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Homebrewers Vote, We Listen: Zymurgy’s “Best Beer” and National Trends

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Pliny the Elder’s reign is over. Since 2009, the beloved double IPA has sat atop the annual “best beer” poll held by Zymurgy magazine, but no longer.

Over that same period of time, Bell’s Two Hearted has been Pliny’s #2. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride? No more.

The magazine of the American Homebrewers Association released this week its new rankings as voted on by AHA members, who were able to choose up to 20 of their favorite commercial beers available for purchase in the United States through an online voting system. The flip-flop of Pliny the Elder and Two Hearted isn’t the only thing worth paying attention to, however.

Per annual tradition, let’s take a walk through the results.


The collection of styles represented for 2017’s list shows we’ve hit something of a plateau in terms of diversity. The usual suspects top the list (thanks, INSATIABLE ANIMALS) and, as I have in the past, I’ve lumped in an American Pale Ale like Zombie Dust into the IPA category because this is my blog and I’ll cry tears of lupulin if I want to.

Ho-hum. IPA rules the land. When you think about it, 11 different styles across 51 beers (thanks, ties!) is pretty incredible given drinker proclivity toward IPA everything, so I wonder if things will ever change that much from here. For example, here are 2016 and 2017 style breakdowns for comparison:

Almost identical, but REALLY different from what 2017’s styles look like compared to 2011, the first year the AHA shifted polling to only include American brands:

That’s *18* styles from 2011, and I even looped a couple of lagers rooted in Germany into one generic category just to keep things from getting out of hand.

This change interests me not just for consolidation around a specific set of styles – apparently we really know what we want – but doing so while also having the widest array of choices we have ever had. An amber or brown ale no longer show up on Zymurgy’s list, but there are also a really high number of ambers and browns being made right now with all sorts of flavor options. If voters wanted to, I imagine there may be a brand made to those styles that could get attention, but they now seem more antiquated than anything. We still turn to IPA and imperial stout. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it’s still a thing all the same.

Best of all, I’d take these responses with a much higher probability of representing the public at large over a Beer Advocate or RateBeer “best of” list, as these AHA members vote highly for a wide array of beers that are commonly found and also really, really good. If this is to be believed, the narrowing of preference toward a smaller set of styles could be telling for breweries. You don’t have to go all over the map with what you make (we know how authenticity can play for one-offs) because about a dozen styles of beer are really interesting to drinkers.

Speaking of which, just because I love you INSATIABLE ANIMALS so much, it’s been clear for years what butters your bread or double-dry hops your beer or whatever:

To emphasize this point even more, half the dozen new beers included in 2017 that weren’t on 2016’s list, we have Wicked Weed’s Pernicious IPA, Alchemist’s Focal Banger IPA and DIPA’s like Fat Head’s Hop Juju and Melvin 2×4. Hope you’ve got some enamel left on your teeth.

Even if you do, you’re liver is still pissed.

Alcohol Content

Yes, we can point at the average ABV dropping by a quarter of a percent in the last three years, but the average alcohol content across 51 beers (thanks, ties!) is still a whopping 8%. People can talk about trends of lower alcohol beer all they want, but the stuff that gets people excited is still pretty high octane. A reminder that the most recent analysis to determine the average strength of Brewers Association-defined “craft” is 5.9% ABV, and 44 of 51 beers listed in 2017 were above that threshold. Only two – Founders All Day IPA (4.7%)  and New Glarus Belgian Red (4%) – were under 5%.

To poke at this a little more, let’s separate the top and bottom-“25” of these lists, because as we see with so many “best beer” compilations, the top half rarely changes much year-to-year thanks to baked in perceptions and expectations. Most fluctuation will take place at the bottom of these lists, with some beers moving in and out. I like to pay extra attention to that half, because finding new beers is always fun, especially for quantitative purposes:

Top-25 Avg ABV Bottom-25 Avg ABV
2010 7.12 6.69
2011 7.7 8.26
2012 7.5 8.18
2013 7.89 8.28
2014 8.06 8.1
2015 8.18 8.36
2016 7.83 8.56
2017 7.5 8.55

That top-25 ABV takes a bigger fall, but mostly because a few “big” beers like Arrogant Bastard and Backwoods Bastard and others not named bastard dropped a few spots. Even still, the consistency of the bottom-25 is what gets my attention, because that’s where the most change is happening year-to-hear, and yet ABV still stays the same while 55-60% of styles stay IPA or DIPA.

If those numbers weren’t enough to get you excited, now comes the fun(?) part.

Trend Lines

In year’s past, some basic idea of trends and interests came forth from analyzing Zymurgy’s list. In 2014, it was trying to see if there was anything beyond the commitment toward “heritage” styles. In 2015, voters doubled-down on love for IPA. Last year, there seemed to be some small rebellion against classic brands that dominated a few years prior.

For 2017, there’s a clearer indication of what “new” means to people.

Dogfish Head has been a good example of this in recent years, as their “Minute” lineup of IPAs has tumbled downward:

60 Minute 90 Minute 120 Minute
2010 T17 4 N/A
2011 T16 T3 T38
2012 15 3 25
2013 30 3 N/A
2014 T34 7 27
2015 N/A 9 T28
2016 T50 15 T34
2017 N/A T19 T43

Similarly, it’s been an odd combination of rankings for Sierra Nevada’s beers, which have a strong hold on AHA members for both quality and nostalgic reasons, I’m sure. I’m including Celebration because hot damn, it’s strong. No other beer has seen the same kind of fall and rise:

Pale Ale Torpedo Celebration
2010 5 T12 T7
2011 10 T8 7
2012 4 9 7
2013 15 T12 T9
2014 12 20 T15
2015 T12 T12 T28
2016 13 32 T16
2017 T11 T27 T8

Stone IPA and Ruination have had a tough go over the years, and Dale’s Pale Ale, while still on the list, went from a high ranking of 14 in 2012 to 43 the past two years. North Coast Old Rasputin, one of the best imperial stouts in the world – and you can get it for $10! – has gone from a high of #10 in 2012 to 38 two years in a row.

