The Most Solid Brewery, For Real This Time

Eno Sarris, October 14, 2013

I love our readers.

Example: When we rolled out the idea of a 'suck percentage' by simply taking the percentage of negatively-ranked beers that a brewery produced, a reader spotted something:

"suck %" is important but treats two breweries with 5% negative BAR, one with a bunch of beers clustered around 1 BAR and one with a bunch of beers clustered around 5 or 6 BAR, as equally sucky. Point taken that you're still gonna steer clear of making a really crappy choice at the beer store, but I'm not really dying to get my hands on a bunch of .5 BAR beers, either.

Point well taken. We'd rather get a brewery that consistently turned out good beers, not one that was just always blah. But what was really great about the comment was not the first half. The second half gave us a better way of looking at the question at hand (which brewers consistently give us the best beers). Our commenter of the week, Mike Lipsitz, with the guidance:

An appropriate MSE analog would be something like "Mean(brewery's BAR) * AbsoluteValue(Mean(brewery's BAR)) - Variance(brewery's BAR)". [Note: the absolute value thing just makes it so you subtract when a brewery has a negative mean BAR and add otherwise]. Higher levels would indicate high average BAR for a brewery and low variance, and low levels, just the opposite. It would also be entirely appropriate to subjectively weight the mean term vs the variance term if you're more concerned with consistency than you are with the level, or vice versa

By looking at the variance in a brewery's beers, we can really get a sense of which brewery is most likely to give us a high-value beer at random. So it was easy as a query one we'd established the better methodology.

Well, there's a little more work to be done.

Because, with no minimums in hand, AF Brew -- with its five (well) above-average beers -- wins handily. That's probably not the point of this exercise. So we re-ran the numbers with a ten-beer minimum, and some familiar names rose to the top.

Brewery BMSE
Brasserie Cantillon 33.24967276
Hill Farmstead Brewery 29.47796521
New England Brewing Co. 16.45779596
Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen 15.46554795
Firestone Walker Brewing Company 12.67979769
Toppling Goliath Brewing 12.59473972
Carton Brewing Company 12.39306381
Maine Beer Company 10.8851106
Boneyard Beer Company 9.814889441
Karbach Brewing Co 9.691724368
Crooked Stave Brewing Company 9.192470242
Harviestoun Brewery 8.454047978
Surly Brewing Company 8.058186012
Founders Brewing Company 7.439236997
Garage Project 7.219031147
Kuhnhenn Brewing Company 7.140151853
Societe Brewing Co. 6.669726398
Funky Buddha 6.581231534
Great Lakes Brewery 6.44571124
New Glarus Brewing Company 6.407802412

All the right names are there. Except there's still an asterisk. Of *course* you'll be happy to pick up a Hill Farmstead beer, or a Cantillon ... if you can find it. They are some of the most sought after beers and even if they weren't all objectively great, the hype factor would make them so. We're not looking for the high-end beers with this, we're looking for the safest of breweries.

So let's up the minimums one more time, to 50 beers, and see what happens. We can actually list all 15 breweries that meet this cutoff.

Brewery BMSE
Founders Brewing Company 7.439236997
Three Floyds Brewing Company 6.101907469
Stone Brewing Co. 2.852690923
Dogfish Head Craft Brewery 2.509914294
Cigar City Brewing 1.446610486
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. 0.460974188
The Bruery -0.397190033
Mikkeller -1.157794321
Rogue Ales -3.271800589
BrewDog -3.799395625
Goose Island Beer Co. -5.378600451
New Belgium Brewing Company -6.336763343
Anheuser-Busch (ABInBev) -7.084933986
Boston Beer Company (Samuel Adams) -7.719535392
Bell's Brewery, Inc. -7.963319152

Looks like, as much as Bell's is a great brewery overall, it's not the safest of beers. And I've noticed this about Mikkeller already -- they make a ton of different beers, and every once in a while you'll do a double take at the name on the bottle as you contemplate pouring it out. On the top of the list, yeah, Founders, Three Floyds, Dogfish Head and Stone? Yeah, I'll take pretty much any beer I've had from those companies.

But we're not done *quite* yet. Because we know how regional beer is. What we could really do is take the second list and sort them into categories based on their availability. Each region, after all, should have a safety beer. At the very least, when you're on the road, you can say -- hey, I know these guys don't put out crappy beers, so I'll take that one, sir.

So, based on the variance in each brewery's offerings, and their general availibility, here is The Most Solid Brewery, for every major region in the states, and Europe (minimum ten beers):

Region Brewery BMSE
Northeast Hill Farmstead Brewery 29.48
MidAtlantic Fat Head's Brewing 4.58
Upper South NoDa Brewing Company 4.38
Deep South Funky Buddha 6.58
Upper Midwest Toppling Goliath Brewing 12.59
Lower Midwest Karbach Brewing Company 9.69
Mountains Crooked Stave Brewing 9.19
Pacific Firestone Walker Brewing 12.68
Europe Brasserie Cantillon 33.25

There are some surprises here. You might expect Dogfish Head, the king of the MidAtlantic and a top beer among the bigger crafts, to represent the region. The Deep South sees Cigar City cede the floor to Funky Buddha. The Midwest features a pair of surprises.

Looking up and down the list, you might actually notice something. Few of these breweries made the transition to the next list, and when you compare 'giants' to 'giants,' you get more expected results. What we might be representing here is the problem of growing pains. When you're a certain size, it might be easier to make sure each of your beers is a knockout. When you get bigger, you're going to drop a turd.

The trick -- and it might be one that separates this craft beer expansion from the last one, which was deemed a bubble -- is making sure the knockouts outnumber the turds by a great amount. We could hashtag that #branding or #analysis, depending on how obvious you find the conclusion. I trust our readers to make the right choice.