Cole Porter laid it out for us all. The mathematics of what is "top" proves is a very difficult thing to determine. Whether you say "top" or "leading" or "foremost" or "best" it is all the same. You are not saying much. Consider that Cole Porter's equation inherent in the lyrics of You're The Top is essentially the equation "top = X where X = ???" If your math is weak consider the text itself:
You're the top!
You're the Coliseum.
You're the top!
You're the Louver Museum.
You're a melody from a symphony by Strauss
You're a Bendel bonnet,
A Shakespeare's sonnet,
You're Mickey Mouse.
You're the Nile,
You're the Tower of Pisa,
You're the smile on the Mona Lisa
I'm a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop,
But if, baby, I'm the bottom you're the top!
And that's just the first verse. What you can see from both Porter's arithmetic as well as his poetry is that the meaning of a superlative form of good is an utter quagmire. For example, what the hell is a Bendel bonnet? Who knows? Who cares? It has become decontextualized by the passage of time so that even if I bothered to ask Lord Goog what it was, it would not explain what the reference meant to Cole Porter.
And it is with that knowledge that I have approached Ben McFarland's beer book World's Best Beers: One Thousand Craft Brews From Cask To Glass. But first things first. I come not to bury McFarland but to praise him. This is a great book and in part not only because it is a huge list but because it is a number of lists. A lot of lists in fact.
- It is a list of the great beer regions of the world. That is the primary organization of the book, as an atlas.
- It also contains a list of great beers found within each region. It does not contain a list of #1 to #1,000. So while I can say I am about to open a bottle of third down right side, page 191, I can't say that I am opening a bottle of #537.
- It also contains a list of great beer writers in that McFarland does not write each region's list but outsources many of them to writers like Stephen Beaumont and Lew Bryson. And there are even new names to me like Bryan Harrell in Japan.
- But, more as gazetteer than atlas, it also has other lists - like the beers and foods that Garrett Oliver likes to consumer concurrently; like the top ten beer drinking cities; and even like the top ten iconic beer packagings.
- And there is even a list of beer sites you need to following... including (big girlie thrill) this very one right there on page 274.
Lists of lists. It is an approach to beer. One avenue to beer and it is an avenue McFarland explores thoroughly. Sufficiently even. I don't think I needed another list. I know Stan doesn't. Stan is against lists these days but he took the time to think about how even he might list beer. So we might at this point summarize as follow: Ben likes lists, Stan doesn't and Cole Porter thought them an outlet more for his wit than as a means to achieve any precise definition.
Mr. Beaumont has also been listing this week but his is a list of aphorisms - so while he calls them his "Beer Rules for the Holidays" it is more a code or codex even, like the Old Testament's Book of Proverbs. Indeed, he takes a stand that is rather mad minor prophet raging against the howling wind with staff in hand, telling us more what not to do that do with wise lessons like "Pay Up or Shut Up" and "At a Social Gathering, You Are Expressly Prohibited From Saying, 'This Pale Ale Isn’t Very Hoppy, Is It?'" Why do I mention this in a book review of the work of someone else? Well, I think it illustrates that the way to good beer has many paths and so while Stan rightly dislikes lists and while Ben rightly likes them - one can also find good beer's righteousness proverbially as Mr. B does or also rightly through detailed gleaning through brewing records like Ron Pattinson or as Knut, the beer ticking traveling Norwegian, does... rightly. There is a place at the table for every sect and denomination. It is right that it is so.
Point? There is a world of great beer and it is enjoyed by the world. There are many ways of good beer. And even if there is no best way, each and every worthy route and every worthy form of analysis is a path to knowing more about good beer. McFarland's book is one such path and beats the hell out of the list as a medium for describing what good beer can be. And he does it very well.