James Watt, co-founder of the Scottish newcomer BrewDog, makes that clear. “For me the innovation in brewing in the USA…has been by far the most exciting thing to happen in brewing, possibly ever. We wanted to take some of that excitement, some of that innovation, some of that boundary-pushing pioneering mentality and take it back to the UK,” he said.
However…we very much wanted to put our own spin and own identity onto our beers. I think we maybe copied the mindset and the innovation but our beers are certainly all of our own.”
In another American-led development, a few years after California wine’s triumph in Paris, a Maryland lawyer by the name of Robert Parker started his Wine Advocate newsletter, offering independent reviews at a time when many writers recommending wine were otherwise connected to the industry. He liked to say he made the system more democratic, although the real reason he became the world’s most prominent wine critic might have been because he instituted a numerical system for rating wines, one that since spilled over into beer.
No single critic for beer emerged like Parker. Jackson chose a different path, as much an anthropologist as critic. “I think the motivation was almost like the motivation of some of those musicologists like Alan Lomax who went down to the Mississippi Delta in the ’50s and recorded old blues men before they died,” he said in an interview in this magazine’s 100th issue. “I tracked down the styles and hoped that by writing about them I might help to keep them alive.”
Taking a more Parker-like approach, the Chicago-based Beverage Testing Institute extended its numerical rating system to beer in 1995. Later, the Internet Web sites RateBeer and BeerAdvocate—others as well, but none attract as many users as those two—began aggregating scores entered by members, assigning numbers to beers and imposing their own democracy. BeerAdvocate since changed to a letter grade, although it continues to publish “best of” lists. Brewers value these numbers just as much as winemakers cherish high scores from Parker.
Those opposed to numbers for wine and all things Parker complain that many vintners abandoned rustically styled wines for modern powerful “fruit forward” (and simpler) ones that would earn high ratings and sell at higher prices. During the course of 20 years the average alcohol content of Australian white wines rose from 12 to 13 percent, while reds climbed from 13 to 14 percent. In California, cabernet sauvignons grew about one percent per year stronger starting in the mid-1970s, from the 12 percent to 15-plus, with zinfandels reaching 17-plus.
Likewise, stronger beers, often hoppier beers, continue to gain popularity in America. According to Information Resources, Inc., the fastest growing style in the first half of 2009 was India pale ale. The rating sites certainly reward the biggest, boldest beers with the highest scores. At the end of 2008, BeerAdvocate magazine compiled a “best of” list based on ratings at its Web site. North American breweries produced 17 of the top 25 beers, 24 of 25 of them 6 percent ABV or more, most much stronger (8.5 percent ABV on average).