Friday, January 25, 2008

Wisconsin's Place In The World

For what it's worth, RateBeer, one of two online forums for users to review and discuss beer, has released its RateBeer Best 2008 rankings.
As it has been for the last 7 years, RateBeer Best was again the largest beer competition in the world -- over 1.4 million reviews of 76,000 beers from over 8000 brewers worldwide were tallied. A particular emphasis was placed on tastings from the last year's performance. Additionally, brewpubs, bottle shops, restaurants and bars around the world were awarded prizes. Cheers to all the winners and to everyone who keeps the magical world of craft beer growing!
We could take this space to criticize the methodology, the experience of those rating, the herd mentality of on-line forums, etc. But, it is what it is. Not only do groups tend to get the right answer (even if the logic or method is wrong), but commercial breweries need to meet the tastes of the crowd. It's all fine and dandy create the fanciest beer the world has ever known, but if nobody wants to drink the thing, does it matter? Of course, that answer sort of depends on your marketing budget and whether you are comfortable charging a high price point for the limited market ... but that's neither here nor there.

Anyway. On to the list.

Best Beers in the World:

Number one is from just around the corner of Lake Michigan in Hammond, Indiana - an oak-aged Russian Imperial Stout from Three Floyds brewery called the Dark Lord. This is an interesting choice because it is such an extreme style, the Russian Imperial Stout. A thick, dark, heavy version of a style known for being thick, dark and heavy. You'll recall we discussed Leinenkugel's Big Eddy Russian Imperial Stout, and Leinie's version of this style finished number 96 (out of 100) on the list. The case of the Russian Imperial Stout also shows its first problem with the list: 7 of the top 10 are all Imperial Stouts, 25 of the top 50 are Imperial Stouts, and 40 of the top 100 are Imperial Stouts. It is, by definition, a decadent style, thick, and rich and sweet.

Only two other Wisconsin beers made the top 100, and both of them are from New Glarus: the Belgian Red (cherry fruit beer), and the Raspberry Tart.

Some other notes: only two lagers even made the list, one a wheat trippelbock and one a dopplebock. This is astonishing and shows, in its most obvious, the inherent biases at Rate Beer. Another 22, so 67 out of 100 beers, are dark, heavy styles (porters, barley wines, belgian quads and strong ales, etc.). Of the remaining 33, 11 of them are IPAs and Double IPAs. Leaving only 22 spots for all other styles. Given that, it's amazing Wisconsin got two fruit beers in.

A full quarter of the beers came from only 4 California breweries: Lost Abbey, Russian River (interestingly, owned by brandy kings Korbel), Ale Smith, and Stone. Two from the Sonoma area and two from San Diego. This is not surprising; beer geeks and snobs, many of whom have never had any of these beers, talk relentlessly about how great these beers are.

Best Breweries

We can not be too surprised to see Lost Abbey, Russian River, Stone and AleSmith all in the top 10. Also in the top 10 are two Midwest breweries: Three Floyds and Founders. Number 11 is Surly from Minneapolis. The first Wisconsin brewery, predictably New Glarus, shows up at number 29. The only other Wisconsin brewery shows up at number 65: Tyranena. Noticably absent from the list is Central Waters, Capital, and Sprecher.

Let's look at some styles containing Wisconsin beers in the top five for the style:
Specialty: New Glarus Belgian Red, New Glarus Raspberry Tart
Wheat: New Glarus Dancing Man
Dark Lager: Sprecher Black Bavarian (number one in the style)

Conspicusly absent: Central Waters' Bourbon Barrel Stout, Tyranena's Hop Whore, any of the Calumet beers (although this is more of a distribution problem than a quality issue), Lake Louie's Louie's Reserve (in fact the Scotch Ale style isn't even on the list), and Capital's Autumnal Fire. Capital may try to convince you that it is surprising not to see the Island Wheat on the list.

One other thing that I want to point out before we get to Brew Pubs, Restaurants and Retailers. The best breweries in the United States, the four California breweries, Three Floyds, the Colorado breweries (Great Divide and Oskar's Blues) and even Surly, do not brew in 12 ounce bottles. While Oskar's and Surly distribute in cans (cans!?), all of the others primarily distribute in 22 ounce "bombers." It's just an observation, and I'm not sure I could even guess as to any connection, but I did want to point that out. Even the two top-rated New Glarus beers are the only non-12 ounce beers that New Glarus distributes.

