It brings me no pleasure to tell you this, sincerely. I mean, I can be a bit of a pill at times; I know that. Hell, maybe I’ve even delighted in giving a bit of bad news a few times in my life. I don’t know! I’m not perfect. I’m barely even good.
This is different, though. This truly pains me to say, because I know how important it is to you. But it has to be said. Here goes nothing.
Pliny the Elder, the seemingly unobtainable God-level brew, the Imperial IPA with a BeerAdvocate score of 100 out of 100, the Russian River flagship that took just 14 years to nearly equal the number of Google results accumulated by its namesake in the previous 2,000, this same Pliny the Elder is bad now. It’s … bad. I know it hurts, but — Oh, God! I can hear your squeals. They sting my flesh like a thousand pointy red beard hairs. You really should be wearing a mask in here, btw.
The pain makes it no less true, I’m sorry to say. From SFGate’s roundup of the “Best Beer in America” poll:
Zymurgy asked voters to select 20 of their favorite commercial beers available across the United States in an online poll, tallied them up, and with those votes found both state and national winners. Pliny came in at second place nationwide (though first in California), with Founders’ Breakfast Stout (Grand Rapids, Michigan) at third, Three Floyds’ Zombie Dust pale ale (Hammond, Indiana) at fourth, and another of Bell’s, the imperial IPA Hopslam, rounding out the top five.
That’s right; our beloved Pliny, Sr. has been relegated to second overall. How’s the old saying go? “If you’re not first, you’re horse piss”? Something like that, I think. Horse Piss the Elder. Sad. Pliny the elder is now officially nothing but corn spit and wheat bubble.
All right, so maybe I’m exaggerating, but here’s the point: Of course Pliny the Elder isn’t the best beer in America. Newly minted gold medalist Bell’s Two-Hearted isn’t, either, by the way, even if you can get it in gas stations now. Zombie Dust pale ale is probably fine, but the name is kind of lame and I’ve never seen it around here; it’s definitely not the best beer in America.
You can’t have a “breakfast stout” as the best beer, either, so Founders is out. Same goes for Space Ass Brewing Company’s Flightless Bird IPA, which is ineligible due to being fake as a result of I just made it up, but still. None of these are the best beer in America. And even if they were, why would you take the word of the American Homebrewers Association? Aren’t they, like, the competition?
(Studio audience voice) So … what is, Jesse?!?!
Well, look, you’re not gonna like this answer too much. But the best beer in America is whichever one you like. Think of it like one of those books you used to read as a kid. In the Big Book of Great Beers, you get to the last page, and there’s a little plastic mirror on the page so you can hold up your favorite beer and see it beaming proudly back at you. “The Best Beer Ever is … Yours!”
That’s a cop-out if you think there’s a real answer out there somewhere and I’m not dogged enough to find it, or too dull to know it when I see it. But from where I’m sitting, it’s just the unvarnished truth. There’s no best beer because there’s no one single thing a beer is, so there’s no metric by which one formulation can surpass all others. Platonic ideals are for circles and useless junk like that; Plato probably just drank old honey water out of a rock mug anyway. They didn’t even have wide-mouth cans in ancient Greece.
The same poll that named Pliny the Elder best in the land in 2015 was as wrong for saying Pliny was the best beer then as it is now for saying it’s not.
Also coming in at Number Wrong was “Eat This, Not That” with this compelling missive:
Michelob Ultra doesn’t claim our top spot because the brand has associated itself with running, cycling and living an active healthy lifestyle. It’s our #1 pick because it does all that and is lower in carbs than its closest competitor—and tastes great, too. It’s the #1 Best Light Beer in America.
And though I can’t say I understand the methodology of the sample, I can say with confidence that this Thrillist piece naming “the beer of Oregon” America’s best is similarly misguided. Here’s their logic:
California and Washington might have more brewers, but dammit, they’ve also got more people. More importantly, they don’t have the density of Oregon’s offerings. Or the quality. Oregon’s long been at the forefront of the craft industry, with brewers like Widmer Brothers, Rogue, Full Sail, and Deschutes leading the national charge as gateway beers for people who want something more out of their pints. But they’re just the OGs of what might be the epicenter of the craft beer movement.
Guess what also isn’t America’s best beer? Did you say Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA? Because Complex did in 2013. And they were wrong, too, when they wrote this:
This is a brewery that has the art of the pale ale down and their Torpedo really takes that craft to another level. It’s also a bit of an experimental brew for the Chico, California brewery as well. The brewery put their “Hop Torpedo” to work, a device that dry hops, adding just the right aroma and bitterness. So, you don’t end up with an overly bitter beer. Instead, you have a perfect combination and only about 7.2 percent alcohol by volume—so it’s a bit high in booze, but it doesn’t take away from the greatness of this brew.
All these lists are wrong, and all the lists I didn’t list are wrong, and this list is wrong, too. Sierra Nevada, Stone, Ommegang, Sixpoint, Ballast Point, and Allagash put together couldn’t brew the best beer in America, because there’s just no way to do it. Any beer can be the best! And not just in a participation trophy, “everybody tried” kind of way, either.
You can have a best beer to drink with a burger, or a best beer to drink on a boat, or the best after-work beer (or during-work beer if you’re one of those guys with the fireman’s pole in your office). And hey, maybe those are all the same thing to you; it certainly makes things simpler at the store. But that’s your favorite beer, not the best one, and if you think that distinction is obvious, try talking to a baby boomer about politics.
We all know Russian River isn’t panicking about being dropped down to second place in this poll. It’s a great beer, people love it, and it’ll always sell. But that should make you think. Because if breweries aren’t afraid of being ranked or rated, why are we doing it? Why bother saying you give Not Your Father’s Mountain Ale 3.6 stars out of five when you know it won’t have any reach beyond the screen in front of your face? Who is doing all these BeerAdvocate reviews?!
In his “Natural History,” Pliny the Elder observes and then explains the planets, among many other topics. He manages to do this without saying things like “Saturn is the best planet right now” or “I give the moon a 7.8/10.” It would sound kind of stupid if he did that, wouldn’t it? It would almost sound like he didn’t have very much information about the planets but wanted to sound like he did anyway. And really, what difference would a mediocre score in a book mean to Jupiter? It’s really far away and can’t really be anything but Jupiter regardless of what some guy says.
Pliny would have just been shouting into the void, and his little reviews immediately forgotten. Everybody knows the best planet is whichever one you’ve got.