Our recent debate about “Extremophiles” spurred by a Martyn Cornell blog post got me thinking about beer ratings. Cornell rightly pointed out that all of the best beers in the world can’t be limited to just those in the Imperial Stout and Imperial IPA styles. Yet if you look at many on-line “best” beer lists, that’s pretty much all you’ll see. It’s not particularly surprising considering that Aleheads are suckers for big flavors, high alcohol contents, and enough hop bitterness to make your tongue want to pack up its bags and move to Mexico. But even if it’s understandable, those lists aren’t particularly informative.
So, as the Alehead most prone to flights of fancy and determining convoluted methods for ranking beers and breweries, I decided to look for another way to pick the world’s best brews. The key, in my mind, was to make intra-style comparisons rather than just global comparisons. It’s not fair to pair up high-octane Imperial Stouts with delicate Kölsch beers. The flavor profiles are so outlandishly different that they might as well be different beverages entirely. My goal was to compare WITHIN styles to determine the best beers in America.
Now, of course, I could have just looked at BeerAdvocate or RateBeer, selected the top beer per each style, and have been done with it (and perhaps I should have). But that doesn’t really tell me much other than what beer most Aleheads consider to be the best in class. My goal was to discover which beers outperformed the other offerings in their style by the widest margin. It seems like any brewer worth his or her salt these days can crank out a tasty Imperial Stout. But what about a Pale Wheat Ale? That’s a lot trickier. My theory was that within some styles (like Imperial Stouts) the difference between the top beers was fairly minimal. Just a little better balance, or a little better hop usage might push a brew ahead of another. But in other styles…perhaps styles not generally known for world-class brews, the top beers might really outshine the others. I would argue that creating a top beer in those styles has a much larger degree of difficulty than it does in what you might consider the “prestige” styles.
Let me list a few caveats (it’s my thing) before I delve into the methodology and the actual results. If you don’t care about any of this, feel free to skip down to the actual list.
- Clearly these aren’t actually the “best” beers in the US. Such a list simply doesn’t exist. Everyone’s “best beer” list is different and it’s wholly dependent on personal tastes and experience. My goal was simply to eliminate as much of that subjectivity as possible to figure out which beers really shine within their style. However, since beer tasting and rating is essentially a study in subjectivity, there’s only so much I could do to minimize that concern.
- This list is only for ales. While I did the same research on lagers, the numbers were simply too skewed to include those beers. You can probably understand why pretty quickly. Most craft brewers don’t focus too intently on lagers, and they focus even less so on historically “low-quality” lager styles like Malt Liquor, Rice Lagers, and Light Lagers. As such, those lists are dominated by terrible macro beers. When a craft brewer DOES take on the style (like Sam Adams Light or Dogfish Head Liquor de Malt), those offerings essentially destroy the curve so badly it would be like Kevin Durant playing hoops against kindergartners. Also, who gives a shit about lagers?
- We’re just staying state-side. That’s generally our focus here at Aleheads and it allowed me to ignore a beer like Westy 12 which has been rated so stratospherically high over the years that even compared to other Quads, it’s untouchable. I will discuss the foreign beers that would have made the list, just in case you’re curious….but I won’t include them in the actual Top Ten.
- It will actually be a Top Twelve list. I know that’s confusing, but two of the Top Ten beers were Fruit Beers which can be difficult to categorize. If you want to consider Fruit Beers as a separate style unto themselves, then I should keep them on the list. If you consider Fruit Beers to be another style of beer (say a Pale Ale or Wheat Ale) with fruit added as an adjunct, then they probably would not have made my list. I honestly wasn’t sure how to rate those beers so I just left them on and added two more to the list so that YOU can decide whether to keep them or not.
So how did I determine the “Best” American Beers?
Regardless of the issues you may have with BeerAdvocate, it’s still the best resource for beer ratings. I used their lists for my raw data and then manipulated them in a spreadsheet to get my results. I decided the best approach was to look at each style listed on BA, and click on the “Top Beers” list for each style. These lists only included beers that have received 10 or more ratings on the site (which, conveniently, is the number I used as a cutoff during my Brewery Ranking research). Generally, there are 50 beers listed on the “Top Beers” lists for each style. If there are less than that, it means there aren’t enough offerings with 10 ratings to constitute a Top 50 list. I threw out any styles that didn’t have 50 representatives for two reasons:
- If a style has less than 50 well-rated beers, it’s not popular enough to matter for my purposes.
- I wanted my results to be as statistically significant as possible and if a style only had a dozen offerings representing it, the numbers would skew too wildly in one direction or the other.
Once I had my lists of 50 beers per style, I assigned each beer the Weighted Rank it received on BeerAdvocate (for a primer on how these Weighted Rank are calculated, click here and scroll down to the bottom). With the data in place, it was time to crunch some numbers.
