For the past couple weeks I’ve been looking through data from RateBeer.com, which releases a “best beers in the world” list each year. RateBeer has a full archive dating back to 2006, so I wanted to map out what I thought would showcase changes in behavior pertaining to beer.
My general thought? We’d see more variety not only in beer, but especially in the strength of top-ranked brews. On that front, I found myself to be both right and wrong.
First, a note about RateBeer’s rankings – they are incredibly consistent. From 2006 to 2013, the “best beers” are heavily skewed toward rare beers that are often imperial stouts. Why do these particular beers rank so well?
One reason is selection bias – not everyone can get a Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout, so there are fewer ratings of that beer than Bells Hopslam, which typically performs well and is available across the country every year. The fewer ratings a beer has, the greater chance it has of compiling top scores. That’s because…
… there’s also motivational and cognitive bias. Beer nerds are famous for riding the hype train, which pushes beers like Dark Lord to holy heights. If, by chance, we are lucky enough to get a bottle, the sheer magnitude of the occasion has the ability to skew our judgment. We expect a beer to be amazing, therefore it’s more likely to be amazing once we have it.
Sure, every person is a special snowflake, but these are general guidelines to keep in mind. It should come as no surprise that of the top-20 “best beers” from 2013’s list, 11 currently reside on the “most wanted” list of the site. (It should also be noted that these beers are also likely to taste great)
All that said, my methodology – for sake of time and effort – was to look at the top-20 of each year’s best beers, as rated by RateBeer users. The top-10 didn’t offer enough variety, so I simply doubled it up. You can see a full list of the beers here.
But enough about all that. Let’s do the numbers…
As expected, imperial stouts perform very well. Why? Probably because they fit nicely into all the biases previously mentioned. More often than not they are limited release, limited distribution and well hyped. It’s a perfect storm. That said, here’s the distribution of imperial stouts in top-20 “best beer” rankings over the past eight years:
I was curious why 2010 stands out with 17 of 20 beers being an imperial stout, but it could simply be an apex of hype for that style. In 2010, All About Beer magazine noted that the “resurrection of languishing stylistic gems might be America’s greatest contribution to brewing in the past 30 years. This would most certainly be the case with Russian imperial stout.”
For what it’s worth, Google Trends shows an initial spike in searches for “imperial stout” at the start of 2009, showing that awareness – or at least curiosity – started to pick up in the 2009/2010 timeframe.
While the presence of imperial stouts didn’t surprise me, this is what did: average strength of the top beers. Imperial stouts, which typically clock in from 8 to 12 percent ABV, always make up the plurality of RateBeer’s “best beer” lists. Even still, the times, they are a-changin:
After hitting a peak of 11.53% in 2007, the average ABV of RateBeer’s top-20 beers has dropped by roughly 2 percent. What happened? Simply put: variety.
No RateBeer list has had fewer than nine imperial stouts, including 2013’s list. However, beginning in 2011, we see cracks in the ratings. Notable top-20 additions include:
- 2011 – Russian River Supplication (sour)
- 2012 – Cigar City Passionfruit/Dragonfruit Berliner Weisse and 3 Fonteinen Gueuze
- 2013 – Hill Farmstead Ann (saison), Cigar City Miami Madness (Berliner Weisse) and Cantillon Fou’ Foune (lambic)
Why is this important? Well, this is one reason:
I know this has been beaten to death, but that growth of breweries doesn’t only mean a flood of new beer everywhere you look. It means that to succeed as a business, these breweries have to set themselves apart. When it comes to year-round or seasonal offerings, they have to do something different aside from an IPA – gotta have one! – to sell beer.
Luckily, that also means quality of beer and innovation have gone hand-in-hand, offering beer drinkers wonderfully complex beers that also taste great.
Yes, nearly all the beers we drink fall below the ABV averages seen above of RateBeer’s top-20 “best beers,” but keep it in context that these are regarded as the best beers in the world and their combined strength is going down. Give it a few more decades and DING will be in heaven!
Lots of stuff here today and I’d love to hear your thoughts. This is a very broad topic with lots of viewpoints, so please do leave comments/questions below and let’s hash this out some more.
On Wednesday, I’ll try to provide a better idea of where/how these “top beer” changes are happening.
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac