Essentially every time that the annual Ratebeer Best results are released, or conversations about the Ratebeer Top 50 arise, or some goofball tries to post a specialized Top 10 List without checking if it’s top heavy in a particular style, the general reactions tend to be similar: “That’s a whole lot of Imperial Stouts.” “Why are there only imperial stouts on that list?” “Is this all you people drink?”
Pssst… None of this is new.
It’s a consistent sore point for veteran Ratebeer users, and in my mind it’s an unavoidable consequence of reviewing beer on a hedonistic scale (and this is especially so for younger reviewers). Higher alcohol, barrel aging, palate-coating notes of chocolate and roast and coffee, plus the fact that many brewers tend to release their Imperial Stouts and high-alcohol offerings via small-scale, limited-release batches… Beer Advocate includes “drinkability” in their reviewing scale, and that still results in a Top 50 that’s approaching 50% imperial stouts.
This tendency towards big, sweet, experimental (and often ridiculous) beers is expected, forgivable, and ultimately something to appreciate in craft beer culture, at least in terms of a stepping stone. When people talk about first getting into craft beer, they typically use terms like “awakening” or “revelation” or something else pseudo-mystical along those same lines. Because drinking beers that use copious amounts of high-quality ingredients (in what often appears to be a BMC-centric landscape) is exactly that: a paradigm shift. A brave new world.
And yet, a lot of great brewers and examples of lighter styles (i.e., the things most of us actually buy when we head to our local bottle shops) frequently get lost in the latest “Top 10,” “Top 50,” or “Best of” lists. There are fantastic breweries out there that don’t make barrel-aged imperial stouts or 15% sour ales, and that don’t want to. These brewers adhere to a different calling, to a different aesthetic than upping the alcohol or presenting their bottles in the fanciest hues of wax.
And, in my mind, these brewers represent the future of craft beer.
Useful Tools for Finding Better Beer
I want to say two words to you. Just two words. Style percentage.
Every beer listed on Ratebeer (there are only about 100,000…) is assigned to a particular style group, and the style percentage – listed just to the right of the ABV on each beer page – tells you how a particular beer is doing in relation to all of the other beers entered in that style group. In the case of the above link, you’ve possibly never heard of Denisons Weissbier (it’s available in Ontario; draft only), but it’s the top-rated German Hefeweizen on Ratebeer. And it’s awesome. It’s the sort of thing you’d very much like to know about if you’re visiting Toronto.
From any beer page, you can quickly go to a list of the top 50 beers within that particular style group. Let’s presume you like bananas and cloves in your beer (I think they can be lovely in the right amounts). If you click the linking style category from any beer page, “German Hefeweizen” in the case of Denisons Weissbier, this brings up all of the top examples from that style category.
If that doesn’t quite provide what you’re looking for (i.e., accessible beers you can actually track down in your area), you can also try the advanced search function. This feature allows you to pick any style group, specify your location, and sort by “highest rating” to give you an idea of what local examples of a particular style you might be able to find. Whether you’re searching for Double IPAs in California or Zwickels in Zimbabwe, this is one helpful method for finding them.
For those preoccupied with Top 50 lists and such (I’m personally not immune), there are also at least two useful ways of taking different looks at the Top 50 beers on Ratebeer. The customizable top 50, which can be accessed through the “Ratings” main tab, lets you do things like limit the number of Imperial Stouts on the list (by changing the “Beer Style Quota”) and/or search for lower-alcohol loveliness by limiting the allowed ABV ranges. The world is your oyster.
The final (non-official) feature worth noting is the Top 50/50, which basically treats the overall rating and the style percentile of each beer in equal measure, essentially partially normalizing for the overall skewing towards the bigger, bolder styles. I’d love to see more done with this in the future, possibly even a list that completely normalizes by the style groupings. Would an imperial stout, with such huge internal competition, even make that kind of Top 50 list?
None of this matters unless it ultimately results in finding better beer. The most discerning beer people I’ve met generally don’t spend their summer afternoons sipping Dark Lord, and their top 50 lists often look nothing like those produced by the Ratebeer community as a whole. I think I’d fall somewhere in-between, and I’ve certainly found great beer from places I’d never expected.
There are certain breweries that simply seem like they can do no (or little) wrong, but looking closely at a brewery’s main page can provide a clearer sense of this. There’s no doubt that Lost Abbey makes some excellent barleywines and sours, but it’s more convincing (for me) to see that they have high style percentages for almost everything they’ve brewed. New Glarus, which is probably best known for their Wisconsin Belgian Red and Spotted Cow (obviously for different reasons), also consistently makes simply exquisite German-style wheat beers.
Who knew I’d have a wheat ale in my personal Top 10?
What’s especially cool about style percentage data is that you’re never entirely sure what you’re going to find. Most people are bound to eventually track down the Schlenkerla beers from Brauerei Heller, which makes a range of top-ranking smoked beers – but others are more elusive. Who knew, for example, that Grand River Brewing in Cambridge, Ontario consistently produces top-tier session beers: milds, pilseners, pale ales, and premium lagers? Or that Brian Hunt at Moonlight Brewing Company near Santa Rosa is consistently turning out world-class Bohemian pilseners, German pilseners, schwarzbiers, and even malt liquor-like renditions (mmm… Toast)? Certain brewers fly under the radar.
There are big beers, and there are good beers. Here’s to finding better beers.
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