I’ve lately been pondering whether any beer can be justified in calling itself The Best in Australia.
Personally, I am a keen BeerAdvocate user, and while I don’t pay a huge amount of attention to their top 100 Australian beers list, I have contributed many scores towards its calculation. It’s not the only list out there, though, and they all should be considered. Aside from the Local Taphouse’s once-a-year poll, the more dynamic alternative is the RateBeer top 50. Each of these lists has its own merits, but as happens online, each also carries with it a certain community’s biases, subjective preferences and prejudices. So it got me thinking about the differences between the two lists, and whether there is a comprehensive list to be gleaned from the comparison. My thoughts extended to how professional beer judging works, and whether the Australian International Beer Awards bear any resemblance in their results to how the online community thinks.
The Critics’ Choice top beers list is the list that owns the mark of integrity. Taken from a broad spectrum of judges who have to earn and demonstrate their credentials, it combines the best of all the lists. It requires the effort of writing, careful consideration and comparisons between beers common to the RateBeer and BeerAdvocate lists, but is compiled by experienced folk who aren’t so blinkered by their geeky excitement that they lose track of what the common person in the pub wants to drink.
But while the Critics’ Choice is ideal as a reference guide, the internet is the reference point at everybody’s fingertips and with crowdsourcing so much the rage, online beer lists are simply free, peer-reviewed guides for everyday people. So what are the merits of the different lists; which one should you want to be a part of, and – the question on everybody’s lips – is there a definitive verdict on the best Australian beer?
Some vital statistics first. Both BeerAdvocate and RateBeer lists are based on beers with a minimum of 10 user ratings, and each rating must be accompanied by a minimum character limit in order to qualify. This means that both lists require thought, effort and some level of credibility, since by the laws of the site you must justify your vote. It also means that some beers can become overrated in relation to where they actually sit in the broader Australian beer scene. For example, the Mountain Goat/Thornbridge collaboration Thorny Goat Black IPA – a one-off brew no longer made – sits jarringly at #2 on BeerAdvocate, on the basis of 21 beer geeks loving it upon release (full disclosure: myself included).
By contrast, the Local Taphouse’s annual “hottest 100” list is far more democratic, with a few simple button clicks the only requirement to cast a vote. The list is far more representative of the nation’s mood, but also raises the criticisms of it being open to marketing manipulation, and my own personal objection that the over-saturation of pale ales in the list each year makes them very ‘samey’, and doesn’t reflect the fascinating gamut of beer styles that Aussie breweries produce. This is not to suggest that there aren’t a huge number of fantastic pale ales out there, but that when faced with a mouse-click poll, people are more inclined to vote for their favourite everyday beer than anything big and bold and unique they may have enjoyed earlier in the year.
To look at RateBeer first: the RateBeer list only extends to 50 spots, which makes comparisons a bit difficult, while also making a beer’s presence on this list more prestigious. RateBeer’s rules are apparently more lax than BeerAdvocate’s regarding what constitutes a beer, so the presence of Thorogood Cidery’s Billy B’s Golden Apple Beer at number 3 on the list is an outlier on the scale. I can’t say for certain whether this beer/cider hybrid was included in the Local Taphouse’s nominees, but it has never cracked their top 100.
The RateBeer list also displays an evident east-coast bias, as evinced by the strong presence of brewpubs Redoak and Wig & Pen, both of which have very small distribution catchment areas beyond NSW and ACT. This east-coast bias is also common to BeerAdvocate however, although in this case it localises largely around an oversaturation of Victorian and New South Wales breweries. These biases tend to suggest that a smaller proportion of the site’s contributors hail from west of Mt Gambier and the sites are thus underrepresenting the huge variety of beers produced in and around Adelaide and Perth.
One glaring difference regarding the beers on the lists themselves is the absence of critic- and consumer-darling Stone & Wood Pacific Ale on the RateBeer list. A perennial favourite wherever it gets mentioned, Pacific Ale has made it into the top 5 in the last two Local Taphouse polls, as well as the top 5 on BeerAdvocate and the Critics’ Choice poll. At a rating of 3.23 it falls below the cutoff threshold for RateBeer’s top 50 and speaks to a personal preference among the users that is apparently not common to the rest of the country.
BeerAdvocate, by contrast, maintains a more strict eye on quality control, with a higher minimum character limit and a few reviewing guidelines to live by. It also has a more Americo-centric feel (although both BA and RB are US-based) and overall has a less relaxed feel. As a result it has fewer contributing reviewers and the majority of the top 100 Australian beers are only just above the threshold of 10 votes. Its list should be taken with a grain of salt.
While my thoughts do extend to what the definitive crowd-sourced top 100 might look like, I’m not here to argue that we should create a one-size-fits-all aggregate list. In fact, I think it’s a major advantage having multiple lists to help you make up your mind. Some interesting facts and figures come to bear once you start making comparisons that lead to a far more important conclusion than any statistical aggregation could.
To fill 150 spots, there are 116 unique beers that make either the BeerAdvocate or RateBeer lists, and once the last two Local Taphouse polls are added, that number becomes 204. Only 10 beers bear the honour of making all four lists, while the most decorated beers are the same that keep appearing at the top of the Critics’ Choice poll: Little Creatures Pale Ale, Feral Hop Hog and Stone & Wood Pacific Ale each make the top 5 in 3 of the 4 lists (sorry if that phrase gave you a headache).
Now it behoves me to have a cursory look at the Australian International Beer Awards – and to see how beer judging compares with the general consensus. The combined top ten from the four lists yields only three gold medals between them from the past three years of AIBAs, plus a handful of silvers. Feral Hop Hog, having won the 2012 Barrett Burston Trophy for best international pale ale, becomes by default the most awarded of the online community’s favourite beers. The AIBAs raises some difficult questions though, including the proliferation of overseas breweries taking home awards, and the fact that some beloved breweries – including Murray’s – haven’t entered the awards at all since 2008. It is positive to see that some of the online community’s favourites are given this official recognition, but the beer judges and the online voters are inevitably worlds apart.
Ultimately it just seems an indictment of the difference between the approaches. The AIBAs represent the pointy end of beer tasting, with strict criteria for distinguishing between similar beers within rigid stylistic taxonomies, while the online community doesn’t have to do that ‘thinking’ thing, and just runs with whatever tastes good. The two approaches are never really going to see eye-to-eye, nor should they. The ultimate point about this comparison is that you have to make your own mind up whether awards really mean anything to your own beer-drinking experience.
To my mind the online lists yield an image of the Aussie beer-drinking scene where big flavour can mingle sociably with clean drinkability, and the lists taken together offer a plethora of recommendations for all types of beer lover. One of these days I will construct a comprehensive weighted aggregate of all the lists, taking into account votes cast, overall rating and all other confounding variables – dates, serving type, batch frequency, the list goes on… Until then, I leave you with the inconclusive yet satisfying results of my preliminary comparison: there is a truckload of great beer being made in Australia, and the best beer in the country is probably the one in your glass right now.