Wednesday, December 07, 2011

"What we can learn from the wine expert’s perspective on Craft Beer." —Guest blogger

Wine Enthusiast Top 25 Beers of 2011

Wine Enthusiast Magazine has released its list of Top 25 Beers for 2011. Here's how editor Lauren Buzzeo described the winnowing process:
The domestic craft beer boom is still in full swing, and there is a growing interest in imports. That’s what made the selection of our Top 25 Beers so difficult. The beers presented on the following pages are among the best- reviewed selections we tasted over the past 12 months, exhibiting extraordinary quality at prices that still represent affordable luxury.

The list is all about balance—the balance of countries, brands, styles, prices and production sizes. This year’s Number One beer is a perfect balance of all the elements considered when compiling this list: high score, reasonable pricing, brand buzz, hot style and superb availability. In addition, however, you’ll discover a couple of high- scoring items here that might not be distributed to your area or are extremely limited in production; these are beer treasures that are definitely worth the hunt.

After reading the list, I Tweeted about it, and received an intriguing response.

CizauskasThomas Cizauskas
in reply to @Cizauskas

@Cizauskas Very much a beer list by a wine mag. I think it's an interesting perspective. #WineEnthusiast#Top25Beers
Dec 01 via Twitter for iPhoneFavoriteRetweetReply

Nick Anderson is the beermonger at Arrowine, a wine, beer, cheese, and charcuterie shop in Arlington, Virginia. He's never reticent about his points of view on beer, wine, and life, which he expounds at the shop, and via Twitter and his blog, the

I asked Nick what he meant when he wrote that the list was very much a beer list from a wine perspective (other than the obvious, that it was created by Wine Enthusiast). Here is his response, and it's a thoughtful look at what it should mean to be true fan of anything, whether that would be beer or wine.

The Wine Enthusiast Top 25 Beers for 2011
What we can learn from the wine expert’s perspective on Craft Beer

First off, I’d like to thank Tom for having me here. Tom’s been a partner to work with over the years, and I appreciate his opinions and outlook on both beer and wine, so it’s a true honor to be invited. As I work with both beer and wine in my job, I keep an eye on the numerous lists that seem to arrive near the end of every year. Not long after I’d noticed the Wine Enthusiast Top 25 list released, Tom sent a tweet out and it seems we had much the same reaction: We both thought it was very much a beer list from a ‘wine person’. Tom asked me to guest here to explore the list and what it says about what wine pros look for in Craft Beer, and what we might be able to learn from that.

A quick note: I use the terms “Wine Snob” and “Beer Geek” pretty liberally. As both, I take ownership of them and actually don’t mean them in any derogatory way. Ok, then. Let’s do this.

There’s always been a disconnect; a rivalry between beer and wine. The perception of Beer Geeks and Wine Snobs is one that’s separated us and led to distrust where we should really all be supporting each other. You know; holding hands, skipping through fields of wildflowers and hanging all our clothes to dry on the line outside of our co-op Utopian hippy booze fan conclave. Seriously, though, we have much more in common than we think. It’s just that our preferred beverages lead to some very different desired qualities; those qualities can lead to conflict when we don’t understand them. I myself have this conversation several times per week not only with the mostly wine-oriented customers of Arrowine but with our Wine Department staff and my bosses. Above all else, there is one thing that truly separates Wine and Beer Geeks—Brett.

Read through the Enthusiast Top 25: I mean read every one of those reviews and see if anything jumps out at you. This first thing I noticed was that in seven reviews, WEs’ Lauren Buzzeo uses the word “clean” in describing a beer. “Clean” is an obsession with the experienced wine palate; I think most Beer Geeks don’t appreciate just how intensely brettanomyces is derided in wine, and how strong a turn-off any hint of it or anything else construed as not “clean” can be. My boss is hyper-sensitive to brett and it is extremely difficult to find beers that he enjoys. I believe that this is the main reason so many highly polished Wine Snobs with blessed palates choose to drink macro-Lagers, which us Beer Geeks tend to take as an insult to the brews we love and feel deserve respect from our Big Important Establishment Wine Brothers. You can say what you want about BMC and the like, but those beers are consistent and clean. They’re made to be as clean as possible under the idea that “clean” equals “refreshing”. It just so happens that cleanness coincides with the greatest desire of the wine-focused palate.

Another factor in the Top 25 that merits exploring is style. Breaking the list down, the most dominants styles are Pale Ale/IPA (8 beers, counting Birra del Borgo’s Extra Re Ale) and Belgian-style Tripel (5 beers). These are styles that lend themselves to brews that refresh, are clean and in their best examples have balance. The key here is to look not just at the style but at which examples of those styles were chosen. #1 beer choice Don de Dieu from Unibroue and #3 Westmalle Tripel both feature creamy textures balanced by spicy yeast and citrusy hop notes, and both are clean. Smuttynose IPA, New Belgium Ranger IPA, and Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale all get nods from Wine Enthusiast; three beers that most Beer Geeks likely wouldn’t put on their list (hell, I have issues with Smutty’s IPA as a beer in general but that’s from my own experience…) but at their best they are crisp and clean, with a fine balance between hop and malt. Even beers that don’t fit into the IPA, Pale, or Tripel categories reveal something; Harpoon’s UFO White and Baladin’s Isaac are clean Wheat Ales that emphasize balance. Elements in harmony is a must when analyzing wine, and that transfers to the beers Wine Snobs look for—remember, they’re usually going to beer for refreshment rather than one more thing they have to think about. Balance makes for refreshing beer that is easier to kick back and enjoy.

