THE BEST BREWERY IN AMERICA

When Aleheads was but a mewling, week-old newborn, I made my first attempt at hamhandedly marrying my loves of statistical analysis and beer. Many similar follies followed. In that first stat-based post, I struggled to determine the best breweries in America based on a cumulative GPA. I used BeerAdvocate data and obtained an average GPA for all beers produced by a single brewery (as long as they had over 10 ratings a piece). It was an amusing exercise but the data wasn’t particularly useful. It gave a very “rough” indication of the quality of individual breweries, but the overall results were flawed. First, it gave every beer in a brewery’s lineup the same weight. So if you had a highly-regarded DIPA with 1,000 ratings and a novelty one-off with 10 ratings, they counted the same. Second, I somewhat haphazardly picked the breweries by simply asking the other Aleheads (just Doc and the Baron at the time) to name their favorite breweries (or at least breweries they had heard good things about). The results were a messy gathering of 46 ale factories (later expanded quite a bit). That list included small brewpubs like Minneapolis Town Hall and massive factories like the Boston Beer Company. That’s not even apples and oranges…that’s apples and oven-mitts.

This week, I decided to take another stab at that most irksome of Alehead queries: Which brewery reigns supreme?*

*Which narrowly beats out “Why did I wake up in a 30-barrel fermenter?”

This time, I pulled my data from RateBeer. Is RateBeer’s data superior to BeerAdvocate? Not particularly. But the Aleheads are trying to avoid BA if at all possible after reading dozens upon dozens of angry screeds from former BA users who have been mistreated by that organization’s higher-ups. We personally have nothing against BeerAdvocate, but given the choice between the two largest beer rating sites, I figured I’d go with the one that pissed off the least amount of people. To account for the “equal weight” issue, I decided to do a “ratings-based” calculation. Essentially, I multiplied the average beer rating by the overall number of ratings for that beer. Then I added up all of the sums for every offering by a brewery (as long as it had at least 1 rating) and divided by the total number of ratings for the brewery. So if a brewery had a highly popular beer with 2,000 ratings, I simply multiplied 2,000 by the average rating for that beer. This method gives vastly more weight to more popular beers which just makes sense. If a brewery is putting a lot more time and effort into brewing and distributing a highly-popular IPA over a one-off, taproom-only, barrel-aged sour, that IPA really SHOULD count a lot more.

To remove the “picking breweries at random” bias, I made the executive decision to ONLY look at the Top Ten breweries on RateBeer’s “Top Breweries” page. This list is voted on directly by the RateBeer users so it’s more about reputation than raw data. Nevertheless, since it’s a massively crowdsourced site made up of some very knowledgable Aleheads, RateBeer’s list is pretty solid from top to bottom. I actually looked at the Top Eleven breweries since one of the Top Ten (De Struise out of Belgium) is not an American brewery and thus has no place in this exercise. I’m obviously leaving off some wonderful breweries by only focusing on the Top Ten, but I’d like to give some benefit of the doubt to the RateBeer crowd that their selections of the best American breweries really ARE the best. The purpose of this analysis then, was to determine which “order” the breweries should be placed in based strictly on the numbers.

When the dust settled, the list looked like this (the numbers in parentheses are the “overall” GPAs):

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1. AleSmith (3.994): The San Diego-based masters were rated #4 on the RateBeer list, but they crush the competition when you look at the raw data. Thanks to a bevy of extraordinarily well-rated brews like the Speedway Stout, IPA, YuleSmith (both versions), Old Numbskull, and Decadence, AleSmith was one of only two breweries to top the 3.9 mark. I’ve never had a beer from AleSmith that I didn’t love and it’s one of the few ale factories around that allows you to throw caution to the wind when purchasing their wares. Put simply, if you see an AleSmith bottle in your local package store, don’t even think about it…just buy it.