So an odd collection of beers got my attention this time around, not because they were new in the sense they didn’t exist before, but they’re new in that they’re continually new to people. A first batch for example:

Boulevard Tank 7 Founders KBS Cigar City Jai Alai Founders All Day IPA
2010 N/A T25  N/A N/A
2011 N/A T3  N/A N/A
2012 N/A 37  N/A N/A
2013 T32 T17  N/A N/A
2014 25 11 42 T34
2015 T33 T17 40 27
2016 19 12 18 T16
2017 T11 T6 15 T13

KBS has its rarity and reputation to rely on, and anecdotally seems to have higher production levels the last couple years. Which, along with these other three, caught my eye. Aside from being good beers, what do they have in common? Why would they be making a jump in recent years? Is it expansion?

Boulevard, Cigar City and Founders have all been increasing their distribution footprint, which means that in addition to providing these quality beers, more people are becoming exposed to them. Outside of its hometown of Kansas City, Tank 7 is Boulevard’s best-selling beer, according to Jeremy Danner, Ambassador Brewer for Boulevard. In new markets (which continue to grow), it’s now a top beer for the company. Even in today’s diverse drinker world, an 8.5% ABV, Belgian-style farmhouse ale doesn’t scream “top seller” among new drinkers.

Except it does! And it’s doing so in places where people use it as their first exposure to Boulevard!

This is complementary of an assumption I’ve continually made about why Pliny the Elder conquered Zymurgy’s list:

Due to Pliny the Elder’s very limited distribution (CA, CO, OR and Philadelphia) the number of people who have access to this beer is very limited. It may be a popular choice on beer trading forums, but I can’t help but wonder how much its reputation, historical place with beer drinkers and overall hype keeps it at No. 1, especially when hundreds of thousands of words have been written about how it’s really not as good as you think.

Could other beers be moving up the list because more people are actually getting to try them? Or try them consistently? Rather than relying on hype, these beers could be getting their due through experience, too. While not outlandish in their move up the lists, I also thought about these four beers, which have appeared since 2015:

Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA Fat Head’s Head Hunter New Belgium La Folie Tree House Julius
2015 11 T45 T41 N/A
2016 10 T34 T50 33
2017 T8 T27 T27 T22

New Belgium has been around for a long time on a national basis, but they’re finally fully national and also getting their flagship sour beer in front of people for the first time. Deschutes has carefully expanded and has already stretched into Virginia and North Carolina. Head Hunter gets a boost because of Fat Head’s growing brewpub footprint – now with four locations – and Hop Juju made its first appearance on the list in 2017. Tree House is, well, hyped. A New England IPA on a Zymurgy list says a lot about the transition of “old” to “new” guard.

Which brings us back to the flip-flop of Pliny the Elder giving up this year’s top spot to Bell’s Two Hearted. It’s not a big deal for news as much as a symbolic one. Bell’s has itself been expanding rapidly, led by its flagship IPA, which accounts for a little over 50% of sales, per latest data made available last year. Maybe this is a sign of people finally getting tired of voting for a rare double IPA to the top spot. Maybe it’s an indication that more people have tasted Two Hearted and, like others, determined it to be a worthy rival to Pliny.

But most important, these changes suggest that on a national level, getting good beer in front of more people can change minds. Seems pretty straight forward, right?

While it may not to be a hit with AHA/Brewers Association crowds who prefer not to buy AB InBev, this all makes me wonder about reception for something like Elysian’s Space Dust IPA, which AB InBev is using as Elysian’s lead brand to enter markets. Objectively (on a crowdsourced level) it’s a great beer. Goose Island IPA does well, too. Also, Golden Road’s Wolf Pup.

Discussing the merits of these beers and their place as “craft” is a whole other conversation, but reach matters, and separately of these Zymurgy results, all this does make me wonder a little more about how those kind of beers will be able to attract audiences as they move across the country.

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

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58 days ago
Insights, beer talk, more insights, witty comments - it's all @BryanDRoth. Read, enjoy, be enlightened.
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Malt Liquor’s One-Off Return to ‘High Class’ Status

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This week, Founders announced the arrival of a new beer in their barrel-aged series, DKML. A rather innocuous announcement, as these things happen all the time. There are entire websites dedicated to beer releases, after all. But from a historical perspective, it was a little different. DKML stands for – if internet circles are to be believed – Dick Kicker Malt Liquor.

For $12 a 750 mL bottle or $15 a four-pack, this latest offering provides an on-the-nose joke to its buyers not originating from the first half of its name, but its second.

When we reference malt liquor, there’s a clear connotation to what we’re supposed to be thinking about. We only need to look at Dogfish Head’s 2009 release of Liquor De Malt to get an idea:

Plastic bottle with a plastic screw top that comes in a paper bag. It’s the cliche of malt liquor and 40-ounce bottles which have long been used as a big part of defining “black beer culture.” And while this is decidedly not some kind of social justice post, I did think about these connections in terms of the historical reference pertaining to Founders’ latest offering and the history of a beverage that has come full circle.

Malt liquor was originally meant for affluent white drinkers. One of the malt liquor’s biggest brands, Country Club, was advertised to be ideal for its namesake. As Dave Infante pointed out for Thrillist:

Malt liquor was intended to provide the boost the industry needed in the face of falling per-capita beer consumption and increasing competition from spirits and wine, and malt liquor marketers bent over backward to ingratiate themselves with the white middle class. There were Champagne-inspired offerings like Champale (one of the first malt liquors, introduced in 1952), Champetite, and Sparkling Stite (which billed itself “Pale & Dry as Champagne”). There were enough WASPy references to fill a white-privilege bingo card: Country Club, of course, but also University Club, Olde English, and Town & Country V.V.S. There was even a reference to a founding father: Patrick Henry.

Hit that Thrillist link for a full history, but in a general sense, we know what actually happened from there. Malt liquor didn’t perform well with its intended audience, but it did sell in urban areas to black customers.

Which all presents an interesting situation, from a historical and cultural perspective, of where we are now, with a $15 barrel-aged malt liquor hitting shelves billed as “the first malt liquor worthy of a glass” with the tongue-in-cheek “warning” that “this one’s a pry-off, not a twist-off.” There’s a wink and a nod here, of which I’m sure is not meant to be malicious or mean or with anything less than a playful gesture that assumes a beer enthusiast buying this beer has an idea – stereotypical, cliche or otherwise – of what malt liquor is supposed to be about, but this time, it’s made for them.

And who “they” are now is very different from who “they” were 40 years ago.

But even still, there are broader issues at play related to issues of masculinity (especially black masculinity) and cultural heritage within the realm of beer. Issues of diversity and equality are topics raised numerous times on this blog, and the reappearance of malt liquor – even as a specialty one-off – could be seen as a good thing as much as a callback to an antiquated time of more segmented marketing.

America’s social values have shifted dramatically in the last half century, especially in the ways we consider strength, gender and their place within our culture. While 40s of malt liquor may still have a place among all the other options of alcohol available to us, wine, beer and spirits have become more free flowing in their acceptance in price point, accessibility and varieties. Malt liquor, once a defining feature of something like rap, doesn’t have the same cache it once did.

Which piques my curiosity of Founders’ latest entry. Yes, it’s clear they’re having a little fun, and it’s subjective whether that fun is good, bad, somewhere in between or nothing to consider at all, but it still offers up an opportunity for contemplation. For what it’s worth, the conversation within this Reddit forum is concerned about DKML’s quality, especially in relation to Founders’ other highly-regarded barrel-aged brews. There are many complexities connected to the history of malt liquor, so a prominent American craft brewery jumping on board may be simple fun or it may come off as questionable. It’s all up to you.

No matter what the answer is, there’s no denying the discussion to be had around it could be an interesting one.

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

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67 days ago
Until Barrel Aged Mickey's comes along, there's this article from @BryanDRoth to keep you informed.
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Beer is Suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder

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Since 2009, Oregon’s Ninkasi Brewing has been producing Maiden the Shade, a “summer IPA” created to help celebrate an annual fair.

It recently received a new look, bringing it to my attention for the first time, thanks to East Coast selection bias and that peskiness of distribution. I can say nothing for the beer, having never had it, but the forethought of that brand sure caught my attention. In recent years, the prescience of the Pacific Northwest in regard to beer and love of all things hop seems like a future that had long been planned, but perhaps America’s love affair with IPA wasn’t always a guaranteed thing.

Either way, the idea of a “summer IPA” sounds pretty damned smart right about now.

In the most recent issue of Beer Advocate magazine, I have a story that had long caught my attention: consideration of the “death” of seasonal beers. It’s safe to assume that unique brands made solely for winter, spring, summer and fall will never go away, but the place and purpose of these kinds of beers is certainly changing. As noted in the Beer Advocate piece, a recent way to combat declining sales of seasonal brands has been to simply diversify IPA offerings. California’s Coronado Brewing was one example, this year introducing a New England-style IPA as one of its four seasonal products.

Depending on which market research company you choose, 2016 was either a bad or slightly worse for seasonals. IRI’s channels had seasonal beer down around 8% through nearly all of 2016 vs. 2015. Nielsen tracked seasonal decline at 11.6%. A fun note: IRI, which has a category of “Specialty Release,” had that segment up 18.2% 2016 vs. 2015.

Comparatively, here’s how IRI tracked 20 beer styles and dollar growth through the first 11 months of 2016:

IRI-Tracked Style % of $ Sales Growth ’16 vs. ’15
Golden Ale 48.2
Saison 44.1
Rye 30.3
IPA 27.1
Stout 26.9
Scottish 21.2
Pilsner 19.3
Porter 15.4
Fruit/Veggie/Spiced 15
Belgian Ales 5.8
Brown 4.6
Bock 4.3
Belgian Wit 2.7
Pale Ale 1.9
Amber Ale 0.6
Wheat Beer -4.3
Red -4.6
Strong Ales -4.9
ESB -17.2
Barleywine -39.3

Of this bunch, the declines came from styles that have a distinct seasonal feel (barleywine, strong ale), a root in tastes not popular in America right now (ESB) and one that often gets extra hopping because it’s easier to explain that than what its name means (red). Wheat beer, with a decline of 4.3% year-to-year, likely suffered from a dip in sales for Blue Moon. Otherwise, 15 of 20 styles all saw an increase, with some larger growth likely attributed to the sheer fact that many styles simply got a boost in volume from breweries making the beers for the first time and/or new breweries making beer, period. Hundreds of breweries are opening every year, and in a pure, quantitative sense, they’re the most successful.

According to data from the Brewers Association and reported by Brewbound, microbreweries (less than 15,000 barrels per year) saw sales increase by 27% and were responsible for 78% of total craft beer growth in 2016. For all breweries larger than that under the BA’s “craft” umbrella, a little more than a third saw flat or declining sales – including regional and national names like Yuengling, Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, Gambrinus and Left Hand.

How might this seemingly random sales outcome be tied to seasonal beer sales? The business model is different. The smallest, most nimble breweries are thriving off the variety they can create on a daily basis. They can make what they want, when they want. A larger brewery like Sierra Nevada takes about nine months to create the final version of some beers, like Otra Vez. Meanwhile, a brewer like Jason Alexander at Charlotte, North Carolina’s Free Range Brewing, pumps out batches that would be test size for larger breweries as his normal releases.

