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World class, old & new classics, fini

Sometimes it’s not always that easy to walk back into a conversation 10 days later, so let’s clean up a few loose ends from the posts about “world class” and “world classics” and move on to whatever this blog is supposed to be about.

  • The term “world class” is useful mostly to marketers. There is no standard. And even if you and I were to agree that Ayinger, for example, makes world class beer that doesn’t matter if you prefer to drink only top-fermented beers with a good dose of hops.
  • Michael Jackson carefully defined what he meant by “world classic” in his 1982 Pocket Guide to Beer and over six more editions and 18 years that list evolved in a, well, classic manner. He set the bar high, allowing but 32 beers classic status in 2000.
  • Jackson last put numbers on beers for his 2000 Pocket Guide, but in the spring of 2007 wrote in general about “tomorrow’s classics” for the introduction to Beer (Eyewitness Companions). He died between the time he wrote that and the book was published, so there was no opportunity for him to elaborate or provide specific examples.
  • While it is fun, even valid, to guess what beers Jackson might have anointed given time (and we’ll get to that in a moment) I think the seven lists available will remain worth consulting for quite a while.

    Consider the case of Augustiner Hell. He did not write about the beer in the 1982 guide, but in 1986 assigned it 4 stars (the top rating, marking it as a classic) and continued to do so until 2000. Then he wrote it “seems to have become markedly thinner in recent years, but still has a soft, sweet, clean maltiness” and he gave it 2 to 3 stars. Gulp.

    With that in mind, consider Jeff Alworth’s discourse about the importance time plays in earning “classic” status. He asks a fair question.

    Yet I wonder, is it possible for the gears of history to turn enough–however slowly–so that an immigrant brewery, the descendant of a venerable classic, may one day supplant the old country’s hold on the style? Is it possible for a New Jersey pilsner to take the mantle from Pilsner Urquell? (We know how that old-world standard has declined.) This is not a question for judges, of course. These designations are much more anthropological. We commend classic status by slow cultural agreement.

    A New Jersey pilsner? How about for a Czech pilsner other than PU? Those who drink the beers regularly will argue that Kout na Šumave 12 has surpassed Pilsner Urquell. Although I particularly enjoyed the ulfiltered version of PU served at the brewery museum in Pilsen, Kout na Šumave 12 was better in Prague and better still in the Czech countryside. Likewise, when we were in Germany a year ago I drank both Jever (Jackson’s 4-star German pilsner) and Schonrämer Pils on enough separate occasions to be certain I prefer the latter.

    That was true even before Schonrämer Pils won gold in the European Beer Star Awards. In fact, you know what? I don’t give a diddly about that award. Drinking Kout na Šumave and Schonrämer Pils I wasn’t thinking “How does this compare to ****?” or “Is this the best whatever in the world?” I was thinking, “This is a friggin’ great beer.”

    So I see the sense in Ron Pattinson’s post that how you characterize a brewery isn’t nearly as important as the beer in your glass. But there’s also value in establishing a standard and holding the standard bearer accountable. “Four stars? Sorry, two-and-a-half stars in this guide.” That’s why we end up with a discussion about whether Pilsner Urquell is the same beer today as it was when it was lagered for three months in open, wooden fermenters. Per Ron’s comment (below) that should have read fermented in open wooden vats, then lagered for three months in closed wooden barrels.

    Now to the matter of which of today’s beers that might be tomorrow’s classics. Feel free to talk among yourselves. I can offer a few hints because I contributed to Beer (Eyewitness Companions). As “editor in chief” Michael did not micro-manage the content. He provided me with pretty simple marching orders for the U.S. section: write about the “revolution” (his word) and mention both new beers such as Goose Island’s Matilda, Lost Abbey Cuvee de Tomme and Russian River Pliny the Elder as well pioneering beers like Anchor Liberty Ale and Sierra Nevada Bigfoot.

    He already rated the last two as classics.

    Draw your own conclusions.


    11 Responses to World class, old & new classics, fini

    1. Ron Pattinson January 5, 2010 at 1:24 am #

      “whether Pilsner Urquell is the same beer today as it was when it was lagered for three months in open, wooden fermenters”

      No, it definitely isn’t. Though I would argue that changing from air-pressure to CO2 dispense had as a significant an impact on the beer as changes in production methods.

      To play the pendant, Urquell was fermented in open fermenters then lagered in large wooden barrels for 3 months.

