On Top of the World
What does it mean to be truly world-class? It’s a phrase that’s thrown around with increasing regularity today. In the early days of modern beer writing, one man largely defined which beers could be called the best any brewer had to offer. The man, beer writer Michael Jackson, carefully reserved the designation for a select few beers.
In his first Pocket Guide to Beer, Jackson wrote that a beer should receive the five-star designation as a world classic “either because it has outstanding complexity and distinction or because it is the definitive example of the style.” In reviewing his lists of selected world-class brands, which often included Orval, Courage Imperial Russian Stout and Pilsner Urquell, the criteria for inclusion clearly favored longevity and consistency. Most of the brands existed for many decades if not a century or more. As beer writer Stan Hieronymus has noted, in the course of six revisions of his Pocket Guide to Beer, Jackson chose fewer than 20 beers for repeat selection as world classics.
While the job of selecting world-class beers was hardly easy for the 1982 guide, the list of qualifying American beers was short. Stalwarts Anchor Steam and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale were often included, but many other newer breweries experienced consistency issues or were defining new paths for beer, which made it difficult to apply a comparative perspective to them. In his famous Beer Companion, published in 1993, American brewers accounted for a scant dozen pages of the nearly 300 page volume.
With more than 3,000 American breweries now in operation, the task of selecting world-class beers from the tens of thousands of available brands is an almost impossibly laughable task. This topic, of course, is well tread territory and definitions of world-class have long been elusive. What has changed, however, is that we have reached a point where the application of the “world’s best” label crops up daily, in polls, listicles and countless other web clickbait schemes. While some ventures, such as the RateBeer awards, are technically backed up by statistical data—namely the numeric ratings of hundreds and sometimes thousands of global beer drinkers—the results often leave readers confused about underlying definitions of the world-class or world’s best labels.
It might appear that we now exist in a world the Bard of Beer wouldn’t even recognize, but Jackson himself noted the possibility of such an improbably successful environment for American craft brewers and the challenges ahead for selecting world-class beers. He would write in a posthumously published book, “[t]omorrow’s classics will evolve from a new breed of American brewers that are categorized by their admirers as ‘Extreme Beers.’”
The irony of Jackson’s prescience is that many upstart breweries, brimming with pluck and unreserved self-confidence, know little to nothing of him and their craft beer heritage. With increasing frequency we hear new brewers proclaim that they want or expect to make the best beer in the world. Our current era of awards and beer listicles encourages boundless brewing possibilities, while leaving many more unanswered questions. Can a brewery in operation for less than a year or two make the world’s best beer? Can the world’s best beer be made on a one- or two-barrel system? Or by fermenting in plastic buckets with little to no temperature control? Does hive mindedness or groupthink play any role in the popularity of a given brewery?
Just seven years after his death, Jackson seems both anachronistic and ever more relevant. In the next column we’ll explore what it means to be world-class in an era dominated by so many small and inexperienced players. ■