CHASING WHALEZ WITH THE BEER HUNTER

chimay blueWhat makes a beer a “world classic”?

According to Michael Jackson, who introduced the term in his landmark World Guide to Beer in 1977, world guidea world classic was the definitive example of one of 34 historical beer styles: Pilsner Urquell, Saison Dupont, Guinness Extra Stout. I tasted my first my first world classic (Anchor Steam) in 1980; it would take me five trips to Europe to tick the remaining 33. Today, BeerAdvocate lists nearly a thousand beers worthy of “world class” status. Social media–driven grade inflation? Or further evidence of a golden age of brewing?

This summer marks the 10th anniversary of Mr. Jackson’s passing and the 40th anniversary of his World Guide, which was published at a time when many of the world’s classic beer styles were either disappearing or losing their traditional character. sippingMr. Jackson, for example, lamented the replacement of Pilsner Urquell’s wooden fermenters with stainless steel after the collapse of communism, but continued to rate the beer as a “world classic.” Today’s beer geeks are less forgiving, rating Pilsner Urquell as merely “good” with a score of 82. Contemporary beer hunters prefer Dvanáctka, the more traditional unpasteurized, open-fermented Czech pilsner of the Kout na Šumavě brewery, which they rate as “excellent” with a score of 90.

Mr. Jackson was never a big fan of assigning scores to beers and claimed that his publisher pressured him to do the ratings to make his series of Pocket Guides more commercially viable. And yet with the passing of Mr. Jackson, no one has had the hubris to claim that Heady Topper, say, and not Pliny the Elder, is the definitive version of the American IPA style. For better or worse, today’s world classics are determined by a digital democracy on rating platforms such as BeerAdvocate, RateBeer, and Untappd. BeerAdvocate, for example, assigns “world-class” status to any beer that scores 95 or higher. Such rankings act as a kind of Dow Jones index for beer traders to determine a beer’s market value. Combine a high score with sufficient scarcity and you’ve got what fan boys call a “whale.” In a world where more than 10,000 breweries are producing in excess of 100,000 different beers, we would be lost without such data-crunching websites and their volunteer armies of dedicated beer hunters.

Twenty years ago, Mr. Jackson was an army of one, scouring the planet for good beer. He was, in fact, the ultimate ticker. tastingAt a time when there were only a few hundred American breweries, producing just three or four different beers, he was able to taste nearly all of them—assisted by a cadre of beer enthusiasts who shared his passion. I should know: I was one of them.

Chauffeur, valet, fixer, and even bodyguard, I accompanied Mr. Jackson on four beer-hunting expeditions in the late 1980s and early 1990s: through New England, the mid-Atlantic, Midwest, and California coast. No brewery was too obscure, no pub too sketchy, no beer too problematic. He wanted to visit them all and taste everything. Always in search of authenticity and artisanal techniques, he expanded his list of world classics in the 1990s to include Anchor Liberty Ale, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Bigfoot, and Alaskan Smoked Porter. But as the craft-brewing revolution gained steam and his Pocket Guide descriptions became more numerous but less current, American authors began to fill in the gaps with their own regional guides. When seasonal brews exploded in the early 2000s, only the bimonthly brewspapers could keep up.

I often wonder what Mr. Jackson would have thought about our contemporary craft brewing scene. While beer styles will always be relevant, many of today’s craft beers defy categorization. As a third generation of American craft brewers increasingly blur the boundaries between traditional styles, each new beer is potentially a style unto itself, defined as much by its ABV as its historical origins.

One no longer has to cross ocean or continent to taste these world-class beers. Here in the Washington metro area, for example, we have nine beers rated 95 or higher on BeerAdvocate’s data base (the most statistically valid, in my opinion): On the Wings of Armageddon from DC Brau (95), Talking Backwards Triple IPA (96) from Ocelot, and seven brews from Aslin, including the frighteningly delicious Master of Karate (99).

Last month, DC was swimming in whalez during the recent Craft Brewers Conference, as premier breweries from around the nation shipped their finest suds to DC watering holes. ChurchKey’s “East Coast’s Finest” event featured seven world-class beers from Trillium, Other Half, The Veil, Bissell Brothers, and the Suarez Family. Meridian Pint boasted a similar bounty of cetaceans during its “IPA Fest” of 60 IPAs from 30 breweries. Had Mr. Jackson been in town, I’m sure he would have been riding shotgun in the harpooner’s boat with Ahab and Queequeg.