2. Russian River (3.948): The brewery that topped my original “Best Breweries” list slides in at #2. The Santa Rosa, CA-based brewery is actually rated #8 on the RateBeer list, but it easily beat out all but AleSmith based on the numbers. Probably no surprise that the makers of the best-in-class Pliny the Younger and Pliny the Elder are ranked so high, but their “-ation” series of Belgian-style beers are also rated outlandishly well. They can do it all and they do so flawlessly.

3. Hill Farmstead (3.836): My first experience with this Greensboro, VT-based brewery was during their “tap takeover” at Rattle ‘n’ Hum in NYC last year. I knew nothing about their offerings, but I ordered a flight and was blown away by the quality and complexity of their brews. They landed at #6 on the RateBeer list but they made my Top 3 based on overall ratings. The small, rustic brewery packs their beers with flavor and they have some gorgeous, funky farmhouse brews as well as some big, over-the-top hop-bombs. Their brews are still a little hard to find, but if you’re in the Green Mountain state, do yourself a favor and seek out their wares. You won’t be disappointed.

4. Stone (3.832): Stone had more than twice as many ratings as every other brewery on this list save Bell’s. They’re a much larger, much more widely-distributed brewery than the others on this list (again, save Bell’s) which makes it all the more impressive that they’re sitting pretty at #4 (RateBeer has them at #7). That’s probably in large part to highly-regarded beers like their Arrogant Bastard, Ruination, IPA, and Russian Imperial Stout which all have well over 2,000 ratings apiece. The Escondido, CA-based ale factory has always been a darling of the craft beer world and it appears that reputation is well justified.

5. Founders (3.827): Founders, the Grand Rapids, MI-based brewery, actually inspired the original brewery-analysis post way back in Week 1 of Aleheads. You see, the Baron and I were having a heated argument about which brewery was superior, Founders (my pick), or Three Floyds (his). The debate ended by admitting that we both loved every beer ever produced by both breweries…thus making the argument kinda stupid. But, never one to let a dead horse stay unbeaten, I put together that first post just to justify my argument (for the record, Founders ended up with a GPA that was 0.03 points higher than Three Floyds…a clear statistical tie). Currently, RateBeer has Three Floyds as their #1 brewery and Founders #2. But, just as I told the Baron so many years ago, when you look at the raw data, Founders has a slight edge (and man, do I mean slight…just 0.01 points higher).

6. Three Floyds (3.817): Like I said…it was close. The Munster, IN-based Three Floyds is a spectacular brewery. If they expanded distribution,  they’d quickly become a household name amongst Aleheads throughout the country. As it stands now, they’re more legend than reality in most parts of the country thanks to a highly localized, Chicago-area reach. But if they ever bump up capacity to Stone or Bell’s-like numbers…watch out. It would be a dangerous day indeed if Brother Barley could get Dreadnaught and Broo Doo at the local package store.

7. Surly (3.782): Sitting at #11 on the RateBeer list (#10 amongst American breweries), the Brooklyn Center, MN-based Surly is another ale factory that has a somewhat limited reach. If you don’t live near the Twin Cities, chances are you don’t have easy access to Surly. And that’s a shame. Their Furious, Abrasive, Bender, and Darkness are all highly prestigious beers that are beloved by every Alehead who has sampled them. Bonus points for being the only true “canning” brewery amongst the Top Ten (though #8 Cigar City has started canning beers this year as well).

8. Cigar City (3.746): And speaking of the Tampa-based brewery, Cigar City has always been a favorite amongst the Aleheads thanks to their delicious Jai Alai IPA, Tocobaga Red, and absolutely incredible Hunahpu Imperial Stout. They’re #5 on the RateBeer list but slip slightly to #8 based strictly on the numbers. However, since they’re one of only three breweries on this list that distribute in Alabama, they’ll always hold a special place in Brother Barley’s heart.