Ultimately, the decline of the seasonal category isn’t about seasons themselves, it’s about variety and how often and easily that’s available to us. Seasons and food choices, for example, have a strong correlation. But perishable food isn’t an option year-round, like styles of beer, which can be made anytime, anywhere – and often is. Variety in beer is constantly churning alongside all its static options, which are already plentiful. One-offs and specialty releases sit next to core beers that span all kinds of flavors. When we have this level of choice, it no longer becomes about how we feel on a quarterly seasonal basis. It’s about what we want to drink in that moment.

Or, to put it plainly, what’s new and niche is popular. And that says nothing of the value drinkers place on rare and specialty beers that are available, which also take up mindshare from the space in which seasonal beers used to sit.

In a recent issue of Craft Beer & Brewing magazine, Melvin Brewing co-founder and brewer Jeremy Tofte noted that seasonal IPA releases hit on all of the above:

“They’re just as good as 2×4 [‘the best damn DIPA in the world’], and they’ll rotate every three months so beer lovers will have a new beer to try, and then they won’t see it again for nine months.”

The evolution of this category is something of an epitome of the industry itself. So many breweries, so many options. For every action, a reaction. What means “new” now has taken from what was “new” of old.

Read more about seasonal beer in this story from Beer Advocate.

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

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87 days ago
Seasonality-what is it good for? @BryanDRoth tries to answer that. #AbsolutelyNothin'
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What If You Don’t Have to Make ‘Good’ Beer Anymore?

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Earlier this month, Brian Grossman, the son of Sierra Nevada’s founder, Ken, and a leader at one of America’s pioneering breweries, said something that may raise an eyebrow.

“We all know it’s a dying art,” he opined at the act of brewing, a curious statement captured by Good Beer Hunting’s Dave Eisenberg.

In some ways, one could argue brewing and many other acts of production have been on life support for centuries during humanity’s slow march forward with machinery and automation. Our innovation and ingenuity has dwindled romanticized approaches we hold dear, as “artisans” shift from laborious hands on work to efforts that require more button pushing than muscle straining.

But art doesn’t “die,” it merely evolves with the times. The same can be said about brewing. Just because computers can do more work in the process of creating a fermented beverage doesn’t mean human beings are suffering from a lack of creativity. It’s likely to be a successful argument that rather than dying, brewing has never been more alive.

So perhaps the issue Brian Grossman brings up isn’t a life-or-death scenario. Rather, it’s a worried thought about what it means to be associated with the “craft” of brewing and the quality of what comes from it.

Here’s a grandiose statement once uttered in hushed tones around fellow beer geeks: you don’t have to make good beer to succeed in the industry.

When we talk about “good” beer, it’s valuable to consider that word outside the context of all the “best of” lists that beer enthusiasts so often rely. “Good” itself is a subjective term and when applied to the full mass of American beer drinkers, finds such a wide swath of definitions it seems a fool’s errand to pigeonhole the statement.

Certainly, otherworldly beer will attract devotees, but so will perfectly fine, enjoyably drinkable beer that doesn’t knock the socks off of every long-bearded craft beer evangelist. There’s a reason that a realtor’s mantra is “location, location, location,” after all.

Beer is a business and if we’re to fairly determine the worth of a company, the most unemotional path is in their numbers. If you pull yourself out of the “red,” and become a profitable brewery, does it matter if your beer is “good,” “bad” or downright ugly?

Like so many other industries, there are many sides to this broader question:

It’s no longer enough for breweries to just deliver great beer. Customers have a growing insistence for brands that represent something bigger than them, and they attach themselves to brands that are aligned with their beer drinking preferences, lifestyle and beliefs.

For example, the simple act of bringing politics into your business – while creating the chance you may ostracize some customers – can be a good thing that connects many to your beer and brand. The quality of a product doesn’t necessarily have to do with it, although it can certainly help, but people do make purchasing decisions on many factors outside of perceived quality.

The importance of Good Beer is clearly important to the Brewers Association, who, in recent years, have brought on its own “quality ambassador” in 2015 and 2017. A decision by beer store franchise Craft Beer Cellar was even made to use a list of “approved beers” to sell in stores, based on judgments of quality from company administrators and other employees.

“Whether it is a local brewery, or one from further afield, one thing is true: it should stand up as the most positively reputable beers that are available in any market a Craft Beer Cellar is located,” Craft Beer Cellar Co-Founder Kate Baker said in a statement on the company’s blog.

The backlash was swift, with a banned brewery considering a lawsuit. What if “good” and “popular” don’t have to be the same thing? There are plenty of examples of that throughout business and society. We don’t have to look beyond the Man Bun for a terribly off-putting example.

“Survival as a brewery over a certain size … is not going to depend simply on beer quality,” Jordan St. John recently wrote. “It needs marketing, logistics, sales reps, quality control, packaging, design work, accounting, and a business plan that doesn’t suck. A lot of the time beer isn’t about beer. At this point you’re better off poaching an excellent sales rep than a talented cellarman.”

There have been many conversations I’ve had where myself and others openly ponder, “I wonder how [INSERT BREWERY] does it” because our perception of their product is decidedly “meh” and best, but are a wild hit with others, especially casual drinkers.

If anything, let’s not forget that when we talk about “good” beer, we can also look at it in the context of our modern movement, in which our “bad” beer would likely be well ahead of many brands made a decade or two ago. Not only do we live in a Golden Age of American beer, but we’re also all experts. The democratization of opinion as worth means that “good” and “bad” and everything in between brings an array of outcomes. It’s easy to heap praise on singular breweries or beers, but does that kind of action have significant impact when we can so easily polarize ourselves on social media, rating sites and with friends real and digital?

