Lists —Top 10, Best of, Best Buys— love' em or hate 'em, they're ubiquitous.
Crowd-sourced beer lists, such as RateBeer or BeerAdvocate, tend to skew results by favoring strength over flavor —more alcohol, more bittering, more 'extreme' (extremities?). There's another, inherent, but often unacknowledged, flaw with beer lists, especially those in the US. Freshness, a sine qua non of good beer flavor, is ignored: bottled beers are selected over fresh brewpub beers. It's a convenience thing: bottles are more readily available, and more easily shipped.
That being said, the 'best beer' lists at Wine Enthusiast magazine, of all places (!), are well thought out and useful.
In the current issue (July/August 2011), Lauren Buzzeo offers a strategy to help 'de-intimidate' a shopper's task when facing big and burgeoning "artisinal selections" of beers. She suggests breweries, rather than individual brands, to look for. If not an exhaustive 'best of,' it's a good 'try the beers of these breweries if you haven't already, or haven't in awhile' list. Brewpubs excluded.
THE BIGGEST LITTLE GIANTS
Of the 20 largest breweries in the US, 5 are mentioned, including Boston Beer and Dogfish Head.
TEN RELIABLE NAMES
This category includes Bell's, Stone, Brooklyn, and Victory.
THE WILD SIDE
Allagash, Jolly Pumpkin, and Russian River are among the selections here.
Eleven Allagash beers, some rare, were on tap at Rustico Restaurant, Arlington, Virginia, 12 July 2011. Pictured: Naomi Neville —Allagash National Sales Manager— with Thomas Cizauskas. More: here.
INTERNATIONAL WAVE MAKERS
Baladin, BrewDog, and Unibroue are three of the recommendations.
FOR THE CRAFT BEER HUNTER
Three suggestions are Avery, Founders, and Smuttynose. Read the entire piece, Seas of Suds, with all of the suggestions: here.
In this same issue, the editors of Wine Enthusiast identify their Top 100 'Wine Restaurants' in the US.
With parochial concern, I noticed that no Virginia restaurants were chosen (no Inn at Little Washington?). Maryland scored one: Tony Foreman and Cindy Wolf's Charleston, in Baltimore. What really caught my attention was the anointed trio in Washington, D.C.: Art and Soul, CityZen, and ... Birch & Barley.
Birch & Barley and its upstairs bar partner, Churchkey, have a good wine list (designed by past CityZen-er Julianna Santos), but the restaurant is better known, and celebrated, for its beer list: 50 taps, 500 bottles, 5 casks. The beer menu is ingeniously designed to sort beers by flavor and weight, rather than alphabetical order or style.
The beer is overseen by Greg Engert, who last year was honored by Food & Wine Magazine as one of the nation's top seven sommeliers, "because he's bringing the same seriousness to beer that other sommeliers bring to wine." Birch & Barley is the only beer-centric restaurant chosen in this Top 100. See the entire list at the Wine Enthusiast: here.
Caveat lector: As a representative for Select Wines, Inc. —a wine and beer wholesaler in northern Virgina— I sell the beers of Allagash and Brooklyn.