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Fantasy Brewery Scouting Reports: Tier One

Alex Fossi, January 28, 2014 -   

We've got our new fantasy beer league up and running. How is one to go about selecting the best breweries? Many breweries don't announce a full lineup of new selections ahead of time, so it's tough to plan ahead.

Still, it's not impossible to make informed decisions. Here are scouting reports for the first tier of breweries -- quick rundowns of what to look at as you're making your fantasy picks. Ideally, we're looking for breweries that have already announced some promising new beers, especially if those beers are in a variety of styles. Just because a brewery has a high cumulative BAR doesn't necessarily make it a great pick. A bigger brewery that primarily uses the same annual lineup isn't going to have the quantity of new releases you'll need to win.

Have your own thoughts on fantasy beer strategy? Let me know in the comments! Without further ado, your tier-one breweries for Fantasy Beer League's inaugural season:

Stone (618 BAR) - Stone is certain to be a popular pick, and for good reason. They have more than 130 BAR more than the next brewery, release a host of new beers and collaborations annually, and rarely throw out a dud. Each year, you can expect four or so collaborations, an anniversary release, several new options from their barrel-aged program, a couple variations on Arrogant Bastard and Ruination, and more. More importantly, just about everything they put out receives good reviews--their top five 2013 releases had BARs of 8.56, 6.12, 4.87, 4.64, and 4.44.

Now, before you get too excited, let's look at some downsides. You might get credit for just one of those collaborations before the June 31 deadline -- they've already announced that w00tstout will be back this year, and it's unclear if that will take away a spot that could have gone to a new collaboration instead. The anniversary ales are released in August, so no credit there either. Their last major release of 2013 was the Crime & Punishment duo, which combined for a whopping -5.4 BAR. They weren't new releases, so you wouldn't have lost credit for that -- the point is that they occasionally release more experimental brews that have the potential to hurt your team. Also, they tend to focus on IPA/stout styles, so you'll have to add variety with later picks. All in all, Stone is certainly a solid option, but keep in mind that you might not see their best releases before the season ends.

The Bruery (480 BAR) - The Bruery is a bit of a surprise at #2 overall by BAR. They opened in 2008, meaning that they're far younger than most of the other top breweries. They also produce just 2500 barrels of beer a year, compared with Stone's 212,000. Let's look at the positives, though. For such a small brewery to have such high BAR, the beers they release all have to score very well. 69 of the Bruery's 177 beers have above 4 BAR, and while part of that is due to duplications of annual releases, there's no doubt that they consistently add great beers to their lineup. Even better, they've just expanded to add a separate barrel house for their always-strong sours, likely indicating that they'll be adding to that series. All of this makes the Bruery a very solid pick, with the only caveat being that their limited total production caps their BAR upside somewhat.

Founders (390 BAR) - Good: They have a variety of great, highly-rated beers. Bad (for fantasy purposes, at least): Their best beers, the stouts and Backwoods Bastard, are all re-releases and you won't score for them. Removing just extra vintages of the Kentucky Breakfast Stout would knock them down 35 BAR overall. They do have a Backstage Series with several new offerings each year, but these are relatively limited releases. They'll almost certainly have at least one or two significant additions, but on the whole, I think their cumulative BAR overstates their value for fantasy, as it mostly comes from their very solid annual and year-round releases.

Cigar City (381 BAR) - Cigar City is another newer brewery, now coming up on five years in business. As with the Bruery, this might be a good thing for fantasy owners. They don't have any single beer above 10 BAR, but look at it this way: that just means they've had to release many solid beers to get to 381 BAR total. Their top 4 beers are all different styles, and their top 25 features 13 different styles, so you can count on them to contribute in the number of styles category. They're also expanding production to 60,000 barrels this year, they ship in cans which helps them reach more markets, and...their website is kinda messed up and I can't get to the blog to see what they're working on now. Can't win em all, I guess. Regardless, there's a lot to like about what Cigar City is doing, and I can't find much downside.

Goose Island (379 BAR) - Goose Island is best known for A) their phenomenal Bourbon County Brand Stout and its variants and B) being owned by Anheuser-Busch, a point of contention among many craft beer drinkers. Let's ignore both of those, though. The first isn't relevant to our game because BCBS comes out in November, so even if there is a new variant you won't get credit. The second--well, you don't lose points for off-field character issues.

You can pencil Goose Island in for a few new releases every spring, along with weekly limited offerings at the brewpub. While you probably won't score for BCBS or any of the sours (because of their likely release dates), you can rely on Goose Island for solid production--whatever they do put out will be put out in quantity (they produced 150,000 barrels in 2012, with "significant" increases expected going forward). Their beers are also available in all 50 states, a plus for their popularity and therefore their BAR.

Cantillon (365 BAR) - As you might expect from a brewery that's been open for over a century, Brasserie Cantillon has reworked and refined their recipes to the point where they are arguably the gold standard for what they make: gueuzes, lambics, and krieks. That's great for a real-life brewery, but not so much for our fantasy game. They have just 74 beers listed on the leaderboards, many of those annual vintages that you won't get credit for. In spite of their great beers, they aren't worth your pick in fantasy.