OK. On to the rest of the list:
Best Bars - none in Wisconsin, but within driving distance:
Chicago: The Map Room (4), Hop Leaf (9)
St. Paul: The Happy Gnome (31)

Best Brewpubs:
Wisconsin: Great Dane, Downtown (16); Grumpy Troll, Mount Horeb (40)
And, just rub salt in the wounds, here's some brewpubs that also distribute into our state that our breweries, who cannot also be brewpubs, must compete with:
Indiana: Three Floyds (1)
Delaware: DogFish Head (3)
Illinois: Goose Island (5)
California: Bear Republic (20)
Ohio: Great Lakes (24)

Best Beer Retailers:
Wisconsin: Discount Liquor (Milwaukee, 31), Woodman's (Madison, 49)

Best Restaurants - None in Wisconsin, but within driving distance:
Blue Nile Restaurant and Lounge - Minneapolis, MN (9)


  1. Really enjoying the blog. Thanks. Had to pop in on this point though:

    "the four California breweries, Three Floyds, the Colorado breweries (Great Divide and Oskar's Blues) and even Surly, do not brew in 12 ounce bottles. While Oskar's and Surly distribute in cans (cans!?), all of the others primarily distribute in 22 ounce "bombers."

    Great Divide bottles most of their beer in 12 oz. Only the big beers come in bombers. Stone bottles Levitation, Pale Ale, IPA, Arrogant Bastard, and Oaked AB in 12 oz. Three Floyds bottles Pride & Joy, Robert the Bruce, Gumballhead, and Alpha King in 12 oz.

    The overall bias towards big beers, and RISs in particular, is very amusing. You've got plenty of great breweries that I love that fly under the BA/RB radar - just keep supporting them, and be glad you don't have to deal with a Dark Lord/Darkness Day every time they release a new beer.

  2. "Capital may try to convince you that it is surprising not to see the Island Wheat on the list."

    They don't need to. After all, they're the #1 brewery in the world. ;-)

    Going to analyze BA next?

  3. Dave brought up a good point, and we've received some other email about this, so I'll clarify what I meant about the 12oz/20oz/750 thing.

    Yes, those breweries all bottle in 12oz sizes. But, as Dave has pointed out, their "big" beers are all packaged in 20oz (or 750ml) sizes. In Wisconsin, we don't, for the most part, package ANYTHING in 750 or 20oz sizes. The only notable exceptions being New Glarus' fruit beers (although 12oz of those have been know to be sold at the brewery!) and Sprecher's Anniversary beers.

    In the meantime, most of the retailers here ONLY carry the Great Divide "big" beers (the exception being Brennan's which carries GD's entire line). We don't get Stone, Lost Abbey, or Russian River at all. When 3F's DID distribute here, we RARELY got the 12oz bottles, and almost exclusively got the bombers of any of their beer.

    But, more to the point of my post - and as others have pointed out - the beers appearing on this list ARE packaged in 20oz or 750 sizes. Wisconsin breweries do not package in that size. And, my argument is that if, for example, Tyranena packaged its Brewers Gone Wild series in bombers or 750s (even IN ADDITION to 12oz) perhaps they might be taken "more seriously" by those whose votes are acculumated and tallied in "irrelevant" places like RB and BA. In other words, if you want your beer to be perceived as "world class" the RB list shows that perhaps one requirement to aid that perception is the package of a 20oz or 750ml bottle.

  4. At least two of the out-of-state best brewpubs you cite are more than Brew-on-Premise operations.

    Three Floyds is a full-fledged brewery with a 30 bbl brewhouse and a significant amount of beer let out to contract brew. They have a tasting room on-site, but it was an afterthought to the brewery, not the reason they exist. It didn't serve food a couple of years ago when I was there and it had a limited schedule. I put them more in the Tyranena mold of "enhanced tasting rooms" than a brewpub per se.

    Goose Island (unfortunately, indirectly owned by Budweiser now) does have a brewpub, but it is not the place that is competing with the Wisco-Pubs. Goose Island has a pretty big production facility, separate from the brewpub, that does that.

    It is good to see a couple of the local operations get some recognition in the best brewpub category. If you discount all the political machinations that have stirred up the local brewing community, the Great Dane is a class act.

    The Grumpy Troll is the comeback kid in this category, after a few years of indifferent ownership and bland, poorly made, beer. They now have a new and savvy owner and a great brewmaster and are not afraid to make some unique and exceedingly tasty brews. It is a hidden gem in Western Dane county and it is great that it is getting national recognition.

  5. Anonymous, Three Floyds has a full menu now, but Tyranena is still a tasting room only. They offer pretzels (mustard optional), but any other food one eats while in the tasting room comes from elsewhere.


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