What’s the Best Beer in America?

By Gerald Jowers
Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The craft beer movement in North America was ignited by homebrewers. Many of the early craft brewers were homebrewers introduced to brewing by a guy named Charlie Papazian, who wrote one of the first and still the best instruction manuals for homebrewing. Papazian later formed the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) and still leads that organization, which is vital to the homebrewing community. In the last several years, this organization has enjoyed a remarkable growth in membership, reflecting the growth of craft beer. I mention this because I am a member of the AHA and the latest edition of its excellent magazine, Zymurgy, provides the topic for this column.

In addition to its how-to and technical articles, this issue of Zymurgy reports the results of its 12th annual poll of AHA members to determine, among other things, the best (commercial) beers in America. Of course, this is a very unscientific poll. Candidly, I think such polls and especially online reviews such as those on Untappd and Beer Advocate are unfair and unreliable because the reviews are generally nothing more than beauty contests based on personal preferences (or prejudices) of the reviewer rather than any objective standard. Despite these potential problems, the Zymurgy poll does give some insight into what homebrewers, who are some of the most experienced and knowledgeable beer enthusiasts, think about the craft beer world today.

The winner was a double IPA called Pliny the Elder by Russian River Brewing, a craft brewery in Sonoma, California. This beer is not distributed in the Southeast; in fact, most of its distribution is far to the west — its only East Coast distribution, for some odd reason, is in Pennsylvania. This beer is a cult favorite and is usually discussed only in reverential terms by knowledgeable enthusiasts. For us, short of traveling to the West, to get this beer you will have to participate in the clandestine world of bottle sharing or purchasing arrangements that proliferate on the Internet. I have tasted this beer once and it is indeed a big, luscious beer with exceptional balance of its flavor components. The largest concentration of AHA membership is in the West, so that may explain the vote for this exceptional beer. An interesting fact is that brewer of this beer, Vinnie Cilurzo, provided the recipe for his beer for publication. The key to the beer is the process that Cilurzo has perfected, and no one has been able to duplicate it.

The second place beer was Bell’s Two Hearted Ale. This outstanding IPA is distributed in the Southeast and is a favorite in this area. Not surprisingly, most of the top 30 beers that received votes were various permutations of the IPA style; there was only one porter, one farmhouse ale, and three stout variations in the top 30. Clearly, the love affair with hoppy beer continues unabated among enthusiasts.

The top-rated stouts are available locally — they are Founders Breakfast Stout, Goose Island Bourbon County Stout and Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout. All of these are extraordinary representatives of the styles, and you should try them.

I asked some of my colleagues at Free Times this same question, demanding a quick answer to the unfair query. Eva Moore named Westbrook’s Gose as her recent favorite and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale as the best longtime classic. Both are good selections — Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale remains a classic example of this style and will soon be brewed in Asheville, North Carolina. Tug Baker named Bell’s Two Hearted Ale as the best beer; he is in good company with that choice. So, what do you think? Let us know.

The Brewers Association reports that there are now 2,768 craft breweries brewing in the United States. I think I will wait until I taste the products of all of them before I make my selection of the best beer. Cheers, and enjoy!

Let us know what you think: Email food@free-times.com.

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