To some degree, this discussion surrounds the credo and soul of “craft beer,” as pointed out by Ryan Moses:

Eventually, even if you have a great story, you are a local brewery and represent something greater than yourself, you must make good beer to be successful long-term. One of my core beliefs about craft beer is the liquid in the glass is all that matters.

What that liquid is and presents to the success or failure of a business is wide open to interpretation.

“Where we’re at today, there are not a lot of barriers to entry,” Brian Grossman mentioned in the Good Beer Hunting inteview. “Five thousand bucks, you can get a warehouse, you can get a brew system, and you can be making beer. And that’s happened all over the country.”

Perhaps there’s a reason for this ubiquity.

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

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180 days ago
Here's some interpretive reading from @BryanDRoth - enjoyable as always!
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Making Snowflakes: An Exploration into Rarity, Beer Quality and Industry Authenticity

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We find ourselves in a unique time as beer lovers. Everything and anything is available to us. Whatever we want, whenever we want it.

With a record number of breweries nationwide, more than 5,000 businesses are creating a vast array of styles and flavor experiences, often nearby where we live. According to the Brewers Association, roughly three-quarters of drinking-age adults in the U.S. live within 10 miles of a brewery.

The flip side of this freedom of choice is the natural competition that comes with it. Keeping an IPA on tap is important to satiate American drinkers’ love for all things lupulin, but today’s brewery faces challenges presented by all the other entrants into the industry, roughly two a day. Finding a niche, or, at least, creating one, is a pivotal part of the business, whether it’s as a brewery as a whole or simply providing novel experiences every time someone walks through taproom doors.

Increasingly, the process of creating something “rare” is playing a larger role for brewers. This could be a celebrated one-off beer with limited quantities or a dedicated tap on-location that serves creations never to leave the premises. As businesses grow, evolve and consider how best to position themselves, the use of rarity in all its varieties has potential to impact breweries, industry tastemakers and drinkers.

What’s in a Name?

While naturally assumed, whether through practice or thought exercise, beer as an experiential good has great power to affect our emotions, both through its alcohol content and the psychological reaction of consuming something that simply tastes good. In a 2017 study published in Food Quality and Preference, researchers found that information related to ABV alone may have enough impact to activate positive emotional responses. Using “regular” and non-alcoholic beer, researchers found that “liking” scores among Dutch participants were more closely aligned with the real thing, especially when non-alcoholic beer was actually labeled as “real” beer.


Chart via Dutch research project.

“This change in liking seems to be a reaction to the product name rather than to the flavour of [non-alcoholic beer]. As an extrinsic attribute, the product name is a powerful tool in the communication between products and consumers, creating specific sensory expectations through prior associations and experiences of consumption,” they wrote in their findings.

This point emphasizes the power of our expectations. Because we have to taste and experience beer in order to judge it, our assumptions play a strong role in perception. Choice impacts not only our purchase decisions, but potentially perceived outcomes, too. “When choice is involved, emotions can play a deeper role,” researchers noted.

If you have the full ability to make selections based on personal criteria, your choice can lead to a stronger emotional connection, which in turn may create a deeper appreciation for what you consume, particularly if it’s something special or rare. Our preconceived notions can impact our reactions if and when it’s around the social construct of beer. The psychological, sociological and emotional connections made over a person, brewery or brand are nothing to scoff at, especially when the essence of what “craft beer” stands for – authenticity – means so much.

The ‘Real’ Thing

At the core of what has helped drive the “craft beer movement” in recent years is the abandonment by many of the set of experiences macro beer once monopolized. While accounting for just 12.2% of American beer sales by volume in 2015, craft beer isn’t only seen as a product, but a statement in consumer choice. The idea of “industrialized beer” has made way to the romanticized process of artisanal development, our brewers toiling away over a steaming mash tun or testing hundreds of barrels, “hand crafting” every batch just for us.


Taste testing a barrel-aged beer at Allagash.

That’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but only half so. “People buy products not only for what they can do, but also for what they mean,” Sidney Levy wrote in 1959. To many, craft beer represents the antithesis of mass produced lager. No matter how much truth is in our Hero Brewer working hard for our small-batch IPA, it still represents the thing we’re after: authenticity.

In recent weeks, research and opinion presented on this blog have worked to tackle this topic through the lens of rarity, a connection that, at least anecdotally, only seems to be getting stronger. Audiences value authentic goods for what they represent, explains Pierre Bourdieu, and observations of the beer industry suggest the most authentic beer, and therefore most valued, just happens to be the kind very few can get.

This connection can be found elsewhere, with restaurants (higher ratings) and movies (higher demand) impacted by levels of interest and the amount each is deemed “mass market.” The same has been suggested with beer, hinting that products made by breweries such as AB InBev or MillerCoors are devalued because they aren’t as “authentic.”

“Consumption and evaluation are, fundamentally, social acts,” Justin Frake writes, highlighting a pivotal point in the evaluation of beer: the experiential and physical component of rating can be as important as the nonphysical, mental portion.

Appearance, aroma and taste influence the perception – and, ultimately – rating of a beer, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the ethos of craft, setting itself aside as an oppositional force to macro beer, hits its apex with the limited and one-off beers that perform so well among “best” beer lists. These are often the epitome of time and labor (barrel-aged sour/wild, imperial stout, etc.), or present a wholly unique experience unavailable on a large scale (NE IPA).


As a popular source of one-off and limited beers, does barrel aging provide an advantage to brewers?

These qualities of rarity – also perceived as truer examples of authenticity – have ranging impacts. “If a beer’s quality is not perfectly observable to the consumer,” Frake writes, “then they may use the commonly perceived association between authenticity and quality to make quality inferences.”