That doesn’t mean the Wine Snob’s ideal beer is boring, however. #2 on the list is the outstanding and robustly flavored Founder’s KBS, one of four stouts making the list. Looking further, we find Stone’s Imperial Russian Stout, Ninkasi Tricerahops DIPA, Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA, Rochefort 10, and Odell Friek among the Top 25. These are all beers that are sought after and respected by Beer Geeks —hell, four of those are among my favorite beers ever. So what are they doing here? You think wine folks are all Snobs with no appreciation for the brewing arts, don’t you? You think everyone with a wine rack in their home is a Wine Snob who couldn’t possibly enjoy intense, robustly flavored beers, don’t you? Well it looks like the Wine Snobs aren’t the only ones pre-judging, eh?

The fact is —and I may be saying too much about my wine-drinking brethren here— some of the most well-regarded wines on the planet are big, robust fruit bombs with tons of oak and spice to them. Look at the Wine Spectator Top 100 wines of the year, and you’ll see phrases like “lush fruit”, “hedonistic”, “buttery”, “rich”, “extracted”, and more. The key is to find a wine or beer with intense flavor that isn’t a caricature of itself. Even Sour Ales or beers with brett can be appreciated by Wine Snobs as long as they make sense to them. It all comes back to cleanness, balance and flavor; the way these three factors come together in the glass makes all the difference.

For those with a the wine-focused palate, their expectations in a drink don’t change simply because they’re taking a night off from wine to have a couple beers. The criteria used by enthusiasts and pros alike to form opinions on wine carry over to their judgments of the beers they try, and how could they not? Beer fans do the same thing; I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve had friends and beer customers speak of how “boring” some of the most elegant and exquisite wines on the planet are —not simply in the “different strokes, different folks” sense but because there weren’t any of the exaggerated flavors or intensity seen in the typical DIPA, Imperial Stout, or Belgian-style Ale.

There is one way, and only one way, to properly approach beer if you’re coming from a wine background and vice versa: Open-mindedness. I use the term Wine Snob with the same love I use the term Beer Geek, but the fact is that there are those out there on both sides who take these things far too seriously. I shy away from the term “expert” and reject out of hand the word “connoisseur”; they imply an opinion that is in some way more “correct” than another (though I can live with “expert” in the right context, I much prefer “professional” as it’s at least accurate).

The Beermonger

I’ve said this to hundreds if not thousands of customers over the years, so I’ll say it here: There are only three things you need to know as you explore wine, beer, or any other interest for that matter:

  1. What you like.
  2. What you don’t like.
  3. Why you like or don’t like something.
That’s it. It’s really that simple. Every wine/beer professional, sommelier, Cicerone, and Master of Wine you’ve ever met has acquired their knowledge because of their interest in the subject. There is no certification or job title that says someone’s opinion is to be the Lord of anyone else’s; rather, when we’re at our best, it’s our job to understand and be able to relate to the palate of whomever we’re speaking to at that moment. I think a bit more of that from all of us, in relation to all of our hobbies and loves, can go a long way toward bridging this gap that doesn’t need to exist between wine and beer folk. The next time you try something that doesn’t float your boat, ask someone who it does work for why they enjoy it. When you hear someone rave about a wine or beer, ask them why they love what they love.

The great irony is that the reading of reviews and lists is a pretty blatantly black and white approach for answers in an environment where context is everything. So many people are too easily intimidated by what they think they ‘should’ know, and look to others to tell them what they should like. Too many people think they don’t have the time or the ability to learn about beer or wine: the truth is that everything you need to know is right there in your mouth already. Trust your palate, and never fail to ask a question. You don’t need to know everything about everything; you only need to discover what it is you enjoy, and why. When you do that, you’ll see patterns emerge that will make it easier to discover things on your own. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll all find peace at our bars, if not in our time.

Thanks again to Tom for asking me to fill in here.

Nick Anderson

  • UPDATE: The commentary inspired a lively give-and-take on Facebook. Read that: here.
  • YFGF is always open to a guest post. Contact me to contribute.
  • The full list of the Top 25 Beers of 2011 is available online at the Wine Enthusiast: here.
  • Caveat lector: As a representative for Select Wines, Inc. —a wine and beer wholesaler in northern Virgina— I sell wine and beer to Arrowine ... but not Unibroue Don de Dieu.

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