Dogfish Head (352 BAR) - Their well-known IPAs won't help here -- instead, fantasy owners will be counting on new, unusual releases from Dogfish. Luckily, they don't skimp on those, continually modifying recipes and adding thoroughly unexpected ingredients to their beers. There's no doubt that you'll see several new brews from them, so the question is whether those will be valuable enough.

By cumulative BAR, they may not be the best pick, as exactly half of their beers have under 2 BAR. On top of that, if you don't count the IPAs, just one of their beers has above 6 BAR. On the other hand, they make use of a ridiculous variety of styles, so they might be a good option if you're confident that you can make up the BAR gap with other picks and want to get a variety of styles from your first-rounder.

Mikkeller (344 BAR) - I was surprised to learn that Mikkeller is still a gypsy brewer, with no permanent home. New brewpubs in Copenhagen, San Francisco, and Bangkok serve as their physical footprint, but they still rent out space in other breweries for most of their brewing. Nonetheless, they make for a great fantasy pick, in no small part because of their focus on creating new beers. In 2010 alone, they released 76 new beers, and the pace has hardly fallen off since then.

The downside? Like Dogfish Head, they don't have many individual beers that score that well by BAR or Style+. However, the sheer quantity of their releases makes up for this somewhat, and like DFH, you can expect to see a huge variety of styles in their lineup. I'd give Mikkeller a slight edge over DFH, mainly because I think they'll release more new beers, and that's what you're counting on to provide value.

Russian River (342 BAR) - It's hard to discount the brewery that brews Pliny, but I don't think RR makes for a great pick here. Like Cantillon, they just don't have enough new releases, and their brewers have steadfastly maintained that they aren't focused on expansion. If you pick Russian River, you'd be counting on a couple MVP-type 8+ BAR beers -- a tough proposition. On top of that, they confine themselves to a few styles (which, of course, they do a phenomenal job with), which makes that another category they won't help you in. Overall, they just don't have the variety of styles or quantity of releases to work well for fantasy.

Hill Farmstead (332 BAR) - Hill Farmstead is a relatively new addition to the Vermont brewing scene, but they've quickly become a must-try for craft beer drinkers in New England. The bad news is that like Russian River and Cantillon, they have a fairly limited number of beers--just 66 on our leaderboards as of now.

However, they're steadily adding to that number as they come up on four years in business. While you won't see dozens of new beers like you might with Mikkeller or DFH, they do make up for this lack of variety with a strong Style+ showing: not one of their beers has a Style+ below 102. They likely won't be be a massive plus in BAR or number of styles, but no brewery is a safer bet to release only above-average beers.

Three Floyds (325 BAR) - Three Floyds falls into the same grouping as Russian River, Cantillon, and Hill Farmstead; good breweries that release nothing but great beers, but don't release enough new beers to be a good choice for a fantasy pick. They've been open for nearly 20 years, but still have just 100 beers on the leaderboards. As good as Zombie Dust, Dark Lord and Alpha King are, we're trying to pick breweries that will release the best new beers, and I'm hesitant to advocate for 3F in that regard. As an aside, they had a very classy response to Hill Farmstead taking their #1 spot atop Ratebeer's "Best Brewers in the World" list. If you're drafting breweries based on moral character, take a look at these guys.

Firestone Walker (323 BAR) - It's possible that Firestone Walker's anniversary releases are the safest pick in fantasy -- the last five years' editions haven't been below 5.9 BAR once. Sadly, that won't help until we're drafting for the fall, so the question is whether their other new releases make them worth a pick. They've said that they plan to expand on their barrel-aged series, which is a definite plus.

That said, they generally seem to focus more on perfecting existing recipes, and they don't release something new until they're certain it's a strong addition. You can't expect a wide variety of styles or a high total BAR unless you get lucky with a couple all-star beer releases this spring. Like Hill Farmstead, you won't see any duds, but in our fantasy game it's hard to make up for Firestone's low quantity of releases.

Avery (273 BAR) - Avery is similar to Firestone Walker in that they have several solid year-round offerings, a good barrel-aged series that promises to produce at least a couple new offerings this year, and they rarely produce a negative-BAR beer. They suffer in fantasy for the same reasons as FW--it's just not safe to bet on them releasing multiple winners by June 31. Moreover, they don't have the individual MVP releases that FW does, with their best brew (Uncle Jacob's Stout) coming in at 7.66 BAR. Respectable, yes, but not the kind of value you're looking for with your first pick.

Lost Abbey (239 BAR) - Lost Abbey would have made a great pick a few years ago, as they would have come cheap (with a lower cumulative BAR at that point) and many of their most successful beers were originally released in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Now they carry a tier-one price tag and have slowed up a bit on new releases, focusing more on their existing lineup and producing new vintages of their best beers. If you've got info indicating that they have some new additions planned, then they could make a worthwhile pick; after all, they provide unusual styles and consistently high-scoring beers.  But, as we've seen with other breweries, it's hard to count on enough new beers for them to be a safe choice.

Alex's recommended picks: Cigar City, The Bruery, Mikkeller, Stone

Best picks for variety of styles: Mikkeller, Dogfish Head

Not worth it: Cantillon, Russian River, Avery, Lost Abbey

You can find Alex on Twitter @AlexanderFossi.

Thanks to wikiHow for the header image.

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