This also relates to taste expectation, which has shown to influence perception and consumption, but also assimilation to expected norms. The prestige of a product – not necessarily counting its actual level of quality – can force a cycle in which authenticity equates to quality.

In October 2016, BeerGraphs explored this idea, asking the question of whether Ballast Point’s acquisition by Constellation Brands could have altered the scores of its flagship IPA, Sculpin, on Untappd. The range of scores varies from pre- to post-acquisition and demonstrates a downward trend in consumer appreciation.


Two conversations around possible answers arose from this:

  1. The acquisition did, in fact, influence how drinkers thought about Ballast Point, therefore impacting their scores.
  2. Because Sculpin became more widely available, it was no longer as “special” to find and also faced issues of sitting on shelves longer than usual, perhaps impacting flavor.

In both of these cases, the underlying argument is based on the authenticity of the business and brand. Regardless of which train of thought may be more applicable, ratings still appear to have declined, or, at least, demonstrated a wider range of potential scores, most notably in the lower end of the spectrum. This is important, as Frake found that RateBeer users who were aware of a craft brewer’s corporate ownership reduced ratings after an acquisition to the factor of about a 3% penalty.

“These results suggest that consumers devalue inauthentic organizations (craft breweries owned by corporate breweries) because they perceive them as having lower symbolic value,” he writes.

Similar findings were presented in the Journal of Wine Economics, where researchers showed ecocertified wine – a product set apart by sustainably-certified production and the difficulty that comes with it – sees its ratings change depending on availability. Researchers at UCLA concluded that an ecocertified wine increases its expert scores by 4.1 on average, but as cases produced increases, scores go down. “A 1% increase in the number of cases will decrease the scaled score by 0.019 point,” they found.

Even with an honest approach to business – something I do not doubt – a craft brewer has a built-in, psychological way to game the system. In fact, it’s long played an important role to tell the story of craft beer. As we’ve all likely seen and experienced, the “us vs. them” scenario is a large part of the industry. And, “if small organizations are considered more authentic, then authenticity may be one of the few competitive advantages that entrepreneurs have over large incumbent firms,” Frake proposes.

Connecting all the dots above, we can then assume that not only does the organization (brewery) benefit, but also the product it provides (beer). It’s a trickle-down effect: an authentic brewery creates an authentic product which is able to reach its most authentic state as a limited or special product.

But that’s not the only way we judge the value of a beer, consciously, subconsciously or even biologically.

Paying the Price

By nearly all measures, the cost for limited or rare beer is high, not just in actual dollars, but time and effort devoted to obtaining it. This alone has an ability to make something seem to have higher quality.

If we accept that rarity and authenticity go hand-in-hand to influence our perception of beer, then we must also consider how those aspects impact the price of the product and what it does to us. In previous research, it was shown that for many consumers, there is a threshold of how much they’re willing to pay for certain flavor experiences. However:

Humans are irrational, capable of leading with our heart as much as our brain. Even more, financial decisions can be heavily influenced by past decisions – old habits die hard whether actually good or bad in the long run. When discussing the potential for beer prices and what’s to come, we need to keep in mind the established marketplace and what behaviors are already the norm.

In this case, the effect of rarity on ratings can also impact price and what we’re willing to pay.

“…higher consumer ratings are associated with higher prices, such that a 10-point increase in an average consumer rating is associated with about a 50-cents increase in the price of a unit (i.e., a six-pack) of beer,” a group of researchers wrote in Agricultural and Food Economics.

With limited research performed with beer, it’s worth looking to wine to better gauge what price does to perception. One study found that “a 1-point increase in the personal opinion (the difference between score and objective quality) raises price by approximately 8% on average.”

And what price does to us – in all its forms – matters: “…perceptions of quality are known to be positively correlated with price.” The higher the cost, the better our brains perceive something to be.

In 2007, a group of researchers from the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University put this to the test, looking to match the business and marketing of wine to our body’s reaction. What they found indicated that the willingness to rate something highly isn’t just a sociological cue, but a biological one, too: “…increasing the price of a wine increases subjective reports of flavor pleasantness as well as blood-oxygen-level-dependent activity in medial orbitofrontal cortex, an area that is widely thought to encode for experienced pleasantness during experiential tasks.”

The assumption of quality creates an actual, chemical reaction in our brains.


Two experiments were run, the first showing subjects reacted positively when presented with information about wines of higher price points, and the second, presented with no price information, exhibited no reported differences. It’s a classic example that mirrors the beer blind taste test – the kind seen so often in the beer community where Pliny the Elder is dethroned as the country’s best IPA once you remove the name and hype around it.

Together, the ideas and assumptions around authenticity, cost and what it means to be “rare” bring into focus characteristics of what it takes to potentially be “best” among thousands of other options. As we’ve seen in the beer world, that list is continuously narrowed not only based on those traits, but what kind of beer is made, too.

Beer’s Ruling Class of Styles

For years, we’ve known that imperial stout, IPA and double IPA have dominated rating lists. Going back to 2013, it’s been tracked on this blog over and over with prominent online sites like RateBeer and Beer Advocate. For example, here’s the averaged weighted rank of styles from data I pulled in late October 2014, a dataset that included 507 beers comprised of the top-10 beers (or fewer, if less than 10) from all 50 states and D.C.:

beer advocate - avg WR of 3 styles vs full list

In case you’re wondering why “regular” IPA may have been lower than the average of the 507, it’s worth pointing to 2013 research from BeerGraphs, which found a difference in Untappd ratings based on ABV levels:


Most recently, the success of these styles was tracked on this blog in terms of their characteristics and – to an extent – rarity, which showed a strong preference toward big stouts and hop-forward pale ales as seen on the top-250 from Beer Advocate:


Chart from an analysis of 250 top beers. For details on process, see this post.

…and BeerGraphs:

Chart from an analysis of 175 top beers. For details on process, see this post.

