Lose the Lists

Martin Johnson - Why Best Beer Lists Are Ludicrous

Like several other people I know in the craft beer business, I used to be part of the music business. For more than 20 years I derived the bulk of my income from freelance journalism, writing about music for places like Vogue, Rolling Stone, and Newsday. I still write every now and then for the Wall St. Journal. When I was a full time music scribe, I always looked forward to the end-of-the-year lists. I knew that some colleague who shared my tastes would turn me on to some music that I'd either neglected to hear or hadn't heard of at all. It's how I learned of DJ Shadow and Sleater Kinney for instance. And I'd often hear from others that my lists turned people on to musicians they didn't previously know. Now, we're awash in lists on everything and anything; there are websites whose entire raison d'etre seems to be lists. But when it comes to beer lists, I just get riled up. It's not that these lists are bad; it’s worse than that. These lists are irrelevant.

Let's look at two lists that have been in heavy rotation on the web and especially social media sites lately. One is by Forbes, and the other comes from Business Insider.

The Forbes list, called “The 13 Best Beers in America,” resulted from an interview with one person. Is that person Garrett Oliver, a noted authority on beer and editor of the Oxford Companion to Beer? Nope. Is it some other well-traveled authority, perhaps a frequent judge at the Great American Beer Festival? Nope. Instead, it's Matt Canning, the Beer Concierge at the Hotel Vermont in Burlington. Before the article names a single beer, Canning cuts the legs out from under any authority it may have. He says he's partial to beers brewed in Vermont and especially to hoppy, high alcohol ales. Immediately I wondered why an editor didn't shut down the story at this point or at least change the headline to the best strong beers from Vermont.

Sure enough, Hill Farmstead, Fiddlehead and of course, The Alchemist take six of the top seven spots. There's one beer each from Illinois, California, New York and Quebec (!), two from Maine, and one more from Vermont. Leaving aside the issue that Forbes thinks Quebec has become the 51st state (a situation that would likely drive many Quebecois to drink), don't you think that Mr. Canning needs to um, travel a little more?

The Business Insider list doesn't suffer from methodological issues—they consulted the people at RateBeer.com -- but it's just as absurd. Their “20 Best Beers in the World” has some stunning omissions. For instance, Germany has no representatives on the list and Belgium has only one. Their list is stylistically diverse but, just like the Forbes list, its lack of comprehensive sampling diminishes its authority.

To me, what this reveals, aside from a severe need for more thorough editing, is how craft beer has become one of the great locavore pastimes. When I communicate with my friends out west, I can only nod agreeably when rave about the new limited edition brew from some new brewery in Oregon or Colorado. They likely do the same when I babble about Brooklyn's Other Half or Three's. Most amazing beer is brewed in really small batches and doesn't travel much. That's why an awesome beer list would be something like “the five best summer beers from Chicago area craft brewers.” It would be possible to try most of them and decide, but such an endeavor probably wouldn't interest Forbes or BI.

The Author:

Martin Johnson is a beer buyer and merchandising manager for Westside Market East Village in New York City.When not selling or drinking beer he writes about jazz and beer for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate, beer for Eater and about a variety of cultural and culinary topics for The Root.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.

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