Best Beer Country? It Don’t Exist, Baby!

Jeff Alworth of “Beervana” was in a self-described “bomb-throwing mood” yesterday and chimed in about how the United States in general and, by inference, Portland, Oregon, in particular is the best place in the world for beer. (And I hope that “bomb-throwing” comment doesn’t have Homeland Security on his, or my, ass now.)

Which is, of course, absolute bullshit.

Are there more beer “styles” brewed in the U.S. than in any other country? Arguably, yes, probably, in fact. But that doesn’t make it the best in anything, even if a whole lot of them are, in Jeff’s words, “at least credible example(s).” (“Dude! Come over and taste this beer! It’s credible, man!”)  Do the Americans experiment more than the brewers of any other nation? Again, probably, with Italy and the independent duchy of Mikkeller hot on their heels. Again, though, that and a few bucks might buy you a latte, but not much else.

The fact is, of course, that no nation is the “best” for beer, any more than one city in the U.S. is the “best” for beer drinking. (And please, let’s not wade into that morass yet again.) I was just in London for a spell and loved drinking there, at traditional pubs and new style places like the Craft Beer Co. and Draft House. Equally, I was delighted earlier this year to be back drinking in Brussels and, while writing about the place this summer, found myself longing to return to Bamberg and the Franconian countryside. And right about now, I’m thinking that a trip to San Diego seems like a very good idea, although the patio of my condo in the bright sunshine is making a good case for itself this afternoon.

My point is that suggesting that one country or city is a better place for beer than another is to ignore the nature of beer itself, which is as a sociable, relaxing, deeply enjoyable beverage. It is not, and should never be considered to be, something to be tasted in two sips and ticked off a list before the next one is approached. Variety is fine, but quality is even better, and there are mercifully fewer and fewer places in the world today where at least one or two quality beers cannot be found. That is what we should be toasting, not whose nation is “best” for beer.

37 Replies to “Best Beer Country? It Don’t Exist, Baby!”

  1. Stephen, you’re more sensible and mature than I am. It’s more fun to pick favorites and argue. Costa Rica is clearly the best place in the world for beer.

    1. I forgot all about Costa Rica. You’re absolutely right, Joe!

      (And for those of you who might be wondering about Joe’s and my exchange, Costa Rica just recently got its first craft beer company, called, in a fit of indisputable logic, Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Company. They seem to be making some god stuff, too!)

      1. Last time I was in Costa Rica, the best thing about the local beer was the price — 75 cents a bottle.

  2. Preach it, Brother Stephen! I live in a well-regarded beer city, and have several other wonderfully beer-soaked urban areas within an easy drive of one-half to four hours. All, this, and still, the “best” beer place remains the one where a combination of good food and drink and good PEOPLE (customers, staff, and owners) are what make it all worthwhile. All the pointless chest-beating about “best” is just that: irrelevant and pointless.

    1. I have a cause. It’s keeping beer from becoming wine. Why is it that there’s always some “ultimate” wine being touted that you either can’t get (due to the vagaries of distribution) or can’t afford? Beer has, as you so rightly point out, always been more about conviviality, food and the locale than about connoisseurship and exclusivity. I hate to see the beer world descending into the kind of elitist one-upmanship that characterizes the world of wine. The best place for beer? Where your friends drink.

  3. It is an exhausted (and quite pointless) argument, but I still felt I needed to comment on Jeff’s blog, here is what I wrote

    “Diversity, diversity. What do you mean by that? In styles, those are only labels. Real diversity goes beyond that, far beyond that. Take the Annafest in Franconia, for example. 20 or so brewers and all of them have Festbier, which is, basically a Märzen (but not in the BJCP understanding of it, but in the German understanding of it), you could say that for a beer lover that even would be boring, but if you pay attention to each of those beers, which on paper are all basically the same, you’ll notice that each is different. Same here in CZ with světlý ležáky or even desítky, almost all brewers, big or small, make them. You can say (and I used to believe it myself) that there is not diversity, but once again, get past the labels and you will find that there is a huge diversity.

    So, if you are saying that this or that place is the best simply because of your limited understanding of diversity (which all by itself isn’t a very strong argument) it means that you haven’t travelled enough (nothing wrong with that) or that if you have travelled, then you were not paying enough attention.

  4. “The fact is, of course, that no nation is the “best” for beer, any more than one city in the U.S. is the “best” for beer drinking.”

