For this month's cover story, Chicago picked the 36 best Chicago craft beers, plus four more honorable mentions. We chose some well-known local classics (Three Floyds' Alpha King, Gumballhead, and Robert the Bruce; Goose Island's Sophie and Fleur; Two Brothers Cane and Ebel), and some I've never heard of (Flatlander’s Lincolnshire Lager, the delicious-sounding Figure Eight’s Where Lizards Dare). Some people read lists like it for the former, to see what the well-informed think of their favorite brews; others, to find something they've never tried before.
But such lists, being selected by a handful of people, don't satisfy one curiosity of mine: what the "best" beers are by popular opinion. For that, you have to turn to the Internet. Which has a totally different opinion.
For my money, the best place to go is Beer Advocate, which allows beer nerds to vote on brews. They do an excellent job of maintaining a well-informed readership. Which can be well-informed to the point of insufferability, but that's par for the course with intense connoisseurs. Its rating system favors, for obvious reasons, beers that have been reviewed more often, so it favors a combination of quality, availability, and reputation.
And one beer makes the cut for the top 5 in the world: Goose Island's Rare Bourbon County Stout, the limited, extremely expensive beer aged in barrels that once held the similarly pricey Pappy Van Winkle's (the coffee variety of Bourbon County Stout is also highly rated). It comes in just ahead of Three Floyds' Vanilla Bean Aged Dark Lord; other Dark Lord varieties come in at #20 (Oak Aged Imperial Stout) and #54 (regular Dark Lord). Which suggests that if Chicago is a great beer city—and Esquire thinks we're the best right now, at least—we're great because of our stouts.
Then again: I said that BA raters are connoisseurs, and connoisseurs of all kinds usually seek out the most intense and most rare of whatever it is they like. Of their top-ten favorite beers, six are imperial stouts, which tend to be strong in terms of both alcohol and taste. Seven of their top-ten beers have an ABV of 10 percent or more.
For a different take, you can check out RateBeer.com… a slightly different take. Their raters' two favorite American beers are both Dark Lord varieties. Nine of their top ten beers are imperial stouts. (The one exception is the wildly hyped Pliny the Younger from Russian River Brewery in California, Beer Advocate raters' favorite American beer.)
That Chicago's a good stout town makes sense, given our winters. If you want to local this summer, Three Floyds' Dreadnaught and Zombie Dust get thumbs-ups from BA raters. Metropolitan and Half Acre tend not to have enough reviews to get too high on the ranks, but they're young yet.
Bud/Miller shootout? Congrats to Miller High Life for the high grade among generic American mega-beers, with a gentleman's C at Beer Advocate and a 1.67 at RateBeer.com. In the good old (or at least 20th century) fashioned American Adjunct Lager reviews, which includes local mainstays Old Style, PBR, Point, Leinie's, and so forth, Schlitz (old formula) wins with a respectable B.
Most horrifying? Michelob Ultra POMEGRANATE RASPBERRY. I have not had this, but I have to assume it comes from a marketing person who saw POM flying off the shelves and thought that would make a great beer, and can only assume that vitamin beerwater is next.