Good Beer Hunting

Vote for Lager, You Cowards — IPAs, ABV Continue to Rule Another "Best Beer" List


The American Homebrewers Association (AHA) released its annual "Best Beers in America" results last week, posting a top-25 list as voted on by readers of the Brewers Association’s homebrewing magazine, Zymurgy. For the third-straight year, the No. 1 ranking went to Bell’s’ Two Hearted IPA. The beer beat out Russian River Brewing Company’s Pliny the Elder, which had held the top spot (and is now No. 2) for eight years prior.

Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale, Founders’ Kentucky Breakfast Stout, and The Alchemist’s Heady Topper rounded out the top five, and a full list can be seen on the Homebrewers Association's website.

Unlike other “best beer” lists from sites like BeerAdvocate and RateBeer, or leaderboards on Untappd, this listing comes from a straight vote, not a collection of ratings entered through an app or website. Historically, the AHA list, published annually in its Zymurgy magazine, features strong repeats from year-to-year, and also regularly includes a variety of long-beloved beers eschewed by other lists that highlight the haziest IPAs or sweetest Pastry Stouts.

Two Hearted, for example, debuted in 1997, and Sierra’s Pale Ale has been around so long (more than 30 years) that it’s credited as inspiration for the present-day American IPA.

But aside from the subjective nature of this list, and the fact that it likely contains a number of beers that the geekiest 1% of drinkers have long since given up on, there are still some interesting nuggets to be found in this annual ranking. Notably, it’s a pretty good reflection of the changing tastes of American drinkers.

The latest installment features a wide-ranging showcase of what consumers are drinking today, from classic, widely distributed IPAs (Two Hearted and Founders’ All Day IPA), to increasingly distributed Imperial Stouts (Founders’ Breakfast Stout and New Holland’s Dragon's Milk), to trendier brands (WeldWerks’ Juicy Bits New England IPA). 

Unlike lists derived from beer rating sites, where there’s a social benefit to knowing whatever is hot, next, or rare, the Zymurgy tally is more attuned to what can be seen as average beer drinkers’ preferences. Bud Light, Miller Lite, and Coors Light—the best-selling beers in the U.S.—will never show up on “best beer” lists like this. However, Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale or Pale Ale—both found in the Zymurgy collection—are far more likely to be taking up space in refrigerators across the country than a can of fruited Gose from a small town on the West Coast that could also maybe explode before it’s traded to someone thousands of miles away.

To drive home how fast things change in American beer, consider this: only five beers that were featured in the 2019 list were also included 10 years ago. Russian River’s Pliny the Elder, Bell’s’ Two Hearted Ale, Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale, Sierra Nevada’s Celebration, and North Coast’s Old Rasputin are the lone holdovers.

What has disappeared in the interim? Four beers from Texas' Rahr & Sons Brewing Company (Winter Warmer, Ugly Pug Schwarzbier, Iron Thistle Scotch Ale, and Stormcloud IPA), three Stone beers (Arrogant Bastard, IPA, and Ruination), two from Sierra Nevada (Torpedo Extra IPA and Bigfoot Barleywine), Samuel Adams Boston Lager, Lagunitas IPA, and Bear Republic’s Racer 5, to name some.

These brands have lost real estate in voters’ minds, but how do they fare among general shoppers? Here’s a look at the IRI volume decreases of some of these brands, based on their sales peaks in grocery, convenience, and other stores (marked in parentheses in the chart) through 2018:

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From one perspective, this collection represents the beginning of the end of an era in U.S. craft, when sales success shifted hard toward hop-forward beers. While Stone’s and Lagunitas’ IPAs had their first slips in 2018, other brands began a slow slide years ago, just as IPAs and intense Pale Ales were taking charge. 

This shift is reflected in the Zymurgy list’s past editions. Previous years’ ratings show new-age, hop-forward beers quickly entering a broader awareness and popularity. First appearances include:

  • 2012: Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA

  • 2013: Stone’s Enjoy By IPA, The Alchemist’s Heady Topper, Firestone Walker’s Wookey Jack, Three Floyds’ Zombie Dust

  • 2014: Founders’ All Day IPA, Cigar City’s Jai Alai

  • 2015: Deschutes’ Fresh Squeezed IPA, Ballast Point’s Grapefruit Sculpin IPA

  • 2016: Lawson’s Finest Liquids’ Sip of Sunshine, Tree House’s Julius, Toppling Goliath’s Pseudo Sue, Surly’s Todd the Axe Man

Sculpin (both regular and Grapefruit versions), Enjoy By, and Wookey Jack (once, literally, the defining example of Black IPA), are all now gone. Oddly enough—and despite wild fanfare over its recent re-release in canned packaging—Allagash White hadn't appeared in the past decade. It wasn’t on the list until 2018 (tied at #36) and it reappeared this time tied at #21, tied with The Alchemist’s Focal Banger.

New Holland’s Dragon's Milk (a barrel-aged Imperial Stout which first appeared on the list three years ago) and WeldWerks’ Juicy Bits New England IPA (which debuted last year) have both appeared toward the top of the more recent lists. Juicy Bits didn’t make a significant jump in this year’s list (tied for 10th to tied for 9th), and Dragon’s Milk, Allagash White, and Left Hand’s Milk Stout Nitro represented the biggest movers.

Here’s a look at those three brands’ IRI volume sales jumps in 2018 (with their rankings jumps marked in parentheses):

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In addition to these changes, the beer styles that received votes from Zymurgy readers have also gotten a lot narrower over time. That’s due in part to a shift toward American-made beers that began in 2011—but the number of styles represented in the last 10 years has dropped by half. There were 14 different kinds of beers in 2010’s top 25, and just seven this time around.

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Over this same period of time, the average ABV of the top-25 beers has also gone up (from a 7.1% average in 2010 to 8.2% in 2015), then down (7.5% in 2017), and up again (8% for 2019's list). This latest increase is mostly due to the greater presence of IPAs and DIPAs, and the higher placement of Founders’ Canadian and Kentucky Breakfast Stouts.

It could be useful to see this year’s Zymurgy list as the snapshot it is: heavy on hops, some high-ABV Stouts, and a few odd classics for good measure. Each of these annual round-ups, no matter how quaint they seem, acts as a time capsule. Looking back over the past several years, they reinforce some of the broader trends in beer. For instance: despite their fatigue, it's hard to get rid of flagship beers, but they can never really hold off something new or exciting.

Chances are this list won’t change drastically next year, but it will likely evolve in a way that mirrors the true nature of the industry. We can see trends happening fast, and may assume their quick uptake. But in the end, change isn’t as swift—and it’s worth watching how it happens to fully grasp what’s at stake.

Words by Bryan Roth