    I have no problem with that. In fact, it was a subtext to my point–which you pervert nearly as much as I perverted the argument of the man I was arguing against–who was promoting English beer. (You write “partisans of nouveau American beer chauvinism” and someone’s GOT to respond.) It was supposed to be a lighthearted post promoting Devon White Ale and illustrating that “best” is indeed a stupid metric. I ceded these points: “. He is indeed correct that there remain many places in America where you can’t find good beer. He is furthermore correct that in most towns, the corner bar doesn’t have a best bitter or mild on tap.”

    I do feel bad that I cause Pivni to feel such ire that he was genuinely moved to anger. If you read the original post and then mine, I think it’s clear we’re all having good fun. I would love to hear the arguments for Czech Republic, Germany and even–if you’re up for it, Stephen–Canada.

    Go.

    1. Uh, Jeff, you start your comment by agreeing that no nation is the best for beer, but end it with a challenge to hear arguments in favour of the Czech, Germany and Canada. Am I the only one who sees the disconnect here?

    2. Jeff, there’s absolutely no argument to be made, firstly, because haven’t travelled enough to affirm that the Czech Rep. is better than the US, Belgium, England, etc. but even if I had, and had spent enough time drinking at other places it would all still be based on my personal tastes, so “the best” would actually mean “what I like the most”. In other words, my opinion would be as valid as yours, Stephen’s or my neighbour’s.

  5. The US, for reasons I am not particularly clear about, has for quite a while had some sort of obsessive appreciation for the concept of “best.” There are, for example, the Oscars, the Tonys, the Grammys, the Pulitzers, and the list goes on (all, in effect, a sort of beauty contest for other fields). In my travels through the Internet, questions like this: http://is.gd/WntoIY or this: http://is.gd/y5PjVw are frequently being asked.

    Look at all the rating sites: films, beer, travel, books, hotels, etc. Coincidentally, sites that, the NY Times reported last week, are being manipulated by the marketing arms of the companies being evaluated.

    At the same time, again for reasons that are not clear to me, chauvinism seems to be on the rise in the US. The best films, the best TV series, beers etc. all made in the US – even when they are only remakes of foreign films, TV series or a bottle of beer labeled Gose or Lambiek or Tripel.

    Is it really any surprise that Americans are, first of all, concerned which is the “best” beer country? Or even that they feel it is their own country that is best?

    I feel it is kind of pointless to argue. First, it is a silly argument (“best” this or that), secondly their conviction is largely emotional – something that rational argument really has no effect on.

    Is there anything positive about US beer? I don’t drink very much of it since I am no fan of unbalanced beers, so I may not be the best person to judge. However, I have had some very nice US-brewed beers that I would be happy to drink again.

    Oddly (or perhaps not), the worst beers I have tasted are those that are highly rated on the US beer fan sites.

  6. Interesting discussion. I sort of weave (no pun intended) between two positions here, because there is no doubt America has been huge for great beer. An obsession with the best can be a good thing, it can impel one to bring top products to the country or make a bigger and better version Stateside. Bigger anyway. 🙂 (In other words a reach for the top unquestionably sometimes ends up on the opposite end, but I’d argue that is the nature of the beast. If you don’t take chances, excellence won’t result either).

    There wouldn’t be Imperial Stout today but for the Americans. It was their support of numerous classic Belgian and English beer varieties that ensured their survival or rebirth in the home countries arguably, and so on.

    Pop Idol started in Britain, so did the Guinness Book of Records, so did the beer awards made at the big CAMRA festival in London each summer. I am not sure the U.S. has a different approach to the best issue at bottom…

    Gary

  7. Gary, I think your post is off on several points. First of all “If you don’t take chances, excellence won’t result either” seems to me good advice on a personal level, but I am not sure that this applies to businesses, because business seeks not to be “excellent” but to make money. And, sadly, in the present day, it seems that mediocrity, not excellence, is a more direct route to profits than it may have been in the past.

    “There wouldn’t be Imperial Stout today but for the Americans.” Oh? Perhaps the folks at Guinness, Courage and Samuel Smith, among others, would be somewhat shocked by that statement.

    “Pop Idol started in Britain, so did the Guinness Book of Records, so did the beer awards made at the big CAMRA festival in London each summer.” Pop Idol did indeed start in Britain, in 2001, however, Star Search started in the US in 1983. Twenty years later, Brits copied an American show. The Guinness Book of Records is just that, not a Book of Bests. How can you compare the world’s longest shoe lace with “best actor” or “best makeup”?

    CAMRA may have started giving awards before the Americans, but one exception does not a trend make.