9. Bell’s (3.706): Kalamazoo, MI-based Bell’s is the biggest brewery in the Top Ten and clocks in at a lofty #3 on the RateBeer list (no small feat for a brewery that size). While they drop to #9 when you look at the numbers, there’s no arguing about the quality of their products. The HopSlam, Two Hearted Ale, and Expedition Stout are on every Aleheads’ “favorite beers” lists, and their fairly wide distribution network means that I can generally get a sixpack or two of HopSlam down here in ‘Bama each year if I’m lucky. Thankfully, I was this year.

10. Kuhnhenn (3.607): The only brewery as-yet untested by Brother Barley, the Warren, MI-based Kuhnhenn is a tiny, experimental brewery that has made waves amongst beer geeks throughout the country. While their products are very difficult to get your hands on outside of Michigan, they are beloved by those lucky enough to try to them. The only brewery to rate the same on the RateBeer list (#10…although they were #9 amongst just American breweries) as they did on my numbers-based list, Kuhnhenn rates #1 on another list entirely…namely, the list of breweries I need to visit.

What do you think Alehead Nation? Does this Top Ten list “feel” right to you? Who’s missing? Which breweries need to rise or fall in the ranks? Let us know!

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6 comments

  1. Interesting stuff Barley, it would be fun to do the same exercise for the non-US breweries in that list – the top ten certainly pack a punch (De Struise, de Molen, Westvleteren, Mikkeller, Dieu du Ciel!, Rochefort, St Bernard, the Kernel, Nøgne Ø and Cantillon).

    A quick blast through with Westvleteren (as they only have three active beers, and I’m at ‘work’) yields a whopping score of 4.287 – I guess having Westvleteren 12 at a 4.47 average for almost 2,100 ratings certainly helps. I wonder if you can factor in the ‘rare’ to your equation? ;)

  2. Good idea, Rich. I’ll tackle that one at a later date. Personally, I’d prefer to only use breweries that have at least 10 or more standard offerings to remove the “Westy Factor”. Yes, they make ridiculously good beers, but the Trappists are a world apart from other commercial breweries. I suppose I could do a separate list just rating the Trappists?

    Interesting to note that the Top Ten includes 3 breweries in California and 3 in Michigan (with two more…Surly and Three Floyds) not TOO far from the MI-based ale factories. If you live in either of those two regions, consider yourself a lucky Alehead indeed.

  3. Thanks to that great post and exceptionally well though out list, my day is off to a good start (though it’ll be all downhill from here, I’m sure). I love your methodology. It makes a great deal of sense and it’s hard to dispute. I’m fortunate to have had a number of brews from all but Surly & Kuhnhenn and wouldn’t necessarily argue with your results. It would be interesting to see what would happen if you expanded your list include the next 10 most highly rated breweries as well.

    As for the RateBeer vs. Beer Advocate “debate”. I’ve always felt that RateBeer is a bit more data-centric than Beer Advocate. Less over the top opinionated bluster and cleaner navigation.

    Anyway, great job. Keep it up & Cheers!

    @TheAlemonger

  4. I plan on checking out the next 10 (and beyond) breweries in the future to see if any of them can match up to this Top Ten. My “gut” feeling is that they’ll rate a bit lower than the ones above. The next few on the RateBeer list (Great Divide, Hair of the Dog, Alpine, Firestone Walker, Hoppin’ Frog) are all amazing breweries, but you don’t hear their names bandied about in “Best Breweries” discussions quite as often. Though, as stated above, that RateBeer listed is voted on by the users so it’s reputation-based only. It’s entirely possible that at least one or two of the breweries I didn’t include in this exercise could rocket to the top of the list…

    Thanks for reading Alemonger. And thanks for the thoughts on RB vs. BA. I tend to agree with you…

  5. Lagunitas? Bear Republic? Port?
    Man, you could do a top 10 California breweries and it could very well substitute for the overall top 10.

  6. [...] publishing our “Best Brewery” post, a few commenters asked if I could expand the list to include the next 10 American [...]

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