Semantics and the Search for a ‘Perfect’ Beer

perfect beer world cloud

What is a perfect beer?

Ask the question and subjectivity runs amok.

Would it be our favorite beer? One that holds particular nostalgic value? A sum of specialized ingredients? Something that simply stands out as so different, it’s one of a kind?

There are many ways to consider what “perfect” means to us, especially in terms of a good or product. Generally speaking, when it comes to beer, the effort to define perfect often becomes a quantitative one, relying on beer rating websites that offer numeric value to a particular brew.

Westvleteren 12 is a perfect 100 on both Beer Advocate and RateBeer. Heady Topper and Pliny the Elder, too. Sorry, Dark Lord, you missed it by five points on Beer Advocate.

If those are examples of “perfect” beers, what does that mean for us? If a beer is perfect, should it also be a favorite? Or are those things utterly, completely, mutually exclusive?

All these questions rattled around my head recently when I poked through Reddit’s beer community and spotted two threads on the front page:

To me, these questions aren’t terribly far off from being one in the same. The first asks what is the world-class beer you love beyond all others, while the second poses the popular question of a “desert island beer.”

Results of the “perfect beer” were predictable, creating a list of IPAs, double IPAs and imperial stouts (plus one quad!) with an average ABV of 8.5 percent:

Beer Name Brewer Style ABV
Breakfast Stout Founders Imperial Stout 8.3
Pliny the Elder Russian River DIPA 8
Rochefort 10 Rochefort Quad 11.3
Mass Rising Jack’s Abby DIPL 8
Juice Machine Tree House DIPA 9.8
Enjoy by 12.26.14 Stone DIPA 9.4
Dreadnaught Three Floyds DIPA 9.5
Double Shot Tree House Stout 7.6
Barbapapa Pretty Things Imperial Stout 12
KBS Founders Imperial Stout 11.2
Bon Bon Singlecut DIPA 8.2
Haze Tree House DIPA 8.2
Hoppy Birthday Alpine IPA 5.25
Celebration Sierra Nevada IPA 6.8
Sucks Lagunitas DIPA 7.85
Yellow Belly Sundae Buxton Imperial Stout 12
Tasmanian IPA Schlafly IPA 7.2
Harvest Ale Founders IPA 7.6
Grapefruit Sculpin Ballast Point IPA 7
Jai Alai Cigar City IPA 7.5
Two Hearted Bells IPA 7
Zombie Dust Three Floyds IPA 6.2

Meanwhile, desert island question went in another direction, with far fewer results:

Beer Name Brewer Style ABV
Jai Alai Cigar City IPA 7.5
Liliko’i Kepolo Avery Wit 5.6
Sorachi Ace Brooklyn Saison 7.2
Orval Orval Belgian Pale 6.2
Saison DuPont DuPont Saison 6.5
White Allagash Wit 5
Guinness Guinness Stout 4.2

That’s an average ABV of 6.2 percent, for what it’s worth.

When asking about a “desert island beer,” the question isn’t necessarily meant to be taken literally. Using “desert island” connotes images of crystal blue water and sun-bleached beaches and the responses to that question seem to play off that. However, the question is more focused on moving you down an avenue to get you thinking about a broader issue: if you only had one beer available to you for the rest of your life, what would it be?

So I asked that question.

Whether it was my hope or assumption, I figured responses would land somewhere between the two. I tried to phrase the question as broadly as possible so not to fully bias answers, but I imagine the context of asking “You can only drink one beer for the rest of your life. What would you choose?” makes it difficult.

Might people assume they’re binge drinking? Lighter beers in both alcohol content and body might be preferred. Maybe respondents will see it as a balance of a beer they love, but one that can be consumed at any and all occasions. You can see a full list here, but here were 20 top answers:

Beer Name Brewer Style ABV
Jai Alai Cigar City IPA 7.5
Two Hearted Bells IPA 7
Fresh Squeezed Deschutes IPA 6.4
Resin Sixpoint DIPA 9.1
Dale’s Pale Ale Oskar Blues American Pale 6.5
Mosaic IPA Community Beer Company IPA 8.6
Extra Pale Ale Summit English Pale 5.3
Daisy Cutter Half Acre American Pale 5.2
Pale Ale Sierra Nevada American Pale 5.6
Torpedo Sierra Nevada IPA 7.2
All Day IPA Founders IPA 4.7
Guinness Guinness Stout 4.2
Grapefruit Sculpin Ballast Point IPA 7
PBR Pabst Pale Lager 4.7
Traditional Lager Yuengling Vienna Lager 4.4
Little Sumpin’ Sumpin Lagunitas IPA 7.5
Boston Lager Sam Adams Vienna Lager 4.9
Pilsner Urquell Plzeňský Prazdroj Czech Pilsner 4.4
60 Minute Dogfish Head IPA 6
Miller Lite Miller Brewing Pale Lager 4.2

Several fell into a category of beers people enjoyed drinking, but wanted to make sure they could drink a lot of – Miller Lite, Yuengling’s Traditional Lager, PBR, etc. Some answers were based around cost, a caveat that should have been offered in asking the question. If they were only buying one beer, people mentioned Summit’s Extra Pale Ale and Sierra Nevada’s beers because of a combination of cost and taste.

But half of this list was stylistically counted as IPA and American pale ales like Daisy Cutter or Dale’s Pale Ale aren’t far off from their hop-forward brethren. I found it telling that not a single imperial stout was included among top results. Founders Breakfast Stout was mentioned along the way, but perhaps Reddit’s beer community is just too focused on hops, just like everyone else.

Assuming comments on these questions are posted by American drinkers, it showcases a consistent theme among U.S. beer enthusiasts – our love and reliance on IPAs and big stouts, both of which beer enthusiasts regularly hold in regard as the best beers produced.

It also raises questions about how “best,” “perfect” and other adjectives may influence a response from drinkers when asking them about their preferred beer. It’s all about context. Even though these respondents consider a very select group of beers and beer styles to be “perfect,” most of the specific brand selections from the “10 out of 10” question still aren’t considered for every day consumption in my thread.

However, you can’t shake the need for IPAs whether its impressing people at a bottle share or being stuck on a desert island, you INSATIABLE ANIMALS.

A beer for every occasion, I suppose.

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


2 thoughts on “Semantics and the Search for a ‘Perfect’ Beer

  1. I’ve settled on a version of this question that I find illuminating because it helps describe a person’s tastes: if you could only drink beer from five styles for the rest of your life, which would they be?

    1. A smart way to handle all these variables!

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