  8. I guess we just see things a little differently. E.g. so many craft beers seem to me to be “non-commercial”, high ABV when you could make a lower ABV one and maybe sell two instead of one, very forward flavours, etc. I think the brewers make them because they love pushing the envelope as the Americans say. Profit hopefully will come, but there is just a certain attitude I see reflected in some of the products here that suggests a “going for broke” – I don’t mean that literally! – and maybe something great will come of it.

    Just on the point of Imperial Stout: when I visited England in the mid-90’s, no one was producing any – Courage had stopped – except Samuel Smith which had only recently been making one. But you couldn’t buy it in England, it was an export item, at least then. There was no Guinness FES available in England either then. I believe the many Imperial Stouts that emerged in the U.S. after the mid-80’s helped revive the form in England.

    Gary

  9. Gary, one cannot see facts “a little differently”: 1983, for example, is a fact and there is nothing to agree or disagree about.

    Frankly, I find your comment that Americans “revived” a beer that Brits had never stopped making, well, a bit strange.

    But, I think we’ve strayed quite a bit from the topic here. That Jeff Alworth wrote nonsense is, at least for most of us, quite apparent.

    1. I’ve been content to let you and Gary duke it out and stay out of it all, Mike, but I feel compelled to defend him on this one point. Imperial stout would have disappeared from British brewing, at least for a time, were it not for the efforts of an American named Charles Finkel who convinced the Sam Smith Brewery to produce it for export. At the time,. no other brewery in the U.K. was making the style.

      Which is not to say it wouldn’t have been revived at some point, of course, but Finkel and his Merchant du Vin company was instrumental in its survival at the time.

      1. Guinness never stopped making it, Stephen, so that would make Sam Smith not the only ones. And what about Harveys? When had they stopped making it? I am no expert on British brewing history, so I have no idea how many others were making it. Secondly, it seems to me that American brewers have fallen all over themselves making Imperial stout, but how many British brewers have revived it?

        If you would like to say that American breweries discovered Imperial stout and launched a new wave of it in the US, I would find that fair enough. However, Gary wrote: “There wouldn’t be Imperial Stout today but for the Americans.” And the facts just do not support that.

  10. I’ll leave it to others to the nuances between FES and Imperial stout, Mike, but I will say this, and definitively so: Guinness ain’t British!

  11. To my knowledge, Guinness FES also was unavailable in England from at least 1985 to relatively recently. I never saw Guinness Special Export Stout in this period either in England – I believe it is still unavailable there. FES can now be purchased in London certainly.

    My statement was an interpretation, my opinion, from seeing the popularity of Sam Smith Imperial Stout here from its first importation, how brewers took inspiration from it and Michael Jackson’s writings to make something similar. And then I noted that Harvey’s brought out its version, about 12 years ago I think, and finally I noticed that there are a number of strong stouts being made in England, some called Imperial, some using coffee for flavouring, which I first saw in America. And this occurred over a period starting from a point where no Imperial Stout to my knowledge was available for purchase in England, and before that, only one brand was available and selling in very small amounts I presume, given its fate.

    It’s not something provable as such, it’s my view based on (interpreting) the factual background already discussed. People can disagree certainly, but that is how I feel about. Let’s continue this over a pint in the future, gents, any time.

    Gary

    1. Stephen, while you are correct that Guinness no longer brews in the UK, that is a recent and very tiny part of its history. From its founding in 1759 to the Irish Revolution in 1921, it was part of the UK. In 1930, it opened a brewery in London. That brewery was not sold until 2005, so it is only the past six years that it has not been a UK brewer.

      As I understand it, Imperial stout is shorthand for Russian Imperial stout. Originally, only beers intended for export to Russia would use that name. Today, obviously, the definition has come loose from that original mission. The beers could probably be just as accurately called a double stout or XXX stout: they are simply stouts that contain more alcohol.

      Somehow this discussion has changed from stouts produced by UK brewers to stouts consumed in the UK. I’ve been sticking with the original point: stouts produced by UK brewers (past and present).

      That production of stouts and porters has declined astronomically since their heyday several centuries ago is quite clear. However, I see no evidence that they died out completely or even almost completely. A strong stout with the brand name Courage was made until the 1990s. Guinness, which at that time (1990s) was still brewing in London, had a strong stout. And both Samuel Smith and Harveys had strong stouts at that time. And those are only the ones I know about.

      I was in London several weeks ago on a pub crawl and never once did I come across an Imperial/strong stout. Where is the revival in the UK?

