An American website called First We Feast has just announced what it declares are “The 20 most influential beers of all time”, a list put together by a “panel of beer-industry pros – brewers, distributors, publicans, and importers, as well as a few journalists.”
You’ll have some idea of the validity of this list when I tell you that half the beers on it are brewed in the US. I don’t want to diss the panel that chose these beers, but I only recognise one name on it, apart from him there are none of the commentators I turn to for insight into the North American brewing scene, let alone anyone from outside the US, and there doesn’t appear to be a single brewing historian among any of them. Which is presumably why they came up with such a totally crap list, with far, far more misses than hits.
The First We Feast attempt at naming the 20 most influential beers of all time
Gablinger’s diet beer, Rheingold, New York
Blind Pig IPA
New Albion Ale
Fuller’s London Pride
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Goose Island Bourbon County Stout
Anchor Steam Beer
Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye
Cantillon Classic Gueuze
Anchor Old Foghorn
Sam Adams Utopias
I mean, Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye is more influential in the history of beer than Bass Pale Ale or Barclay Perkins porter? Don’t make me weep. Allagash White trumps Hoegaarden and Schneider Weisse? (You may not like Hoegaarden or Schneider Weisse, but I hope you won’t try to deny their influence.) Gueuze, Saison and Kölsch are such important styles they deserve a representative each in a “most influential beers of all time” list, while IPA and porter are left out? I don’t think so. And the same goes for Schneider Aventinus: where are the hordes of Weissebockalikes? Sam Adams Utopias has influenced who, exactly? “Generic lager”? I see where you’re coming from, in that much of what has happened over the past 40 years in the beer world is a reaction against generic lager, but still … And I love London Pride, but it’s not even the third most influential beer that Fuller’s brews.
Gablinger’s Diet Beer is about the only smart choice on the FWF list, because although it’s pretty obscure now, it was the inspiration for all the “lite” beers that, through big brands such as Miller Lite and Bud Light, came to dominate the US beer scene. Pilsner Urquell is a must: you could argue (and I will, in a moment) over whether there has been a more influential beer, but no “all-time greats” list could ignore the pale lager from Plzen. Westmalle Tripel: Duvel, surely, is more important. Guinness: I really don’t think Guinness is influential: it’s so sui generis, it’s just carried on being itself, without influencing anybody.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale I’m prepared to consider, as the pioneer of “hop forward” American pale ales, and the same consideration may be due to Blind Pig IPA, the first “double” IPA. Anchor Old Foghorn was itself too influenced by other beers, especially the English old ale/Burton Ale tradition, to be on a “most influential” list itself. If Goose Island Bourbon County Stout was, as it appears, the first “aged in barrels used for something else” beer, then for all the brews that has inspired, it deserves a “most influential” mention. But having both New Albion Ale and Anchor Steam on the list is far too California-centric: indeed, if you’re looking for a beer than inspired the boom in American craft brewing, them I’d put on a steel helmet and announce that it’s Samuel Adams Boston Lager: I bet that inspired far more drinkers to try something other than the mainstream than any other early American “craft” beer.
So: what ARE the real 20 most influential beers of all time? Judged purely on the size of the effect they had on subsequent beer history, I reckon they are:
1 Spaten Dunkel The lagering techniques Gabriel Sedlmayr perfected at the family brewery in Munich, and the yeast that he used and then so generously donated to brewers from Carlsberg in Denmark to Heineken in the Netherlands were what powered the lager revolution in Europe and around the world. Without the work done at the Spaten brewery, there would have been no Pilsner Urquell. But the original Spaten lager (and indeed the first lagers brewed outside Bavaria) were all dark beers, little known by modern drinkers, which is why their importance has been forgotten.
2 Pilsner Urquell The genius of the men who set up the Burghers’ Brewery in Plsen in 1842 appears to have been in combining Bavarian lager yeast and lagering techniques with pale malt made in the English fashion, to produce the world’s first pale lager. It took another half a century or more for the Pilsner style to triumph over its darker rivals even in continental Europe, but most of the beer drunk in the world today has its roots in Bohemia.
3 Hodgson’s East India Pale Ale There’s a good case for saying that Bass Pale Ale, as the most successful IPA of the 19th and 20th centuries, should fly the flag for the style. But Hodgson’s brewery in Bow, London was the maker of the highly hopped pale beer shipped out east whose success inspired the Burton brewers to follow with their own beers brewed for the Indian trade, beers that later proved popular back home in Britain as well. Therefore it’s Hodgson that deserves to be on the “most influential” list, even though the Bow brewery eventually collapsed into obscurity.
4 Parsons’ porter We have no good evidence as to who, if anyone, first turned London brown beer into what became known as porter: it looks as if the city’s whole brown beer trade slowly moved in the first 30 or so years of the 18th century towards a hoppier, more aged style of dark beer that eventually became hugely popular. But there IS evidence that the pioneer of lengthy storage for porter in huge vats, to perfect its flavour, was Sir Humphrey Parsons, of the Red Lion brewery, by St Katharine’s Dock, to the east of the Tower of London, which would make him the most influential porter brewer, since everybody else copied his idea. And without porter we wouldn’t have stout.
5 Barclay Perkins Russian Imperial Stout A number of London brewers were exporting very strong stouts to the Baltic lands in the 19th century, but Barclay Perkins’s Anchor brewery is the earliest we have evidence for, the best-known and the longest–lasting. Its imperial stout influenced brewers in Poland, the smaller Baltic states and Germany in the 19th century, and American craft brewers in the late 20th and 21st centuries.
6 Schwechater Lagerbier Anton Dreher was a big pal of Gabriel Sedlmayr and accompanied the Bavarian on his “study tours”. At the family brewery in Schwechat, just outside Vienna, Dreher used Sedlmayr’s lagering ideas and, like the brewers in Plsen, malting techniques based on those used by English brewers, though Dreher produced darker malts than the Bohemians, to give a beer halfway in colour between Pilsner and a Munich Dunkel. Think Sam Adams Boston lager, and you’d be about right. Dreher’s is the influence on all those lagers that look more like English bitters in colour.
7 Einbecker Ur-Bock Without the Einbeckers of Lower Saxony, there would be no Bock beers.
8 Paulaner Salvator And without Munich’s Salvator, the first of the souped-up Doppelbocks, we wouldn’t have all those beers ending in -or.
9 Anheuser-Busch Budweiser Come on – of course it was hugely influential. It pioneered national beer distribution around the US, and it set the standard for what American beer was expected to be. You might not like that standard, but millions of drinkers did, and do, in the US and abroad.
10 Bass No 1 Best-known of the strong Burton Ales, this was the beer that other barley wines wanted to be, until number 16 on my list came along.
11 Schneider Weisse Who should carry the banner for Bavarian wheat beer, a style that was restricted to little old Bavarian ladies only 40 years ago but which has since bounced back hugely and now has imitators everywhere? There are several candidates, but I’ll give it to the guys from Kelheim, because they brew nothing else.
12 Hoegaarden When it comes to Belgian wheat beer, however, there can be only one original, and all the rest are imitators (even if some now, whisper it, might be doing a better job). When Pierre Celis rescued this style from the grave, he was to have far more influence than he could have possibly imagined.
13 Duvel Anyone brewing a strong, golden Belgian-style ale is bowing towards Breendonk.
14 Fuller’s ESB A winter-only brew to begin with, ESB became famous as the strongest bitter in Britain, and spawned a new style in the US.
15 Newcastle Brown Ale First and best-known of the fruity dark amber “Northern brown ales”.
16 Tennant’s Gold Label The Sheffield brewer Tennant’s launched its golden barley wine more than 60 years ago, inspiring a host of imitators among brewers who had previously believed strong beers had to be dark.
17 Fowler’s Wee Heavy Wee Heavy is a much misunderstood style: it’s not that old and it certainly shouldn’t be made with smoked malt. But Fowler’s is the one everybody copied.
18 Sierra Nevada Pale Ale See above
19 Blind Pig IPA See above
20 Goose Island Bourbon County Stout See above
Now: let the arguments begin.