Recently, Zymurgy Magazine published a list of America's top commercial beers and breweries. Atop the former is Pliny the Elder from Russian River Brewery. This beer is a Double IPA and is quite delicious. The rankings seem legit until we get to #7 "Guinness". And then down a bit more are some beers from Rahr & Sons Brewing Company (TX). Not to knock these breweries and their products, but this list needs some investigating. First, the magazine is published by the Homebrewer's Association, a well respected organization. To have a list produced by these people would normally be acceptable. Yet, the calculations of determining the top beers are solely democratic, and constrained to the magazine's subscribers. This means that beers are submitted by a limited audience--the most entries is the top; this is even worse than the NBA All-Star voting process. In other words the criteria used here is laughable.
To even a beer novice it should be clear that this list, and many like it, are publicity tools for breweries and the publications themselves. The lists are susceptible to user/reviewer bias, or an avalanche of a specific brewery's supporters (e.g. Rahr & Sons have 12 of their 17 beers on the list. Hmm...how did that happen?). Soon people will want to try these beers. Mission accomplished.
But, who cares? Well, breweries for one. Those who do not take to the time to use this faux "all-star game" will find their sales going south at the expense of quality, and perhaps better, beer. They spend their time brewing, not casting votes. The consumers should care, too, as the aforementioned consequence will trickle down to affect selection, price and quality of beer. And geeks like me won’t have much to write about then. Horrible!
So, should we ignore lists? I can’t say 'yes' with 100% conviction. Some lists are good, and provide others an insight into great beers they may not have known before. I think the important thing is to take lists with caution and not to worship them like some other lists have been enduring.
You’re probably saying, “OK, hotshot, so what is the best beer?”. My hotshot answer is, “the one in your hand”. It’s the closest one to your mouth, and a beer does you no good if it just sits there. Yet there are other beers out there. My advice is to explore, and if possible, ignore the marketing gimmicks, commercials and lists. And remember, there are over 100 styles of beer with a wide range of aromas, tastes and “feels”. The fun is the journey, not the destination.