Why Are Beer Lovers So Obsessed With Rankings?

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
May 16 2012 6:30 AM

Brewing the Best

Pliny the Younger is supposedly the best beer in the world. What does that even mean?

Russian River's Pliny The Younger is an Imperial IPA.
Russian River's Pliny the Younger, one of the harder to find beers in the world

Courtesy Russian River.

Every February, the superlimited release of Russian River Brewing Company’s Pliny the Younger sends beer lovers swarming to bars like ants to crusts of bread. All of this hubbub because the beer currently holds the No. 1 ranking at the user-driven review site BeerAdvocate.com, making it the unofficial “best beer in the world.”

Attempts to name a “best beer” may seem unenlightened, or even absurd, to some. After all, food and drink involve an element of personal taste—chacun à son goût, as the French say—and the greatest beer for you isn’t necessarily the greatest beer for me. But this critique misses an essential point about the political structure of the beer world.

Most fine comestibles, like wine, are ruled by oligarchies. A simple Google search demonstrates the point: If you search for “wine rankings,” you’ll find opinions from Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator, and the esteemed Robert Parker. I don’t doubt that these experts have exceptionally sophisticated and sensitive palates—that is, of course, the reason their opinions are supposed to count more than yours or mine. But why should a member of the ignorant, wine-swilling masses, someone who can’t distinguish an unexceptional 2004 Bordeaux from the magnificent 2005 vintage, base his purchasing decisions on the opinions of someone who can?

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Beer lovers take a more democratic approach. If you Google “beer rankings,” the first hit is BeerAdvocate.com, the site that gave Pliny the Younger its fame. Although Beer Advocate takes its name from Parker’s Wine Advocate, the approach is entirely different. You won’t get the opinion of a single supertaster, or even a panel of experts. It’s a raucous compilation of thousands of opinions from ordinary schlubs just like you. As the art critic Clement Greenberg noted “[Q]uality in art is not just a matter of private experience. There is a consensus of taste.” The beer world takes that consensus seriously.

Ordinary beer lovers actually believe that their opinions matter, and they’re pretty much right. Professional brewers show up at home brew competitions to learn new ideas and techniques, and they read Internet reviews to learn what people are saying about their latest release. (I assure you the good folks at Château Latour do not care what some guy in Kansas thinks about the 2010 vintage.) The collaborative spirit runs in both directions, as professionals are expected to share their recipes with the public. Even Vinnie Cilurzo, the owner of Russian River Brewing Company, has divulged the recipe for his prized Pliny the Younger to the journal of the American Homebrewers Association.

The brewers’ spirit of egalitarianism goes back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, the dark days of American beer. The only choice in most bars was between tastes great and less filling. Home brewing was illegal under federal law, one of the many senseless advantages the government gave to the handful of megabreweries that dominated the market.

So a cadre of dissatisfied consumers launched a beer revolution. Charlie Papazian, a physics undergraduate at the University of Virginia, gathered people to sample his home-brewed libations. Papazian knew he couldn’t build a culture of connoisseurship by lecturing on the merits of noble Czech hops. Unlike wine, beer wasn’t yet considered an artisanal product. So he formed clubs to help individuals discover how good beer could be by making it themselves and sharing their creations.

Within a few years, thousands of people belonged to these fraternal orders of beer enthusiasm. In 1978, the feds dropped their prohibition on home brewing, and the states slowly followed. (Home brewing is still illegal or severely restricted in a few laggard states.) Papazian’s home brewing hordes became a grassroots movement with a sense of ownership over beer. Today’s successful professional brewers emerged from that group, so there’s little separation between beer lovers and beer makers.

The movement wasn’t just about making beer—it was also about describing it, categorizing it, and judging it. As of this year, more than 6,000 individuals have been certified as beer judges, and the Beer Judge Certification Program can’t score enough exams to keep up with annual demand. Ordinary brewers can also run for elected office to edit the style guidelines that delineate the difference between a saison and a bière de garde or a stout and a porter. If you don’t agree with their decisions, you can just email the seven ordinary beer-swillers currently in charge. Good luck airing your grievances to the folks who make the AOC rules that govern winemaking in Bordeaux.

Even the beverage itself is democratic. Wine competitions are essentially imbalanced, because wine is an agricultural product. Without the right soil and good weather, even the most talented vintner can’t produce great wine. Beer offers competitors a level playing field. Most brewers—commercial and amateur—get their hops and malt from a handful of suppliers, so terroir plays a minor role in the quality of the final product. The only real wild card is water, which can always be manipulated with a little chemical know-how. If everyone starts with the same resources, the best brewer should win most of the time.

The ascension of Pliny the Younger to the top of BeerAdvocate.com’s list is one more piece of evidence for beer’s essential democracy. Until recently, a Belgian ale called Westvleteren 12 ruled the rankings. The Trappist monastery that makes the beer keeps it under tight wraps, and buying a case of Westvleteren is like being inducted into the Skull and Bones. You reserve it months in advance, then place a call to a special operator who tells you when you’ll be allowed to pick up your beer. You also have to provide your car’s license plate number to have access to the abbey. The monastery won’t let you have the beer unless you sign an agreement not to re-sell it.

Anyone can drink, and opine on, Pliny the Younger (so long as they scurry to their local bar before supplies run out). It’s an egalitarian beer—and that’s the kind of beer that deserves the top spot on the people’s rankings.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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