Photo collage by Andrew Dyer
When an attention-grabbing newsfeed headline promises a definitive list of the top 10, 20 or 100 craft beers in the country, who can resist a click? But before the page loads I am already thinking of all the ways it will be wrong. A writer's regional bias, lazy cut-and-paste from Untappd check-ins and legacy beers well past their prime dominate the beer list industrial complex. The one thing that all these beer lists and rankings have in common is they are, without exception, complete bullshit.
The worst and most obvious offenders are from the dozens of new-media lifestyle sites that have metastasized online in the post-Facebook click-media economy. These easily dismissed listicles are identified by their bad writing and Flickr photos. It is always the same greatest hits craft beers of the last 10 years. The most one can hope for is that the site is compassionate enough to put them all on one page instead of a slideshow.
Even when striving for legitimacy these rankings fail. Websites Beer Advocate and Ratebeer, as well as the mobile app Untappd, rank beers based on aggregate user reviews. This method has a couple of problems. The rankings on Beer Advocate and Untappd are dominated by East Coast beers, particularly those from New England. Only three West Coast beers even crack the top 20 on Beer Advocate, and two of them are named Pliny. Ratebeer has a similar problem but at least Alesmith Speedway Stout merits a spot.
Relying on aggregate user reviews is never going to result in an honest ranking. Every one of their reviewers are biased. I am more generous on my own Untappd check-ins with beers I know I am supposed to like and more critical of beers from less prestigious breweries. If I am doing it, I am sure everyone else is, too. One effect is that people new to beer are more likely to use these lists as a guide to what they too are supposed to like, and so the cycle continues. Ask anyone at a local taproom or bottle shop about the people who will come in, ask for Pliny, then leave if told it is not available. This is the Beer Advocate/Ratebeer effect, and anyone using those rankings as a roadmap for beer are missing out on a lot of great, if less-renowned beer.
Beyond these issue of practicality, ranking beer is an asinine pursuit to begin with. Taste is subjective, and beer availability varies widely coast to coast. Today, when a publication posts a beer list to their social media accounts, it is little more than a click-grab on a slow news day, a subtle trolling of their audience for engagement . They are counting on outraged beer geeks to share and comment, which, in today's media landscape, is entirely the point.
So, please, stop sharing these atrocious lists. Do not give online rankings another thought. Maybe if we all stop clicking, commenting and sharing, they will all go away. Like and share if you agree, and let us know in the comments what I got wrong.