Chart from an analysis of 175 top beers. For details on process, see this post.

In my own analysis from this fall and looking back to past years, the prominence of these styles is impossible to ignore as preferred representatives of what is typically cited as “best.” In just about every case of inclusion in lists and rankings, brands of imperial stout and IPA variants feature aspects of authenticity and rarity previously discussed, suggesting that there may be a correlation between the perceived quality and how beloved some brands or styles have become.

This was recently demonstrated by two researchers analyzing online beer ratings by drinkers in Finland. In a paper published in December 2016, Petri Niemela and Niels Dingemanse aimed to determine the accuracy and value of online ratings, but also provided a finding that emphasizes stylistic bias of drinkers which we’ve seen before. The styles of beers with highest scores, according to participating Finns, were imperial stout, baltic porter, imperial porter, eisbock, barleywine, double IPA and black IPA:

trustworthiness of online ratings-styles-beer

Click to enlarge. Highest rated styles on right.

Without knowing the collected beers presented to participants, it’s hard to draw specific conclusions aside from basic aspects of these styles: they are high in alcohol content, adhere to specific flavor groupings, are among the most labor and ingredient intensive styles, and, because of all these things, have higher potential to be rare or limited as well. Of note in their findings:

“…styles that include heavily roasted malts such as stouts and porters, which are typically black or almost black in colour, and have chocolate, coffee and roasted tastes and aromas are rated highest by the Finns. Generally, types of lager like malted liquor, pale lager and helles, all of which include relatively small amounts of malts and hops and use brewing techniques and yeasts specific for those styles, were rated below average.”

The researchers neglect to discuss other style-specific aspects, but in general, these findings adhere to outcomes I have found that point at style and alcohol content as being a driving force in perceptions of quality and ratings.

As the American beer industry has grown and matured, another addition to this segment has been sour/wild and saisons. These styles of are particular interest in this case not for their alcohol content, but specifically their rarity. Because of the time (sometimes years) and effort (high cost) to create these beers, it gained my attention while compiling my annual analysis of “best” beer lists. As noted in a follow-up post on the topic, the inclusion of one-off creations made from barrels or unique processes took a step forward in 2016:

2015 % of Total Beers 2016 % of Total Beers Change
Sour/Wild 11.9% 14.2%  +2.3%
Saison 5.2% 7.7%  +2.5%

This example is worth noting because of its impact on “tastemakers” within the industry, many who had best beer lists that contributed to my collection. And, as shown in recent research published in the Journal of Wine Economics, “…experts’ ratings have both a statistically and practically significant impact on prices after controlling for the effects of other known detriments of price. Thus, expert opinion has significant value in this setting.”

Given what we know about price and assumption of quality, it may be relevant to consider Robert Ashton’s research as it pertains to beer. As he points out in “The Value of Expert Opinion in the Pricing of Bordeaux Wine Futures,” the positive ratings of two prominent wine critics, Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson, can directly influence price, and therefore perception of quality. If that is the case, it would do us well to consider how ratings from prominent beer magazines, personalities, and even rating websites could do the same. It might be safe to assume that the future inclusion of barrel-aged sour/wild and saisons among “best” beers created in the U.S. is already secured, thanks to the slew of characteristics that align with what makes a rare beer a quality one and the time and attention required to make those styles.

The results from reviewers and tastemakers may only reach (and influence) a small percentage of the beer drinking population, but this is also the group from which trends are solidified or sometimes created. Plus, we know that any kind of expertise has potential to impact behavior and assumption of quality. A key takeaway from Ashton’s work: expert opinions may not necessarily mean the opinions are valid – taste is subjective – but they are valid by social-psychological standards previously discussed, “which maintains that expertise is socially conferred by constituencies that rely on analyses and opinions provided by the deemed experts,” he writes.

Which puts beer in an interesting spot. Not only do industry tastemakers matter in terms of bias and preference that might influence others, but they’re impacted by the psychological cues that make rare beers so good in the first place. Ratings and decisions are based on quality, but there is more to the final score. On top of that, the social nature of beer and an increasing value placed on online interactions means that more people can become an “expert,” or, at least, an influencer. When considering the sum of research presented so far, all this comes back to the power that authenticity – and rarity – wields over us.

Authenticity to ‘Uniqueness’ and Back Again

“… from a product marketing perspective, a unique product is one that is highly differentiated from all other products in its category. Such differentiation is known to be essential to product and brand success, because it both minimises direct competition and the likelihood that any other product can serve as a suitable substitute,” a team of New Zealand researchers wrote in a 2016 paper for Food Quality and Preference.

Price and access have proven to have the ability to impact assumptions and perceptions of quality, but increasingly, factors of “uniqueness” and authenticity rise to the top. As we consider what this means for beer moving forward, we should try to be more cognizant of how our perceptions of quality are affected.


For example, by testing participants with collections of beers that would be classified as “familiar” versus “non-familiar,” a team at The New Zealand Institute for Plant & Food Research found, “…beers classified as ‘familiar’ were highly correlated with responses to descriptive statements that they were ‘ordinary’, ‘simple’, and ‘boring’ beers, while those classified as ‘novel’ were correlated with statements that they were ‘unusual’, ‘intriguing’ and ‘complex’ beers.”

Liking or disliking beers, they discovered, had to do with “how familiar or novel they are to the consumer.” Sound familiar? Even more to the point, “novelty and complexity are associated with high levels of arousal.”

One caveat that is offered by the research, however, is that the appeal of beers is more complex than just familiarity. Situation and setting, for example, also play a role. But given what we know about the social aspects of rarity and its own influence, along with previous highlights of price, production levels and authenticity, these may be the missing pieces to complete the puzzle. American drinkers are seeking aspects of authenticity, found through craft beer.

