North American beer just keeps getting better, and the expanding selection of domestic and international beers can make drink decisions both intriguing and intimidating. As I evaluate and write about an increasing number of beers and breweries on Tempest, I’ve decided to suspend my usual injunction against ranking beers. Rather than giving beers a score out of one hundred, I’ve decided upon a ranking system that singles out beers that stand out from their peers at bottle shops and taverns across the land.
One of the reasons I’m wary about including rankings and ratings is because even though I recognize their value in certain cases, I’m cognizant of just how much environment and other factors exert an ineffable influence on my perception of a beverage. None of the ratings I offer is cast in stone. If I were to try all of these beverages blind, I might have different reactions. (It’s happened before. Label and brand expectations play an unconscious and often underappreciated role in our judgment and evaluation.) Sampling a horizontal flight of, say, pilsners from a number of producers will affect my perception––and hence my evaluation––differently than if I were drinking them in isolation, or alongside different styles. If I were to taste the same beer, wine, saké, or spirit not as component of a structured tasting but rather as an accompaniment to a memorable occasion, I may well form a different impression of the same beer in a different locale and at a different time of the day.
And so, with those caveats aside, I offer my “tankard system” in place of more common rating systems. Since I’m not particularly enamoured of reducing aesthetic pleasures to numbers, numerical rankings are out. I find the “four-star” or “five-star” approach more palatable, but the implication with these systems is that if someone or something scores two-and-a-half stars or less, the entity in question has somehow “failed.” Amazon and Yelp stars are a case in point. Instead, I’ll assign “tankards” to beverages I evaluate (and breweries I visit), but only in certain cases. Not unlike the Michelin system used for rating dining establishments, only the very best beverages receive tankards. To be clear, if a beverage does not receive a tankard, it rarely means that the beverage is subpar.
- No tankards: Beverages in this category range from run-of-the-mill to very good. With the former, I’d likely have no problem drinking this up at a party or while tending the grill. As for the latter, a very good beer may well be something I’d drink on a regular basis, like a Franziskaner Weissbier. If a beverage truly failed to excite me––or just plain assaulted my senses––chances are I won’t even bother writing about it. (And if I did write about it, I’d let you know why I found the beer objectionable.)
- One tankard: A very fine beverage. A cut above and a few ounces taller than other beverages in its category.
- Two tankards: An excellent beverage. Worth searching out, preferably at its place of production or, if that’s not possible, then at a taproom or liquor store.
- Three tankards: Exceptional. An absolute aesthetic pleasure, one that blends the Kantian sublime with Proust’s literary account of aromas and the gustatory delights of Babette’s Feast. A beer that could find a place on any hypothetical Top-25 list I’d concoct.
*November 2014: I haven’t yet gone back and assigned tankards to beers I’ve written about over the past year, so don’t be surprised if you don’t see tankards associated with some of the stellar beers I’ve featured.