The Missoula Independent, Missoula’s weekly newspaper, is a big supporter of the Montana craft beer scene. The Indy, as locals call it, has long been a significant supporter of Missoula’s rite of spring, the Garden City Brewfest. It’s weekly column “Happiest Hour” regularly features great Montana beers and the places to find them. Articles and news items on Montana’s beer culture make frequent appearances.
Thus, it was no surprise to finally see the Indy join the multitudes in creating a “best beer” list. Slow news month, I guess. I’ll bet that joke never gets old around reporters.
The Indy bills its ranking of Montana’s fifty best brews as “the unofficial, completely debatable, almost entirely data-driven list of the state’s top 50 craft beers.”
I’ve been vocal in my distaste for these kinds of lists, the vast majority of which contain little thought (or, heaven forbid, research), and are solely designed to drive traffic for advertising purposes. (See The ‘Best Beer’ Lists and the Death of Journalism.“)
And we eat them up.
I know from five years of writing Growler Fills that every time I take fifteen minutes to write a post about the Montana winners at the North American Beer Awards, my traffic spikes in a big way.
Conversely, I can spend twenty hours over a month putting together a 2,600 word piece on whether we can save the “idea” of craft beer and get very little traction. Admit it, you didn’t read that one, either. I track.
I don’t have to worry about advertising, so I can write those kinds of pieces.
Since the Indy decided to take the plunge into the “fools errand,” as even they describe it, I’ll take their invitation to “spark conversation” and provide a list of my own.
Here are the top three reasons the Missoula Independent’s ranking of the top 50 Montana beers sucks:
1. You can’t get these lists right!
Right? Forget about trying to get these lists “right.” That was a trick heading. The Indy knows that. It’s right there in their subheading (“completely debatable”). In a world as subjective as one’s palate for beer, there will never be “right.”
No, the problem with these lists/rankings is they are virtually impossible to do “well.”
Virtually no one has visited all of Montana’s 45 operating breweries. With certainty, no one has tried all of the beers they have brewed. Thus, the problem with this exercise is how much it penalizes the small guys.
Think Chris Neill at HA Brewing, perched in a remote location outside Eureka, had any chance to make this list? I’m guessing Higherground’s Flash Flood Milk Stout, an excellent beer, made the list at No. 50 because the brewery happens to be squarely in the path of Indy staffers’ regular ski trips to Lost Trail. (I kid, I kid. I know it’s around Missoula, too.) Yet HA Brewing and Higherground both make some very good beers.
The point being not that the Indy got it “wrong,” but to acknowledge that exposure – even by chance or convenience – has a bigger effect than whether the beer is actually better. “Largely data-driven,” my ass.
2. The Indy Offers a Totally Wimpy Disclaimer
Reflect upon that subheading for a moment: “The Unofficial, Completely Debatable, Almost Entirely Data-Driven List of the State’s Top 50 Craft Beers.” That statement is followed by a complete pansy of an introduction, including a note that “this list may create controversy, but we’re hoping it also sparks conversation and prods drinkers to sample pints they’ve not yet tried.”
Hey, Indy! YOU CHOSE TO RANK THEM. Don’t disclaim your own rankings. Stand behind them! OWN THEM! Otherwise, GET OFF MY LAWN!
No, not really. The “largely-data” driven is an equally crappy disclaimer and totally false. What is this data, you might ask? “Factoring in distribution, name recognition, and awards won regionally, nationally and internationally.”
That’s hop-shit.™ Name recognition is only slightly less subjective than taste when it comes to Montana beer. If distribution was any real factor, the top ten would all be Big Sky’s flagships.
Awards? Do you have any idea how difficult it is to actually get your beer entered into the only meaningful competitions? Many of Montana’s brewers don’t bother, can’t afford it, or get shut out of even the opportunity to enter.
Plus, if distribution and name recognition were any indicator of quality – i.e. the “best” beers – guess what the absolute best beer in Montana would be? Bud Light. (I know, I know, it’s not “craft.”)
Lists with false premises are easy targets.
3. We Want Real News, Not Click-Bait!
Come on, Indy! Leave the bottom feeding, totally subjective, completely useless click-bait to us lowly bloggers. We need your hard working, surviving-against-all-journalism-odds reporters to go after the real Montana beer news.
Like, what can we expect for the upcoming legislative session? Why, for example, does Missoula Representative Ellie Hill already have a request in to draft a bill to revise brewery laws? Why is the first news reported about a potential “solution” between the Tavern Owners Association and the Montana Brewers Association in a cryptic article in the Hungry Horse News?
Or maybe take a chance to ruffle some feathers. You’re good that that, Indy. Like digging into the composition of the Montana Brewers Association. Why are the two biggest Montana breweries not members? Why did Bayern drop out for two years, but is now back in? Why did most of Billings’ breweries drop out, never to return?
Or something not-at-all-feather-ruffling-but-otherwise-informative like an article on how the growing number of breweries has set off a competition for hops that is driving up the cost of beer, or squeezing brewer’s profits. How is that affecting Montana’s breweries?
We’re counting on you.
Really, the Indy’s list doesn’t suck. At least no more than any of these things and less than many. I used that word for the same reason publications choose to make these lists. To drive traffic.
Take these lists for what they are and they’re usually a fun read. This one has some pretty big misses, but most do. It’s got quite a few hits, too.
And it did prompt this list. Keep up the good work.