The phenomena we see in relation to these characteristics have been shown across multiple countries, drinking cultures and types of alcohol. To find connections through all suggests the psychological and sociological effects of authenticity and rarity have a universal ability to impact us.


Does this mean we have road map to create a successful brewery or beer? I wouldn’t go that far, but the framework offered through this collection of data and academic research feels compelling enough that areas of brewing, marketing and branding can overlap to create something powerful or useful.

None of this may be wholly groundbreaking to our collective anecdotal experience and findings from a variety of other luxury goods, but with every new brewery that comes online and every piece of data we can collect – from ratings to narrative stories – we find ourselves smarter and more understanding about what’s going on, and, in a way, what’s at stake.

Searching for good beer takes us to all sorts of places, whether digital, physical or emotional. Perhaps it’s also making us think subconsciously about what that means, too.

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

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213 days ago
Deep research makes for a *compelling* beer read from @BryanDRoth
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How to Win ‘Best’ Beer and Influence People

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Along with all the data parsed from my recent analysis of 2016’s best beer, there was one particular trend that caught my eye.

Beyond the use of specific hops and the never-ending stronghold IPAs have on our collective consciousness, more than ever before, I noticed that some of the beers deemed “best” by amateurs and experts alike were also products I would never get to try, let alone see with my own eyes in real life.

This makes sense for two reasons:

  1. With the sheer number of breweries increasing, let alone focusing on local markets, unobtainable beers should be happening more often.
  2. As more breweries grow and diversify, the potential to include barrel programs and make beers unique to each business also goes up.

But those aspects may not tell the full story. Of the 155 beers I collected for my 2016 best beer analysis, 75 (by my own subjective review) would likely be classified as “rare” for the sake of release and quantity, and an additional 20 would be “rare” based on the need to travel to the brewery or an area directly nearby to actually get the beer. By my own account, 61% of the “best” new beers released in 2016 and included on my collective list aren’t going to be available to nearly all beer drinkers – even card-carrying beer geeks such as myself that might try harder to find certain brands.

Which made me wonder. First, what are rare beers doing to us? Second, is this a paradigm shift that will continue to influence our expectations going forward?

To answer the first question, there is sure to be plenty of insight in last year’s post on “The Power of Scarcity“:

In an era of Untappd badge one-upmanship, bottle shares and limited releases, the Whalezbro culture of beer thrives because our brains are attuned to it.

There is an amount of psychology at play when it comes to rare and one-off beers, an area additionally explored by Aaron Goldfarb and his analysis of Beer Advocate’s top beers as well as recent posts on this blog, looking at how attributes of beers may influence scores for lists on Beer Advocate and BeerGraphs. In each case, the conclusion is the same: the “specialness” of a particular product weighs on our mind when we’re subjectively deciding its quality.

Which raises an interesting scenario for the “tastemakers” who have the ability to drive consumer curiosity and tell us what’s good and trendy in beer. Do they go for what’s most special or find balance in what satiates their curiosity, considering what impact those choices have on others? Generally speaking, the use of ratings will influence perception and most of all, experts have a statistically-determined impact on value and price.

Determining “best” beer is a problematic cycle: the most unique or rare ales (lager being forever a bridesmaid) are bestowed on a select few or made hard to come by, creating a hierarchy of not only who gets one of these high-end brews, but ultimately what others are seeking to create as brewers or enjoy as drinkers.

For example, consider the growth in barrel-aged specialty beers, as found for my 2016 collective list. One-off creations made from barrels or unique processes took a step forward in 2016:

2015 % of Total Beers 2016 % of Total Beers Change
Sour/Wild 11.9% 14.2%  +2.3%
Saison 5.2% 7.7%  +2.5%

It’s a long-winded way of saying: we may be underestimating the power wielded by the growing number of one-off programs and specialty releases. Emphasized through last 2016’s collection of best beer, there should now be a growing expectation that the most celebrated beers are often going to be ones we can’t enjoy ourselves. When there are over 5,000 brewers across the country and a business has to separate itself from everyone else, it makes sense to seek market efficiencies to stand out.

At this time, it’s not necessarily about making a killer flagship. It’s about what’s rare, too.

Consider notes from this interview with Jeff Griffith, head brewer of the 4-year old Fate Brewing:

  • “At any given time, Griffith has up to 25 house-brewed beers on tap at Fate.”
  • “To fill the demand for IPA in a city like Boulder, though, Fate will have as many as five hop-forward offerings on tap.”
  • “Griffith also pushes the limits by aging his Gose in tequila barrels, creating a kind of sour, salty margarita beer.”

A decade ago, at the initial boom of this latest craft beer craze, “extreme” was all the rage as breweries worked to see how high an ABV could go or how bracingly bitter a beer could become. Rare is our new “extreme,” a way to differentiate products with unique attributes, but with rules lax enough to allow anyone to play the game, so long as you have a barrel or some adjuncts. (I kid, sort of)

For many reasons, this change is a good thing. Creative boundaries are being pushed in all sorts of ways, as expectations of flavors evolve and hard definitions of styles fade away. But as more attention is paid to unique experiences that can be had on-location, breweries young and old are also finding ways to make sure those visits can’t easily be replicated, whether at their own business or elsewhere.

Which, ultimately, leaves me with more questions: will this change our perception of value for all beer? How will prominent voices address this? If it becomes clear what ranks as “best,” do we start considering more styles or brands in a spectrum? (“This beer is good, but not as good as barrel-aged X”)

Because, finally, we’re starting to have a clearer, more definitive picture of what specialty characteristics mean for a beer and its quality. As the industry continues to become more specialized, these are things that can offer additional context and understanding.

And maybe help us think, with more consideration, what it means to be “best.”

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

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221 days ago
As usual @BryandRoth gets us beer drinkers thinking. What does make for a desirable experience?
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