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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Defining "World Class" Beers

This is the time of year when we think of superlatives, chained as we are in uncreative servitude to the theoretical finality of the calendar. (No one thinks of top ten lists in June.) Okay, fair enough. Sunday is the time we think of God. In some ways, it's easier to think of things when we're all thinking of them together. In this vein, I like Stan Hieronymus' methodical consideration of what constitutes a "world class" beer, taking his cue from Michael Jackson. (To follow the thread, start with this post, then read this one and this one.)

Stan's concern is epistemological: is the term even valid--can we know what it means to be world class; what are the qualities that describe world class; which beer can legitimately be described as world class. To this end, he quotes Jackson's definition:
“. . . no one can deny that a Premier Cru Bourdeaux is likely to have more complexity and distinction than a jug wine (Or, in the British phrase, “plonk”). A beer rated ***** [five stars] is a world classic either because it has outstanding complexity and distinction or because it is the definitive example of the style, and no matter whether everyone is capable of appreciating it; some people probably don’t like first-growth Bordeaux, either.”
In these formulations, there's some benefit to chronology. So long as a beer has stood as the exemplar of style long enough, it doesn't actually have to win every single blind-tasting competition. Never mind how good Allagash's lambics become, they will not displace Cantillon's as the exemplar of style any time soon. We credit history.

My interest is slightly different, but related to this. I wonder about the mobility of world classics--how does a beer move on or off the list? One of Jackson's world classics is Anchor Steam. My guess is that this is a bit of bone-throwing. America had become a real hotbed of brewing, but he wasn't about to displace Paulaner Salvator, say, with a new-world doppel. So he gave us the signature example of an indigenous style.

Generally speaking, that's a good way to go. Let a beer wear for a while, see what the brewery does with it. If, after two or three decades, it remains one of the regular islands in an archipelego of regularly-changing examples of the style, that's worth a lot. Yet I wonder, is it possible for the gears of history to turn enough--however slowly--so that an immigrant brewery, the decendant of a venerable classic, may one day supplant the old country's hold on the style? Is it possible for a New Jersey pilsner to take the mantle from Pilsner Urquell? (We know how that old-world standard has declined.) This is not a question for judges, of course. These designations are much more anthropological. We commend classic status by slow cultural agreement.

Guinness is definitely not the tastiest draft Irish stout, but it is of course the world classic. A New Jersey pilsner? Maybe. I'm not holding my breath.


  1. "UR" vs. Classic vs. Unique Taste vs. Complimentary Duplication?

    BTW, not everyone has a secular view of Sunday.

  2. Secular view of Sunday? I suggested the opposite. (And before the secularists get on my case, let me affirm that this was just a general comment--I'm a Buddhist, after all.)

  3. I think this is an interesting conversation all in all. In terms of just pilsners, I think they get a bad name here in the States because by the time the old world pilsners make the voyage across the Atlantic, they have already lost "something" due to aging, shipping, etc. So for example, I would say Victory Prima Pils is one of the best pilsners you can possibly buy in the US and probably better than Pilsner Urquel. But go to Germany and drink fresh continental pilsner and there is something magical about it that just doesn't make it over here in transit.

    Anyway, the point being, I think alot of this conversation can easily become subjective. But I do agree with your thoughts that certain breweries can become the paragon for a style and you can't just knock them out of the World Class category because they didn't win best in show one particular year.