6. The Non-Science of Ranking Brews, and a Real Champagne of Beers

Maybe the most important factor when we rate beers is what they mean to us, plus ~dingdingding~ tarot says: celebrate yourself!

The “Best Beers” I’ve Ever Had: A Completely Unscientific, Personal, Memory-Based List

“Best beer” lists are everywhere, written by “experts.” Depending on where you get your information, those experts can be brewers with decades of experience; beer writers who eat, sleep, and breathe beer day in and day out, dedicated and well-traveled Cicerones, passionate beer bloggers, or an Untappd user on a mission. These lists are, of course, a matter of opinion, but they are also typically held together by some standards we as a community have generally agreed upon.

“Best beer” lists are items of contention. Beer fans argue over them. People will do that when distinctions are rooted in opinion. (And Americans will do that even when distinctions are rooted in facts.) The number of issues people may take with one of these lists is infinite: that brewery became a sell-out, that beer fell off when the head brewer changed, that beer doesn’t hold up, or the always intelligent observation that that beer sucks. As humans, we rank things. Every industry, every arena of life has lists and rankings: music, television, sports, and, thanks to Yelp!, dog groomers—there are bests and worsts and in-betweens. If you want to look at certain aspects like how eco-friendly a business is, there is quantifiable proof that one entity might be better than another. But for the most part, lists are what we think and feel, and we usually trust experts in various forms to guide those feelings with their more authoritative lists. All of this leaves room for debate. And so the world turns.

Lists translate to cachet for those recognized as above average. Depending on the author and publication of a list, a slot is instantly boast-able for a business. A list can pluck a brewery from obscurity; it can provide the fodder for promotion for a brewery in the form of signage on their doors or links on their website or reposts on their Instagram page. “Best beer” lists can be so valuable for breweries, but those lists, as mentioned, can get it wrong. Lists can fail from their inclusion and diversity to less impactful but present nonetheless flaws, like relying on a tried and true beer instead of realizing an even more exciting entry in the style has come along.

I think a lot about lists and beer reviews, recently for specific VinePair stories I worked on: one about Untappd’s impact on beer, the other about the relevance of beer reviews in our current rapid-fire, limited-release world. It’s all complex and varied.

I get Untappd’s value as a way for people to keep track of beers they drink, but if I’m completely honest, well, I think it’s absolute balderdash that people go on and give completely subjective, baseless number ratings on beers that mean literally nothing—there’s typically no explanation; while obviously entitled to their opinions these people aren’t trained beer judges; and all too often, they rate beers badly because it’s not even a style they like or, specifically, it is anything but a hazy IPA—and then these idiotic numbers actually hold serious weight in terms of a brewery’s success! It’s madness, I tell you. Breweries can’t get their beers on shelves because retail buyers are actually trusting a 2.7 rating some Derek thumb-smashed in while inhaling a bong rip.

Then there are reviews, like, professional ones, which I think can serve a great purpose. As many smart and thoughtful people I interviewed for the latter VinePair story pointed out, they’re a great tool for beer education—people can read the review for a beer they’re drinking and learn to identify and name flavors and aromas, etc.—and they’re a much more trustworthy, reliable source of information for retail buyers.

At the end of the day, though, this is all just so subjective, and these reviews are often just so personal, and there are hundreds of beer styles, thousands of beers, and millions of drinkers with different tastes. I’ve put together my own “best beer” list here, and it is based on the most subjective and the most personal set of standards I could possibly think of: my own experiences and memories. That’s what really determines what beers we love, right? Science has proven the legitimate link between our memories and experiences and the tastes we prefer. We like things we have memories of eating or drinking in some sort of positive environment. Why do you think Proust loved those darn Madeleines so much?

A KelSo Nut Brown Lager, Probably Around 2008, at Olive’s in Nyack, NY

Olive’s was my first real third place. I can’t seem to confirm right now whether it’s still open (it was as recently as last fall), which is terrifying because I just need to know it’s there. In case it is, I won’t linger too long on how old I was when I actually started going. If it helps, though, Olive’s was home because they had shows, mostly of the metal, punk, and hardcore variety, and that was my entire social community throughout high school and college. Most of the time, I got in by “being with the band” and having a giant “X” Sharpie-d on my hand. I could wax poetic for days about how much of my life happened at Olive’s, about sweaty hardcore shows, nights putting away buckets of PBR on the patio with a group of friends, crushes met, friends made, and so on. But we’re here for the beer! Like so many other firsts I had at Olive’s, I had my first craft beer there. It was a KelSo Nut Brown Lager. I loved it, enough that it sparked this lifelong beer journey. And I remain pleased this moment happened at Olive’s.

A Carling Black Label, 2016, in a Cape Town Bar

It can feel trite to talk about a trip’s transformative impact on your life. It’s hard to convey a love of a destination earnestly without worrying you sound like a travel influencer hashtagging #takemeback. All I’ll say is that Cape Town is probably my favorite place on this entire planet. One of the most carefree evenings, the kind where you actually finally understand what the whole “being in the moment” thing is about, was spent at a dive near the beach there, throwing back cheap Carling Black Labels. This is painfully embarrassing, but I’d never heard of Carling before and actually assumed it was a South African brewery. Months later, I realized my mistake while at The Levee in Brooklyn. Oh, well, that just meant I could crack open that memory much more often even here in the States.