      Gary, I understand that you are looking at this from a North American perspective. Fair enough. However, what you saw there is not necessarily representative of what was happening in the UK.

      I’d be happy to have a pint with you. Incidentally, do you know that I’ve already had one with your nephew or cousin?

  12. Mike, did you read my follow-up post; this in response to your “nonsense” comment. The history of stout has been pretty well addressed by Martyn Cornell if you wish to look into it. I think the stronger argument would be for porter, which definitively did die out in Britain. According to Cornell, the first arrivals were 1978–six years after Fritz Maytag put out his. I doubt strongly Anchor’s porter had anything to do with the revival in Britain, but that’s the chronology.

  13. Jeff, first of all, you interpreted Chris Bertram’s post as an attack against the US (“When Chris made his case against the US…”). I read Chris’ post as well and do not share your view that his was a chauvinistic attack on the US. Nevertheless, you responded with a chauvinistic defense of the US.

    Where your argument collapses is in logic. Because of your own chauvinism you see a direct connection between the American microbrewing movement and the “rebirth” of these beers in the UK. There is simply no logical line to be drawn here.

    I was at the last GBBF in London several weeks ago. I also went on a pub crawl recommended by local friends. I have at this moment sitting in front of me, the festival book from the GBBF. There is in the list of beers not one single Imperial/strong stout. In fact, the single strongest (British) beer at the festival was 7.6 percent and called “Yule Be Sorry”. Far and away the majority of beers fell between 3-4 percent (and, were quite flavourful).

    Yet, when I look at the Ratebeer list of “best beers of 2011”, 13 of the top 25 have “stout” in their name (there may be other stouts among them, but since I don’t know them, and stout wasn’t in their name, I didn’t count them). Although alcohol is not shown on the Ratebeer chart, I picked two at random: one was 13 percent, the other 9.5.

    Has there been a revival of Imperial/strong stouts thanks to the US microbreweries? Yes, indeed, in the US.

  14. Mike, I’m willing to cop to my own mistakes, but nowhere have I ever argued this:

    “Where your argument collapses is in logic. Because of your own chauvinism you see a direct connection between the American microbrewing movement and the “rebirth” of these beers in the UK. There is simply no logical line to be drawn here.”

    To the extent the US has been influential in Britain, it’s because of the way we use hops. Breweries like Dark Star (American Pale Ale) and The Kernel make American-style beers with American hops. These beers couldn’t exist without changes in the last 30 years in American brewing. You would rightly say this is at best a very modest influence and I would agree.

    But I’ve never made THAT argument before now, either.

  15. Mike, your comments are more evidence for a conclusion I’ve been coming to for some time, that the US and the UK are two nations divided by completely different bar cultures: people drink pints of mostly 4%-sh beer in British pubs. Nobody (or at least a figure as close to nobody as makes no difference) would look to order an Imperial stout in a British bar or pub. So no bar or pub (or at least a figure as close to none as makes no difference) would stock it. That’s why you never saw it on your pub crawl. However, you’ll certainly now find IRS and other strong stouts stocked in specialist beer retailers. So yes, there’s been a boom in the numbers of British brewers making strong stouts, and no, you mostly won’t find any evidence for that in pubs.

    On, and Gary’s right, Guinness FES was never on sale in Britain (or indeed Ireland) except for one very brief period in the mid 1970s, when it was sold as “Triple X”.

    1. Martyn, I think it is far worse than that. Gary and Jeff are in an unintended sense correct that the culture of US microbreweries has influenced some European breweries.

      However, rather than their point that US microbrews are exciting, novel, etc., I believe this influence comes because the US is keen on exporting it’s culture to the rest of the world. Consider, for example, Hollywood. Have you had any trouble finding Hollywood films playing in Europe? Or American television shows?

      But, here is a very specific example. Here in Holland we have local football teams, as well as a national team (one that seems destined to bring the country to the edge of victory). We are, to put it mildly, pretty keen on football and the country’s teams.

      In the 1990s, the Åmerican football league apparently decided that their sport should have a world-wide audience, so they started a new department in Europe, including a team here called the Amsterdam Admirals. Although English is widely spoken here, as you know, choosing a local team name in English did not seem a promising start. However, they then imported players from the US (presumably because they are the only ones who understand how American football is played).

      So, we had an American team playing a strange variety of football (a game actually closer to rugby), with American players and they expected Dutch fans would soon be converted to this strange American version of a game we knew and loved. I should note here that the Admirals played in the same stadium as Ajax, which is, of course, the “other” local football team.

