BEER CLINIC :: Best Beers in America? Really?

by Dr. Carol Westbrook on July 8, 2016

The American Homebrewers’ Association 14th Annual “Best Beers in America” were recently announced in the July/August 2016 issue of Zymurgy, the AHA journal. The results were based on over 18,000 votes cast by the members of the AHA.

These listings are eagerly awaited by AHA members, brewers, and craft beer lovers throughout the world. Beer lovers can’t wait to read the results and compare notes: are there brews they haven’t tasted and MUST go out and find? Did all THEIR favorites make the lists? No doubt these lists are scrutinized by commercial craft brewers, too, who want to see how their beers fared, and look for the direction of their buyer’s tastes, and what to brew next. YourBeerNetwork readers will undoubtedly enjoy reading these lists, so I’ve included them at the bottom of this article.

Hellooooo IPAs!

Hellooooo IPAs!

When I reviewed the list, I noted that many of my favorite IPAs were at the top of the list, as expected (Pliny the Elder, Two-Hearted, Hopslam, Lagunitas IPA). As I read further down the list, though, I was immediately struck by the fact that almost the entire list was about hoppy beers–IPA or derivative styles, including Double IPAs, Imperial IPAs, American Pale Ales, Black IPAs and American Pale Wheat Ales. Of these top 50 beers, only 15 were non-IPAs–mostly dark beers (stouts, porters, imperial stouts, and barrel-aged stouts); there was only one saison and two sours:

#19. Boulevard Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale (* saison)

#T29. Russian River Consecration (* Wild Ale / Sour Ale)

#T50. New Belgium La Folie (* Wood Aged sour beer)



Surely something was missing. Where are the excellent craft pilseners and lagers, such as Yeungling’s India Pale Lager (IPL) or Upland’s Champagne Velvet pilsener? Where are the classic American oak-aged, fruit-based beers, such as New GlarusSour Cherry? Or the delightful summer wheat beers? For that matter, where are the English and Belgian-style ales? Yes, many small breweries produce these styles, most of which are excellent and well-crafted, but somehow the members of the AHA did not see fit to rate any of them high enough to vote them into the best beers in America.

Even more perplexing were the top ten imports (see below) of which 8 were Belgians (including Unibroue’s Fin de Monde, which is a Belgian-like Canadian).

LOVE their beers, but...!

LOVE their beers, but…!

The other two were Samuel Smith‘s Oatmeal Stout (England) and Guinness Draught (Ireland). Guinness? Really? C’mon AHA members, such uninspired and pedestrian picks! Of course the Belgians make good beer. But if you want a good Irish stout, why not Murphy’s? And for English beers, what about Olde Speckled Hen or Old Peculier? Did you completely forget that Germany and Czechoslovakia have a centuries-old tradition of producing world-class lagers and pilseners, not to mention the astounding Gose made by Gosebrauerie in Leipzig, or the Heffe-Weissen wheat beers, of which Franziskaner reigns supreme?

Overall I was very disappointed by the AHA’s “Best Beers in America” listings. They told me less about the skill and creativity of American craft brewers, and more about the preferences of the members of the AHA. To be fair, the lists were compiled by vote of the AHA’s membership, representing a specialized subset of craft beer aficionados. Although I am a member I didn’t vote this year, so I am partly to blame for the uninspired lists.

For so many years craft beer aficionados have been castigating mass-market beer drinkers for their love of lagers and their dislike of American hops. Admittedly, we have an axe to grind, because it was the expansion of these large breweries which produced low-quality lagers that led to the closings of thousands of old-time local breweries many decades ago. Today, with the rise of craft beer, many of us vowed never to let a mass market beer cross our lips. (Notwithstanding the fact that Goose Island is owned by InBev, and their Bourbon County Stout made the top 10 list this year). Yet lagers are not inherently bad! Noble hops and old-world brewing styles have been perfected over centuries, have been loved by millions of people, and many are produced by breweries that are smaller than Guinness (which is owned by Diagio) or Unibroue (which is owned by Sappora). Why ignore these classic beer styles produced, especially when produced by craft breweries?

What this list shows me is that craft beer lovers can be just as narrow-minded in their apparent dislike of noble hops as they accuse the great American public to be in disliking American hops. Do I detect a note of hypocrisy? Perhaps its time for us craft-beer lovers to expand our horizons and take another look at older, more traditional beer style, rather than dismissing them offhand.

Here is the list of the AHA’s Top-Ranked Beers, as published in Zymurgy, July/August, 2016. The annotation is mine, and it indicates non-IPAs. (T = tie)

  1. Russian River Pliny the Elder
  2. Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale
  3. The Alchemist Heady Topper
  4. Ballast Point Sculpin IPA
  5. Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin
  6. Founders Breakfast Stout (* oatmeal stout)
  7. Three Floyds Zombie Dust
  8. Bell’s Hopslam
  9. Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout (*stout)

T10. Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA

T10. Stone Enjoy By IPA

T 12. Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout (*stout)

  1. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
  2. Lawson’d Liquids Sip of Sunshine
  3. Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA

T16. Founders All Day IPA

T16. Sierra Nevada Celebration

  1. Cigar City Jai Alai IPA

19 Boulevard Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale (* saison)

  1. Firestone Walker Wookey Jack
  2. Arrogant Brewing’s Arrogant Bastard Ale
  3. Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’
  4. Deschutes Black Butte Porter (* porter)

T24. Left Hand Milk Stout Nitro (*stout)

T24 Troegs Nugget Nectar (*imperial amber ale)

  1. Firestone Walker Union Jack

T 27. Founders Backwoods Bastard (* Scotch Ale, bourbon barrel)

  1. 29 Lagunitas Lagunitas IPA

T29. Odell Odell IPA

T29. Russian River Consecration (* wild/sour ale)
TroegsImperialAmberNuggetNectarT34 Ballast Point Victory at Sea (*coffee Vanilla porter)

T 39 Oskar Blues Ten Fidy (*double stout)

T42 Fireston Walker Parabola (*russian oatmeal stout, barrel aged)

T 42 Surly Todd the Axe Man

  1. Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter (*porter)

T46 Prarie Artisan Ales Bomb (*imperial stout)

T46 Surly Furious

T 46 Victory DirtWolf Double IPA

  1. Maine Beer Lunch

T 50. Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA

T50 New Belgium La Folie (* wood-aged sour beer)
edfitz-fixed_2Top 10 Imports:

  1. Unibroue La Fin du Monde

T2. St. Bernardus Abt 12

T2. Guinness Guinness Draught

  1. Dupont Saison Dupont
  1. Orval Brewery Orval Trappist Ale

T5. Rodenbach Grand Cru

  1. Chimay Grand Reserve/Blue Label
  1. Brouwerij Verhaeghe Duchess De Bourgogne
  1. Trappiste Westvleteren Westvleteren XII
  1. Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout
    orval_trappist_aleIn addition to her fascinating essays on a variety of imagestopics to be found @ 3 Quarks Daily, also available from Dr. Westbrook: 


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