compiled, it is relevant only in a very narrow context. What’s regrettable about these lists is that they are always stripped of context–I learned about it when I saw a tweet from Deschutes. Tweets are almost definitionally context-free. Magazines put thees lists together because they are interesting and sell copies and anyway, don’t we all love the power of codifying bests in lists?

      For W.E., the inevitable blowback may be instructive: it will let editors know that any such list is always going to be interpreted in absolute terms, and once they put it out there, they will hear from those who probably have a great deal more knowledge about beer than they have. (As a beer writer, I have learned this the hard way.) As the writer who had to put this together, limiting yourself only to the beers breweries sent was a terrible handicap, and produced a strange list. Not your fault perhaps, but readers are right to ask what utility such a “best of” list is if it’s as capricious as this.

      As for the two pumpkin ales? As long as you received at least 26 beers this year, that’s still a problem.

    8. BeerGuy December 2, 2009 at 5:34 pm #

      So i think that Budweiser did not make the list. lol. I will try most or have tried most on the list, but there are still some beers that are not imported and maybe one day will be. I long for the Australian beer Victoria Bitter.

    9. Lauren Buzzeo December 2, 2009 at 7:58 pm #

      @ Tim – I understand your points, but I think we’ll have to agree to disagree. Though this has raised a thought in my mind: perhaps an interview with some prominent brewers as to why they make a pumpkin beer is in order.

      @ Stan – Take it personally?! We are all writers here, yes? I think it’s part of the profession (or passion) that you have to take pride in what you write and wear a thick skin… while remaining open to discussion and criticism. I did not think that everyone (especially such an esteemed beer journalist as yourself) would agree with my list, and did not for one second think that people would not express such differences, but I kinda expected people to read the intro to understand what they were reading! But that’s my frustration, and admittedly a large part of the reason I felt obliged to chime in online; I just wanted everyone to have the context of the list. And I agree on the international perspective, and I’ll try to keep that in mind.

      @ Jeff – No problem! You know, you were just being honest, which is TOTALLY great. But again, since I wanted to add some context to the list, here I am… or here we are. 🙂

      I appreciate your thoughtful comments. Unfortunately, some of what you mention here is just the nature of the beast. Yes, these lists are always subject to criticism, and of course others who know more about the subject or have more experience than you are going to tell you you’re wrong. But you know what… I work with what I have. I’m fortunate to love what I do, and I’m even more fortunate that I get to share my passion with others. What’s even cooler is that I now get to do that for wine AND beer.

      I take every opportunity I have to promote the enjoyment of all well-made beverages. I’m proud to bring beer into otherwise wine-centric lives. It makes me happy to hear when I’ve “converted” people. And while I might agree that some may argue the utility of such a list, I just think of all the winos out there going to the beer distributor, article in hand, looking to try something new.

    10. Mike Sweeney December 4, 2009 at 9:20 am #

      I don’t know if I could ever take someone seriously who says, “but all beers are crap.” To dismiss an entire style of beer out of hand is pretty short-sighted.

    11. Mike Sweeney December 4, 2009 at 9:21 am #

      Let’s try that again: I don’t know if I could ever take someone seriously who says, “but all [insert style here] beers are crap.” To dismiss an entire style of beer out of hand is pretty short-sighted.

    12. Tim December 6, 2009 at 12:05 am #

      Oh Mike, so you don’t take me seriously? That makes two of us 😉

    13. Andy December 8, 2009 at 11:12 am #

      I think there are a few take aways from both the article and the ensuing comments here. First, reviews and top [insert number] lists are dangerous, yet also informative on some level (at the very least you know who is sending beer to reviewers to taste). Second, wine people like ales better. I noticed this when I worked for a wine store that also sold beer and liquor. People who considered themselves to be wine-drinkers could get behind a Belgian Strong Ale, but had problems with a good Pilsner.

      But why all the hate on pumpkin beers? Pumpkins have been used as adjuncts in brewing for a very long time. Unless you are a Bavarian brewer ‘adjuncts’ should not be considered a dirty word. Admittedly most Pumpkin beers are what I might call “dessert” beer but there is nothing wrong with that.

    14. Stan Hieronymus December 8, 2009 at 3:56 pm #

      Good points, Andy, starting with the fact its good to know if a list is based on beer submitted or those purchased.

      I’d like to see somebody go into detail on the wine/ale, but in the interest of brevity I’ll just comment on pumpkin beers. I don’t see the emergence of entire festivals around pumpkin beers as a bad thing, but they are seasonal and when you have only 25 beers with which to present some breadth making two of them pumpkin seems pretty limiting.

      Besides, Jeff’s last comment made me giggle.

      Yikes – looking back for that, Jeff, I just noticed your challenge in a previous comment. Guess they came too fast and furious and I missed it. Will give it some thought.

    15. Loren December 11, 2009 at 11:43 am #

      Considering most Top 25 Lists suck…badly…and will ALWAYS be nitpicked to death by every uber beer geek under the web I was pleasantly surprised by not only the diversity of this list but the inclusion of a couple beers that NEVER see the light of beer geek OMFG! day.

      Sierra Nevada SummerFest and Sam Adams Boston Lager

      Not to mention a big hats off for choosing CL as numero uno.

      Nice job Lauren!


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