      Despite a notable lack of interest by Dutch fans, they carried on for an amazing 12 years. Year after year of a nearly empty stadium, they poured money into this effort to bring Europe this unique American culture. Several years ago, they ceased all operations in Europe after failing to transplant American football on a continent that already had its own traditional and much-beloved sport.

      1. In the manner of reconciliation, I’ll offer you some news from the States on the subject of football. Although it would be going too far to say Americans have given themselves over to it, there are pockets of genuine fandom–and it’s almost all completely imported. We have a team called Real Salt Lake. All teams seem to adopt “FC” even when their fans have to be told what it means. I’ve even heard people use words like “pitch,” which is very un-American indeed.

        And for what it’s worth, we’re not yet anywhere close to European standards. Ajax visited this summer and absolutely put on a clinic for our Portland Timbers. Pinpoint passing, total ball control. I think the final score was four-nil (we now regularly say things like “nil,” too), but that understates how badly we were outclassed.

  16. Swedish beer is the best! 😉

    Kidding aside, there are quite a few smaller breweries making really good beer in Sweden the last 5 years or so and picking up steam.

  17. Jeff, as the reply button was missing after your post, I’m replying here. While I appreciate the sentiment in which your wrote, I would have much preferred if you’d offer to hold your chauvinism in check in the future, as well as read more carefully. It would be nice if you and many of your blogger colleagues would recognise that beauty is in the eye of the beholder in beer as well.

    1. Mike, somehow we always get off on the wrong foot. I was trying to offer an olive branch, but I’m not sure you’ll take it. For what it’s worth, I have never said the US has the best beer nor do I remotely believe it. I don’t believe we have the best beer culture (though I think Oregon is doing a pretty good job of trying). To the extent I have any chauvinism about beer, it’s of the kidding variety. Since I know what’s in my own head, I’m going to assert these truths confidently.

      I love that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I understand that this is the font of local culture and brewing traditions. If I could exhort you toward anything (as you exhort me so stridently and regularly), it’s to consider that the US may finally be on its way to joining the rest of the good beer world. What you see as “chauvinism” might in fact be Americans seeing the beauty in their own beer.

      But, even if that’s not possible, I’d like to figure a way to have pleasant conversations with you–we clearly share a love of beer and possibly much more.

  18. Jeff, I’ve looked at another post on your blog and I think it does help to explain why you rub me the wrong way. It’s the reviews post about the blogging conference.

    Two quick points: About tasting a Westvleteren 12, you wrote: “Styled a quad in the literature…” and “Perhaps as a Westy unbeliever…”

    Very conveniently, you have summed up two of the most annoying habits of the American beer geek: how can a Trappist monastery (a part of the Catholic Church, great believers in the Holy Trinity) produce four beers? Secondly, how on earth can geeks call it a “Westy” when there are two: Westvleteren and Westmalle?

    I guess you won’t find it on BeerAdvocate, but the first record of a monastery’s brewing activities comes from the 9th century. They brewed three beers then. The current Trappists in Belgium also brew no more than three beers. The Dutch Trappist brewery, which, as you may know, was defrocked by the Trappist Association several years ago, but more recently brought back into the fold, is far more commercial than its Belgian brothers and for decennia even had the precursor of AB-InBev brewing their beers. Early in the 20th century they also brewed a pilsener and soft drinks.

    The quad concept is, much like the story of the Amsterdam Admirals, a story of cultural imperialism. In both cases, Americans try to push their concept of something (beer or football) onto societies that have, for centuries, had their own concepts.

    The Westy thing strikes me as just plain stupid. Considering that there are two monasteries/breweries that fit into the abbreviation, why not just type in the extra letters?

    Getting back to your opening comment: what olive branch? I pointed out the cultural imperialism of the US and you offered a story about growing appreciation of European football in the US and a visit by my home team. How is that an olive branch?

    Even looking at your “America best, version 2”, I still see the same chauvinism: “All beer culture–particularly distinctive beer culture–is praiseworthy. And America finally has something distinctive.” for example. Or “America has a right to stake a claim, and one based on more than naive chauvinism.”

    The whole point, and one that you alone religiously ignore, is that “best” is a bullshit expression. What is the best painting, the best book, the best song, the best city, the best wife, the best teacher, the best school (need I go on?)?

    So long as you cling to the American beer-geek culture, we will never get along. And, as you have managed to do here with your ridiculous posts about “best beer country”, you’ve also angered virtually all the other posters here, including other Americans.

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