First, I determined a mean by adding up all of the Weighted Ranks per style and dividing by 50. This gave me an average rank for all beers within a particular style. I then divided this number by the Weighted Rank for the highest rated beer in each style, subtracted 1, and multiplied by 100. The end result showed me the percentage above average for the highest rated beer. In other words, if the end result for the #1 beer in the American Barleywine style was 6.44, that means the top rated beer for that style (currently the Firestone Abacus) is 6.44% “better” than the average for that style.
I did this calculation for the top three or four beers in each style (after that, the percentage above the average dropped precipitously as you might expect). Then I pulled a list of all of those beers together and sorted by the percentage above average within each beer’s respective style. When the dust settled, I had a list of the beers that outperformed other beers in their style by the widest margin. I threw out the non-American offerings and the results are below:*
*I promised that I would mention the foreign offerings at some point in case you wanted to see what they were. If I had included them on my list, you would have seen the Westvleteren 12 at #2 (15.40% better than the average for the Top 50 Quads), the Westvleteren 8 at #3 (14.43% better than the average for the Top 50 Dubbels), and the Cantillon Blåbær Lambik at #7 (12.91% better than the average for the Top 50 Fruit Lambics). Just off the list at #12 was the Rochefort 10 at 10.44% and Weihenstephaner’s HefeWeisse at #16 with a 10.20% advantage.
THE FINAL RESULTS:
If you’ve read this far, you’re either a masochist or just really bored. So now on to the good stuff. Here are the Top Twelve (Ten if you exclude Fruit Beers) “Best” American beers as rated within their respective styles:
12. Live Oak HefeWeizen: This hefe out of the Live Oak Brewing Company in Austin, TX is by far the highest rated version of the style made in the US. It outperformed the average of the Top 50 Hefeweizens by 9.95% (the only beer on this list that fell below the 10% line).
11. Flying Fish Exit 11: The first of three American Pale Wheat Ales, the Exit 11 outperformed the average of the Top 50 American Pale Wheat Ales by 10.26%. While there are tons of American Pale Wheats out there, they’re generally fairly lousy beers. So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that when a great one is brewed, it will dominate this kind of list.
10. COAST 32/50: The only Kölsch on the list, the 32/50 from the COAST Brewing Company in North Charleston, SC outperformed the average of the Top 50 Kölschs by 10.26%. Amazingly, it was the top rated Kölsch in the world…even beating the Germans at their own game.
9. Tröeg’s Nugget Nectar: At 10.37% above the average for the Top 50 American Ambers, the Nugget Nectar absolutely dominates the style. If you’ve had it, you understand why it’s on this list. There’s simply no comparison between it and other beers in the style.
8. Kuhnhenn Bourbon Barrel Fourth Dementia: This probably should have made the list based on its name alone (awesome). It outperformed the average of the Top 50 Old Ales by a whopping 10.55%. I hesitated about this one a little bit since a barrel-aged beer seems like a bit of a cheat, but it’s the only A+ rated Old Ale on BA and Kuhnhenn really is a hell of a brewery. So it stays.
7. Founder’s Red’s Rye: One of my favorites, the Red’s Rye beat out the average of the Top 50 Rye Beers by 10.65%. Leave it to Founders to take a classic style and make it otherworldly.
6. Minneapolis Town Hall Three Hour Tour: Never had anything by the brewery, but they managed to top my list of Best Breweries when I did a statistical analysis of ale factories last year…so they must be pretty good. The Three Hour Tour is the top rated Milk Stout by far and outperforms the average of the Top 50 milk stouts by 10.80%.
5. Three Floyds Brian Boru: Now we’re getting to the big guns. At a huge 12.85% above the average for the Top 50 Irish Red Ales, the Brian Boru makes other Irish Reds look like Irish Pinks. Three Floyds was recently voted the best ale factory in the world by RateBeer. Beers like the Brian Boru strongly support that claim.
4. New Glarus Raspberry Tart: 13.30% above the average of the Top 50 Fruit Beers. This would be an amazing accomplishment if you consider Fruit Beers a legitimate style. If not, the Raspberry Tart probably wouldn’t make this list. Regardless, it’s an outstanding beer from an outstanding brewery. I’m inclined to keep it on the list. So I did.
3. Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’: What can you say about this American Pale Wheat Ale that outperforms the average of its Top 50 brothers by a massive 13.52%? Lagunitas just gets it done…no matter the style
2. New Glarus Belgian Red: Another Fruit Beer, this one beating out the average for its style by a crazy 13.83%. Even if you don’t think Fruit Beers should be on this list, you have to show some respect for New Glarus’s incredible flagship.
1. Three Floyds Gumballhead: And here’s your winner. At an insane 15.70% (!) above its American Pale Wheat Ale competitors, the Gumballhead outshines other beers in its style by the widest margin of any ale. If you’ve never met an American Pale Wheat that you liked, find yourself a bottle of Gumballhead and see what you’ve been missing. Congrats, Three Floyds! In a manner of speaking, you’ve created the “Best” Beer in America!