The past two days, a list called “The 46 Best Beers of 2020” started showing up on my Facebook feed and those of hundreds of other people, trumpeting a list by “brewers and beer geeks”.
One thing should be made clear, if you stumble upon this and decide to read it…
This is NOT a list of “the best beers of 2020”, at least in the sense that we usually think of when we read those words. The credentials of the brewers and even the beer geeks whose choices make up the 46 are not in question. I’m absolutely certain that they are knowledgeable and gave honest opinions. There are names here even casual beer geeks may well know: Veronica Vega of Deschutes, Jason Perkins of Allagash Brewing, Greg Hall of Virtue Cider (formerly brewmaster at Goose Island Brewing, now Anheuser Busch Chicago), beer writer Joshua Bernstein, Fal Allen of Anderson Valley Brewing…some certified heavyweights, and a fair number of people you’d have a hard time finding on Google. And they named great beers, all of ’em. (Except for a cider which got lost on the way to a cider list, somewhere, and wandered in here.) With the exception of the non sequitur cider, none of these inclusions is in question. (The link is below.)
But they are not the best anything. Not in any legitimate sense but one.
As usual, the highly manipulative title of the list is the real problem. If this had been called “46 Great Beers as named by 46 Incredible Beer Experts“, I wouldn’t be writing this. My title is shorter than the one assigned by Gear Patrol’s author, Ryan Brower, so it was not laziness that prompted him to give it that blowsy moniker. So, what was it? Answer: click bait. You are far more likely to check out this article if you see “Best” because we’re all looking for best. But the claim is inherently dishonest.
This is a list of 45 beers and that one errant cider that are the momentary favorites, as of the day these folks were asked, off the top of minds that are beer-saturated daily. Ask these same folks tomorrow or next week and they may well name different beers. Ask 46 other beer-savvy tradespeople and you’d almost certainly get 46 different responses. But you are handed the unsupported notion that, out of all the hundreds of thousands of beers made in 2020, these were the “best”. No qualifier was given. But in the mouse-type below the title, the title is undone…AFTER you are already on the page, as seduced in by “The 46 Best Beers of 2020”. Just below the headline, there is this: “we leaned on 46 experts to pass along their favorite beers of this year.” There ya go: honesty. But, of course, you’re already on Gear Patrol and, if your reading habits online are like most of us, that subhead will either go unread or be skimmed without sinking in.
What’s wrong with this? Easy: any such list, whether it is this one or the other four hundred like it, or the medals list at GABF or some other beer competition, is NOTHING – EVER – but a collection of opinions of individuals. They may, like this one, be experts. Or, as in the case of several Northwest regional lists I’ve come across, it may be the opinions of a bunch of people who really know no more about beer than you do or, many times, far less. One Oregon list of a few years back, was compiled from choices from a cycling writer, two food critics, a website editor, four staffers at the website’s offices, and one freelance culture writer. Not ONE veteran beer writer and this in a city that is arguably in the top five of all American beer cities: Portland, where you couldn’t sling a very small cat without hitting three or four brewers, beer salespeople, beverage writers, or brewery owners. Oregon, where craft beer has made such a massive impact that Deschutes and Fort George and Rogue and the other state breweries outsell Bud, Miller, and Coors, even in dive bars. And this website couldn’t be bothered to find a few of those people and, like, y’know, ask them. That would, of course, be like work.
This sort of slacker baloney is really the rule, rather than just the tree-hugger phenomenon my PDX reference suggests. For a LOT of editors at major websites and print publications, anybody who volunteers the information that they are “into beer” will do to write about beer. Those same websites wouldn’t dream of sending an editor out to a local bar to ask people if they’re “into politics” and assign them to write about the state’s legislature. But beer? Hey, it’s just beer, after all. One guy’s savvy is as good as the next guy’s, amirite?
Here’s your end of this shoddy little bargain: First, you have everything you need to determine what constitutes “best beers”, for your tastes, in your possession as you read this: Brain. Tongue. Maybe a bottle opener and glass. But that’s it. And that will be FAR – as in light years – more accurate and helpful in the ongoing Quest to find beers that slap you sideways and make you go, “Fuck me, taste THIS!” Many, many people who are asked to contribute to lists like this are very deeply invested in appearing hip and savvy and sophisticated, trying to impress the other people who are contributing. I’ve done it, every writer has done it, but most of us grow out of it. There are over 8,000 breweries in this country, or were before Covid pruned the ranks. If each one was making the usual 15 to 20 beers a calendar quarter, that’s 160,000 beers every three months. NOBODY can taste all of those and unless you have, you have NO business trying to say that anything was “best” without qualifying that statement. “My favorite” is unassailable and perfectly legit, given the fact that, for almost everybody with a working tongue, new things will come along to flush the current favorites out of your head and replace them with all new info. Veronica Vega, of Deschutes, named the brilliant Odell Brewing “Mountain Standard” IPA. What would she have named five years ago? Ten? Five years from now? The Odell with undoubtedly stick with her, as it does in my head, and I might have named it, back when I first tried it but now? Not even close. My current fave? Probably Fort George Brewing “Magnanimous”…but I’m doing beer tastings this weekend. Ask me again Monday.
The other thing about this list is the almost comical, by now, East Coast and Midwest bias. This is a fact of life, usually applied to sports teams’ rankings but also a big part of lists like this, as most of the people who write them are located on the East Coast and have less exposure to West Coast or Pacific Northwest beers and breweries. The fact is that craft brewing got started, in any kind of major way, out on this end of America, waaaay better than a decade before it boomed in the East and Midwest. MOST of the nation’s and, in fact, the world’s hops are grown here. Not that any of that matters but the FACT is that brewers, like most professionals, get better with more experience and the experience end of the American brewing continuum is tilted sharply West. The concentration of breweries Out West is FAR greater than any other similar region in the US. As of 2019, according to The Brewer’s Association, there were almost 2000 breweries in what is loosely called “The West” and I left off Colorado, which would normally be included in that count. This is arguably the best brewing culture in the western hemisphere and it was represented by SIX beers in this list of the 46 “best”. I’ve scattered photos of noted Western beers throughout this article. I wonder how many are even know to those people who complied this list. The fact that many of them were created before 2020 means nothing. Josh Bernstein named Sierra Nevada “Celebration”, which has been made since 1983. And he was right…and would be if he named that in ten years.
By all means, read the list. It will give you a FEW ideas. DO NOT, under any circumstances, get the idea that you will automatically love everything in it. And, don’t get the idea that there is anything wrong with your palate if you do try some of these and go, “Gak! What the fu…?” It just means that beer is not for you. Just try not to projectile vomit, especially if I happen to be around.
For nine of the first twelve years of this blog-then-website that is The Pour Fool, I did an annual feature called Best Of The Northwest, which is just what it sounds like. It was a product of obsessive research and many, many hours spent in frantically making sure I listed all the thigs I had tried and loved, in the past 12 months. It would generate tens of thousands of hits, every single year, twice over 200K. I stopped doing it in 2017. Because of the very thing this post is about. In naming the beers on those lists, I gave people the idea that those were presumptively the best things brewed in WA, OR, and ID. But that was not ever true. They were just the most memorable beers that I had tasted. And, whether I meant it this way or not, it suggested that anything not on that list was Lesser. Whether that was, in fact, a backhanded swipe at all the other thousands of unnamed PNW beers, my list had a fairly large economic impact, so I have been told repeatedly, on what was selling at the only place that counts: the brewery’s taps. I stopped three years ago. I had to. Because the whole idea was bogus and I tried and failed at, uh, un-bogusing it. Thousands of clicks gone, every year.
Ask me if I care.
All these lists – like The Pour Fool and every single other beer, wine, booze, movie, car. ginger ale, or desktop widget list you will ever read – are really ONLY valuable as suggestions; a means of tweaking your mind a bit, so that you don’t miss something which might yank your head around. Read this Gear Patrol list. Note a few things that sound inviting, and try to find them. And if you do, or if you do the same with what you find in The Pour Fool, and you don’t like them, remember: there is NOTHING wrong with you. There is also nothing wrong with the makers of that list or with me but especially not you. You’re just different.
If, in your head, right here, you’re remembering the scene from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” where Brian shouts out a window to his followers, “You’re all different!” and one small voice from the crowd says “I’m not“, well, good on ya.
But you are and that’s that. So, to quote Brian again…”Now, fuck off.”
(Altogether now, “How shall we fuck off, O Lord?“)