    2. Mike January 5, 2010 at 8:17 am #

      I completely agree that “world class”, as well as many other superlatives are used mostly by marketing drones. Frankly, I don’t see beer as a competitive sport. I enjoy the hunt for beer I like almost as much as I enjoy consuming it. Discovery is so much more rewarding than reading lists.

    3. Jeff Alworth January 5, 2010 at 11:49 am #

      Stan, leaving aside the question of whether Pilsner Urquell is the standard-bearer, have you any thoughts on my query? Beer being international now, could an upstart new-world brewery become the standard for an old style from the old country?

      As to whether PU is still the standard-bearer, I don’t think there’s any question. As in that quote of mine, “world classic” and “standard bearers” are terms festooned with more meaning than can be imparted from a pour of the product. PU may not be the beer it once was and it may not be the best Czech pilsner (or even the top five or ten), but for the moment, anyway, that fact is not enough to dislodge it. Two things would have to happen to cause such a change: 1) there would have to be broad agreement–from drinkers, not just afficiandos–that PU is no longer as good as it once was, and 2) a clearly superior replacement would have to emerge. Is Kout na Šumave the better beer? I leave that to those who have tasted it in situ. Is it remotely in a position to displace PU? No.

    4. Stan Hieronymus January 5, 2010 at 12:37 pm #

      Jeff – I’d say yes, but perhaps not pilsner. It’s part of their culture. Deschutes has shown it can brew a great pils, but there’s not big a market.

      Is the best imperial stout made in the UK these days? You could end up in a fist fight arguing who brews the best one, but most of the contenders would be from outside the UK.

    5. Stan Hieronymus January 5, 2010 at 12:42 pm #

      Mike – I think you just wrote a New Beer Rule. Very nice.

      It is worth remembering Michael Jackson was “The Beer Hunter” and his pocket guide was much more than a list of top-rated beers. He provided directions where to find interesting beer and descriptions that characterized what to expect from breweries. I’ve probably erred in not pointing that out with each post.

    6. Jeff Alworth January 5, 2010 at 12:43 pm #

      If pilsner is a poor example because it’s a style too identified with a region (which I’m prepared to grant), stout seems a style too broad to be useful. Looking back at your post about Jackson’s consistent world classics, they mostly hew to the pilsner mode (Rodenbach, Cantillon, Salvator, trappists, Fuller’s ESB, Guinness Extra, etc.) Stout is one of the more international styles, both in production and consumption. Aussies could be forgiven for thinking Sheaf is a world classic.

      Anyway, we’re probably into the weeds here. (Though maybe that’s where we want to be.)

    7. Stan Hieronymus January 5, 2010 at 1:34 pm #

      Back in 2005 Tim Webb, author of the excellent (and constantly updated) “Good Beer Guide to Belgium” held a sort of face off at the Great British Beer Festival, pitting non-Belgian beers against Belgian classics.

      Here’s a link to a pdf about Ommegang vs. Chimay Blue. If you don’t want to mess with the pdf Ommegang won handily.

      Panil Barriquée (from Italy) tied Rodenbach Grand Cru for “authenticity” but drinkers said they preferred the Italian beer.

      Of course that’s just one blind tasting.

    8. Roger P January 5, 2010 at 2:45 pm #

      Am I reading that correctly? He specified Matilda, Cuvee de Tomme and Pliny be included? Any others?

    9. Jeff Alworth January 5, 2010 at 4:10 pm #

      Ommegang is a perfect example. Certainly world-class beers, and brewed to strict style definitions. I sometimes believe Hennepin is the best saison in the world until my unreasoning love for Dupont turns my head back to the world classic. But that would be one of the breweries to consider.

    10. Stan Hieronymus January 5, 2010 at 6:53 pm #

      Roger – In fact Matilda and Cuvee by name and Pliny as “the Russian River Imperial IPA.” That was it, but it set the tone to make sure beers likes Dark Lord were somehow mentioned.

      Also, in building the overall list for the book I looked carefully at many things Micheal had written. He approved the list of breweries and beers before I began writing and I’m sure if I’d left out one of his favorites – Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, for instance – he would have “suggested” adding it.

    11. Stan Hieronymus January 5, 2010 at 7:03 pm #

      Jeff – I’m in love with the Dupont yeast. Give me Saison Dupont, Moinette, Avec . . . unreasoning is good.

      For the record: Dupont got 4 stars in 1982, was mentioned by name with no rating in ’86, then received 4 stars, 3, 3, 3 and 3.5.

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