Over the weekend, a discussion broke out on Facebook that led, as discussions often do, down a little side alley away from the main topic. It got me thinking. In the beer world, we spend countless hours discussing “bests.” Beers get the most attention, but breweries get a lot, too. (The Facebook discussion started out with this post about people lining up for hours just to buy a brewery’s beer.) The debates, inevitably, come to tears or smears because no one agrees about the definition. And there’s the rub–and opportunity.
It occurred to me that I have some criteria for what makes a top tier brewery. I’m talking here about the crème de la crème–the Duponts, Schenkerlas, and Sierra Nevadas. Some of them are so famous no one disputes their membership in this rare club, but most are not. When you survey the breweries of a country like the US, where there are so many of them and many are so recent, how would you distinguish the best from the rest–particularly lacking that agreed-upon consensus? (And the truth is, we should probably throw that out as well.)
|Are these people waiting outside a great brewery?
Credit: Jon Urch
I haven’t toured the world anywhere near as extensively as some people, but I have drifted around a bit. As a writer who’s supposed to bird-dog the good breweries and guide people to them, it’s not just an academic exercise. As I’ve traveled, I found myself relying on a set of criteria that seems to work pretty well. Like all considerations of “best,” it ultimately runs aground on the shoals of subjectivity and tautology (a good brewery is one that makes a lot of good beer!). But it does rough out the important categories that define greatness. Which breweries qualify will always be a personal judgment, but I think these are the criteria against which greatness should be judged. Note that a great brewery has all of these:
- Consistent excellence. First, the beer has to be excellent across the entire line. Not every beer has to be a world classic, but the whole line should be accomplished and consistent.
- An exceptional beer. It must also have at least one exceptional beer–that evanescent “world classic” or whatever terrible term we use to describe it.For my purposes, it should be unique and original, not just a good example of a well-known style. The kind of beer that sticks in your head both because it is so good, but also because its unlike anything out there. It doesn’t hurt if it’s the standard for a style, either. (Until about a decade ago, there weren’t many American breweries that met this standard.)
- A unique voice. Next, the brewery must have a distinctive “voice.” Talented brewers can reproduce beers they’ve tasted elsewhere. Making a line-up of quality ales is a function of craftsmanship, and it’s critical but not sufficient. I also want the brewery to offer a vision for their beer. When I taste a Schlenkerla, a Dupont, a Fuller’s, I know the beer. This is an under-appreciated virtue, and possibly the hardest mark to hit.
- Bonus: continued originality. The final criterion is really extra credit, a fixture of modern brewing. I appreciate it when a brewery is able to continue to create new and original beers along with the established classics. I would not mark Westmalle down for failing to do this, but I admire it when breweries like Schneider do. And with young, new-world breweries, it is almost a requirement. It’s why Sierra Nevada, for example, continues to stay out in front.
I would guess that there are no more than a couple hundred breweries out there that meet my standards for “great”–and maybe only twenty or thirty in the US. There’s a tier below this that is much larger, though still small considering the tens of thousands of breweries in the world. In that group you’d have breweries that might have an exceptional beer but are inconsistent, or which have great standards but lack anything truly exceptional, or the ones that haven’t yet found their voice.
And what about longevity? How do we compare breweries that have been making great beer for decades or centuries with ones that have been making them for months or a few years? It’s a good question, and one I’ve never settled on. Greatness is not a permanent achievement. Once-great breweries can and do go into periods where they’re making mediocre beer. But it’s also important to establish a track record of quality. I might put an asterisk next to a young brewery that had a great year with the mental note to check back and see how they manage after competing in the marketplace for a few more years.