There are always a typical set of reactions when discussing anything determined to be “best.” Even if the word isn’t always grounded in subjectivity – certainly there are quantifiable examples of what’s best – it does swing the gates wide open for a rush of discussions and arguments of what the word and its context means.
Some people were surprised at specific beer choices, while a common question permeated throughout a series of other comments: where are the lagers?
From readers and fellow beer writers to this thread on Reddit, people wanted to know why their beloved bottom-fermenting beverages weren’t represented. The one bock that showed up – a weizenbock – isn’t even a lager.
Is it an intrinsic desire to find flavors that push boundaries? Is it driven by our own food culture? Or maybe, as beer continues to grow and evolve – sometimes literally – it’s part of an effort to simply move away from subtlety.
Why, when it comes to what’s “best,” might we find ourselves numb to nuance?
Setting the Stage
In terms of timeliness, let’s first start with that RateBeer list. Of all the thousands of beers that get rated every year on the review website, lagers couldn’t crack the best of the best. While not a prime directive, one aspect to first look at is the attitude with which raters are encouraged to consider their job, as described by RateBeer:
We’re not interested in poodles that look exactly like poodles, we’re interested in the smartest dog, the fastest dog, the strangest dog, the most amusing dog. We don’t care what the hair looks like or hat color it is – we want dogs that thrill us.
Whether or not people are actually reading RateBeer’s FAQs to guide their efforts is one thing, but at least this snippet provides us context to the proposed mindset RateBeer members are encouraged to have. From the get-go, lagers, not known to be the “est” of most superlative groupings in beer, are at a disadvantage.
From the very beginning, the rating process can be influenced by the bandwagon effect. If people are encouraged to focus on one thing (such as the smartest or most amusing dog the FAQ points out) and that beer becomes a hit, others will follow suit.
A Matter of Taste
In the early the 20th century, American cuisine was plagued, suffering from factory-made foods that thrived on blandness. Processing made food easy to package and prepare, but it was a parasitic relationship – tastebuds suffered from a lack of intensely flavored foods found elsewhere around the world.
But all that changed in the last 50-plus years, perhaps hitting its apex more recently with the growth of a “foodie” culture to which half of Americans consider they belong. As we started the 2000s, it was about a culinary arms race:
People are looking for a bigger blast when it comes to flavor,” says Vinny Dotolo, chef and co-owner of Animal restaurant in Los Angeles, which specializes in over-the-top cooking. He thinks small plates and shared dishes have contributed to this evolution: When you only have one bite of something, it has to make a big impression.
Maybe that is doubly so in beer, where the biggest fans thrive on variety and filling their portfolio with drinking experiences and Untappd badges. In an era of accumulation, a big first impression is the gateway to that five bottle cap rating.
Like with food, could an increased interest in flavor intensity leave diners and drinkers desensitized to more delicate flavors? Does the subtlety of a lager have any place?
“The more you taste something, the more you need to taste it,” Mitchell Davis, vice president of the James Beard Foundation, a New York-based non-profit that works to preserve American culinary heritage, told the Wall Street Journal. “You always need something spicier, something more, a bigger high.”
If Millennials are the thrill-seeking trend setters the world believes them to be, the generation’s preference for heightened eating experiences could also be passing into expectations for drink and influencing restaurateurs and diners alike.
But from the way we describe beers to the labels on them, how this depth of flavor is presented is key, too.
Along with the threat of bandwagoning on non-lagers that fulfill a craving for rich or deep flavors, there’s also a matter of bias at play. While “best of” beer on Beer Advocate reflects a rotating collection of brews that could change every day, RateBeer’s compilation is more consistent. Most notable in that regard is a consistency for rare and hard to find beers that are almost exclusively IPAs, double IPAs and imperial stouts – regularly some of the most flavor-forward, sought after styles in beer. Even “toned down” pale ales go heavy on hops these days.
This has the potential to artificially raise ratings or scores because our own expectations of flavor or rarity can impact our perceptions.
For example, one study by Cornell University researchers found that when presented with the same food, diners who believed wine and cheese came from California perceived it better than when they were told it came from North Dakota and even ate and drank more:
We conclude that not only does taste expectation influence one’s taste ratings of accompanying foods, but that it also influences consumption of accompanying foods. Environmental cues affect expectation and consumption, and cues of quality should be used to manipulate one’s expectations and intake behaviors.
Additionally, a study from the University of Sussex showed that bias isn’t just formed when presented with product information before consuming food, but assimilation to a perceived quality level can actually be enhanced. We’ll follow the crowd if a product even generally meets our assumption of tastiness.
Once again, it comes back to our expectations of what we’ll get when sampling certain beers. You may see it all the time in cases of blind tasting, when Best Beer in America (according to Zymurgy) Pliny the Elder regularly gets beat when people don’t know it’s Pliny. The same could be said for some of the heavy hitters of stout, too.
Preconceived notions of what lagers are and what they’re supposed to present us is a big deal. Which is why we’re now trying to change them.
Under the Microscope
It turns out beer enthusiasts aren’t the only ones thinking that lagers aren’t thrilling.
Last year, on separate occasions, I read about the increased effort to find a diversity of lager yeast to increase the microorganism’s ability to produce higher ABV, ferment faster and the “production of a complex, desirable fruity aroma.”
What’s going on here? Lagers, known and beloved for their delicate nature, are getting an evolutionary kick in the pants?
“This means that it now becomes possible to make lager beers that, like ale beers, are more different from each other, and this without the need to extensively change the production process,” explained Stijn Mertens, the lead author of one study that began when he and colleagues “tasted six Pilsner-type beers, and someone commented on how similar they were, much more so than beers of other types.”
Because these days, commonality (or that nuance, again) isn’t a trait that’s sought out in food and drink. We want something different and unique. More so, we want something that has the potential to knock our socks off and bury itself in our mind.
Will We Ever See a “Best of” Lager?
Lagers win all kinds of awards, but when it comes to publicly sourced, beer enthusiast-based “best of” lists? Probably not.
As anecdotal evidence, see this collection of lager-focused American breweries highlighted by Draft Magazine. Three of the breweries produce an averaged rating of their rated beers on Beer Advocate that fall below the website’s mean rating of 3.72. Of the other five, only one cracks a quarter-point higher than the mean and ranks above 4 on a 5-point scale: Jack’s Abby, a brewery that only makes lagers that also happen to occasionally taste like ales.
So next time you come across a “best beer” list or even a heated discussion of why more love can’t be shown for lagers, take comfort in this: some beers are meant for winning awards, other beers are meant for hanging out and drinking a bunch of them. Rarely do the two cross.
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac