Food

Is this really the best beer in America?

July 5, 2012 at 2:00 PM ET

Russian River /

The Brewers Association recently released its 2012 Best Beers in America list, and for the fourth year in a row, Russian River’s Pliny the Elder is No. 1. While this is an excellent beer, it’s not the best beer in America. Actually, there’s no such thing as a “best” beer in my opinion, and I have the stats to back it up.

Story: A beer geek's quest to hunt down an elusive brew

The Brewers Association isn’t the only outfit that cooks up lists of the top craft beers - you can find many “best” beer rankings online. While these lists are fun to pick apart and debate with your beer geek buddies, they don’t really mean that much, especially when you compare them. Here are the top ten beers from the Brewers Association poll and two of the Internet’s most popular beer geek review sites, RateBeer.com and BeerAdvocate.com:

The first thing that leaps out to me is that there is room for 30 beers across all three lists, and there are 27 different beers represented.  Pliny the Elder tops the Brewers Association list, but it’s mid-pack on the Beer Advocate Top Ten and missing altogether on the RateBeer list. This tells me that there’s no clear winners here, no shining example of bottled perfection.

Only three beers appear on more than one of the lists; Pliny the Elder, his “nephew” beer Pliny the Younger, and Trappist Westvleteren 12 all make two appearances. Three Floyds gets close to besting this with three different versions of their bombastic Dark Lord Imperial Stout being represented.

But even if there’s no unequivocal champion in the best beer derby, there’s still value on each of these lists.  The beers highlighted are all wonderfully crafted and worth seeking out, and each Top Ten tells us a little something about the people who helped create the rankings.

For starters, the folks who voted in the Brewers Association poll (readers of homebrew magazine Zymurgy) clearly prefer hopped up ales. Also the majority of the beers on their list have an alcohol by volume (ABV) of less than 8%. Compare this to the beers on both the RateBeer and Beer Advocate lists, which are a little more diverse style wise and pack a bigger wallop, with the majority of the beers having an ABV of 8% or more. There’s real difference here.

Hard-to-find brews are in vogue at RateBeer and Beer Advocate, while the Brewers Association respondents mostly prefer beers from larger craft breweries that are easy to find on the shelf.  That’s homebrewers for you – they appreciate good beer brewed on a large scale because they know how hard it is to do well.

Depending where you live, you should be able to find most everything on the Brewers Association list, but it might require a beer trade or two to get your hands on many of the beers from the RateBeer or Beer Advocate lists. 

Comparing these lists, you can see that there is no one “best” beer; there are only people’s opinions about what’s good, and those opinions rarely align.  The truth is, only one person has the right to determine what the best beer in America is: YOU.

After all, taste in beer is a very personal thing, which is one fact that I think most beer geeks can agree upon. What do you think is the best beer in America? Share your thoughts below.

Jim Galligan is co-founder of the Beer and Whiskey Brothers blog, where he and his brother Don cover the ever-evolving world of craft beer and distilled spirits. Follow him on Twitter. 

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