By Bianca Schlotterbeck
Today's beer industry is dominated by a handful of large macro-brand corporations such as the "big four" brewers: Belgium-based Anheuser-Busch InBev, London-listed SABMiller, Heineken and Denmark's Carlsberg. Between them, they control half of the global beer market.
Still mass-market beer sales are falling in Western Europe and the United States. Only "craft beer" from independent breweries is growing, by 11 percent in the United States, with the number of new brewers globally up by 16 percent in 2011 over the previous year.
|Slideshow: The World's Best Beers|
This is backed up by the consumer experience of the beers. The RateBeer Best 2012 annual beer competition was again the largest in the world—more than 140,000 beers from over 12,000 brewers worldwide were tallied. The contest was open to all breweries including the big players, but only craft beers made the top 50.
Unlike other beer contests, the competition largely involves tasting commercial samples, rather than special batches prepared for festivals. A beer's score is based on its percentile ranking among all beers. Every beer also has a "style" score.
The success of these microbreweries has led to larger breweries lining up to swallow them. In March 2011, Anheuser-Busch bought Goose Island, one of the largest American microbrewers.
Craft brewers account for only about 5 percent of the U.S. market, but that may be changing.
7. Pliny the Younger
Brewed by Russian River Brewing. Style: Imperial/Triple India Pale Ale. Origin: Santa Rosa, Calif. Russian River named its double IPA "Pliny the Elder" after the Roman scholar and naturalist who first named the hops plant and studied it. Pliny the Younger was his adopted son, so it seems fitting for this to be the name of Russian River's triple IPA. It is almost a true triple IPA, with triple the amount of hops as a regular IPA. This beer is full-bodied, with hop character in the nose and throughout. It is also deceptively well-balanced and smooth. However, due to it being time- and space-consuming and expensive to make, it is only available once a year for two weeks in February. The beer has been known to sell out on the day of release. Consumers deem it to be worth the fuss though, with many claiming to have stood in line for hours to get some.
Brewed by Bell's Brewery. Style: Imperial/Double IPA. Origin: Kalamazoo, Mich. Bell's Brewery began in 1985 and has grown into a regional craft brewery that employs more than 100 people in 18 states. Coming in sixth, the brewery's Hopslam starts with six hop varietals added to the brew kettle and culminates with a massive dry-hop addition of Simcoe hops. Selected because of their aromatic qualities, these Pacific Northwest hops contribute a pungent blend of grapefruit, stone fruit, and floral notes. A generous malt bill and a solid dollop of honey provide just enough body to keep the balance in check and make it pour a deep gold.
5. Trappistes 10
Brewed by Brasserie Rochefort. Style: Abt/Quadrupel. Origin: Rochefort, Belgium. Described as Belgium's best and a rival to Westvleteren 12, Trappistes 10 is the top product from the Rochefort brewery. Originally a convent founded in 1230, the current buildings can be traced back to the 1600s. The location started making beer in 1595. This beer has a dark color and tastes of plums, raisins and black currants.
4. Kentucky Breakfast Stout
Brewed by Founders Brewing. Style: Imperial Breakfast Stout. Origin: Grand Rapids, Mich. Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers quit their day jobs and fell near bankruptcy to make the types of beers they were passionate about. Fortunately, the gamble paid off. Founders' KBS is described by the brewers as an imperial stout brewed with a massive amount of coffee and chocolates, then cave-aged in oak bourbon barrels for a year to make sure its bourbon undertones come through: A combination that will "make your taste buds squeal," the company says. Consumers seem to agree, with KBS rated fourth on the list with 100 for taste and 99 for style.
3. Rare Bourbon County Stout (Retired)
Formerly brewed by Goose Island Beer Company. Style: Imperial Stout. Origin: Chicago. Founded in 1988 by John Hall, the Goose Island brewpub was one of the first producers of craft beer in Chicago. Hall built interest in craft beer by allowing consumers at his brewpub to watch the brewing process. The brewpub was successful and led to a larger brewery that he opened in order to keep up with demand. Goose Island Bourbon County Stout was brewed in 2008 and aged for two years in 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle Barrels. A true rarity, each bottle of this beer has its own number and is now permanently retired. Tasters at RateBeer hail the flavors of coffee, vanilla and chocolate.
2. Närke Kaggen Stormaktsporter
Brewed by Närke Kulturbryggeri. Style: Imperial Stout. Origin: Örebro, Sweden. Retired since 2011, Narke Kaggen Stormktsporter is described by the brewery as imperial stout beer, brewed with heather honey and aged on oak barrels for two and a half months. Pouring a very dark brown, it is rated the second best beer of 2012 by those who have tasted it, and described as "liquid perfection."
1. Westvleteren 12
Brewed by Westvleteren Abdij St. Sixtus. Style: Abt/Quadrupel. Origin: Westvleteren, Belgium. The small Abbey of St. Sixtus of Westvleteren attracts thousands of pilgrims from around the world, not to pray but to drink. The monastery is famous for producing what is regarded as the best beer in the world: Westvleteren 12. Westvleteren has the smallest output of all the Trappist breweries, with the monks asking for their beer not to be resold outside the monastery. Introduced in 1940, No. 12 is so popular and produced in such small quantities that the website warns that if you call to make a reservation to buy the beer, it's most likely that the line will be busy. Still, it's an improvement over the old system, where cars lined up for miles outside without any guarantee of getting the beer. The beer gets a rating of 100 by tasters overall and for its style. Pouring a medium brown, with little head and the aroma of dark fruits, it is described by enthusiasts as a complex beer that lives up to its reputation as the best in the world.