A Westvleteren 12 Belgian Quadrupel, 2017, at the Saint-Sixtus Abbey

I don’t care how many times I’ve heard or read that the Westy 12 phenomenon is mostly hype, nor that probably, yeah, that’s got a hell of a lot to do with it. It’s a fantastic beer that requires a special experience to drink it, and after so much of my foray into beer revolving around Belgians at places like The Publick House in Brookline, MA, and Monk’s Cafe in Philly, Westy 12 had indeed worked its way up to holy-grail status for my husband and I. Part of our honeymoon was touring around Belgium, and I think what made the Westy 12 the best-tasting beer for me was more the role our friends played in trying to help us get our hands on some than the brew, itself.

I’d read so many blog posts detailing the insane process—iykyk—around getting cases of Westy that I misunderstood and thought this was the only way to drink it. The part where you have to call the abbey to make a reservation to pick your cases up? It’s like trying to win concert tickets from a radio station. It’s impossible to get through. But about ten of our friends, unbeknownst to me, just redialed that number all day the day before our wedding (the day the website said we’d have to make our reservation). No one ever got through(!) and we learned we could just go to the café and order a Westy like regular humans. But right alongside the idyllic countryside backdrop, the thrill of tasting this iconic beer, and how good it was, itself, I relished how darn lovely everyone had been helping make it happen.

A Tegernseer Hell, 2019, at Fox Bar in Munich

My friend, Jen, and I only had a couple of days in Munich on this last pre-Covid trip, and unfortunately, one of them was a Sunday, which meant almost everything was closed. We found a few touristy beer halls to bounce around to, mostly strolling and taking in architecture along the way. At one point, we noticed one popping spot amidst the ghost town-like streets, and followed some people inside, only to realize we’d just snuck in the back entrance of a music venue where an Elton John impersonator was performing for an impassioned crowd sporting hot pink boas. (Naturally, we got a beer and stayed for a few songs.)

Afterward, reluctant to return to our tiny, I shit you not, all-yellow modernist hotel room, we wandered on, and Fox Bar’s lights felt like a mirage in the desert. We burst in, full of relief and excitement and American loudness, I’m sure. The bartender informed us that they weren’t actually open yet, but as we turned to leave, deflated, he said, “No, no! Here, have these on the house while you wait for the show to start.” He handed us two Tegernseer Hells and we plopped down at a big, cozy communal table. Within 30 minutes, the bar was packed with Cool Kids, and the bartender continued to watch over us and make sure we had seats for what would turn out to be an American folk band’s performance. It was one of my favorite nights of all time, and I often think about that perfect, crushable Tegernseer that turned into five.

Whatever Beer I’m Drinking, Whenever, in New York City

Because I love my city and I love the brewers and beer folx here. That’s it, that’s the entry.

Beer Tarot!

This week, I pulled the Ten of Pentacles.

Last issue’s card happened to be the King of Pentacles, so you might recall Pentacles are the suit of earth, and speak to matters of money, property, and achievement. All of those things are basically big, booming, and happy with the Ten of Pentacles. I love this for you.

In tarot, ten is associated with completeness and perfection. Things are balanced and stable, and beyond that, they’re prosperous. You’re feeling warm fuzzies from some area of your life, if not all, be it work or home or a relationship or your dog. You’re experiencing wealth—this could be social, emotional wealth—and happiness. You’re solving problems. You go, Glen Coco!

It’s time to celebrate. Live in all those riches, even if they’re abstract riches of the heart because you have neither Bezos’s evil spaceman money or Gates’s potatoes for McDonald’s money. I happen to have recently gotten to visit Right Proper Brewing in DC, so immediately, I thought of the Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne Berliner Weisse. Lemony and floral, it’s like a champagne of beers (more so than Miller, obv). It’s beautiful and festive and perfect for cheers-ing yourself.

(You. Own. Everything!)

This Week’s Boozy Reading Rec

Someone called my attention to Back Home Beer somewhere on social media somewhere back in time—I’m sorry to that person that I have no idea how or when this happened. But! I’ve been intrigued ever since and keeping an eye on progress from this Brooklyn brewery-to-be. For now, a great interview with Back Home’s founder and owner Zahra Tabatabai is a solid thirst-quencher. Andy Crump sat down with Zahra for Hop Culture to delve into homebrewing in New York and viewing that as a sort of freedom, since brewing and consuming alcohol is illegal in Iran, where Zahra’s family is from. It’s an interesting read and a lovely way to get to know Zahra and Back Home Beer a bit.

Until next week, here is a picture of Darby with her own lil Non Sequitur can. I know this is a second Non Sequitur photo in a short newsletter run but we like them a lot in this house, and I’ve also started a mini collection of these beer can toys for Darb and this is her favorite.