The Pocket Beer Book. Part 2: “4 Star” Beers

“It’s a 4 Star Beer”.  

That was how ingrained Michael Jackson’s categorisation became within the Tinted Circle in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. More than CAMRA’s ‘Good Beer Guide’, we felt Jackson’s Pocket Beer guide was diminutive in size yet soaring in scope.  The world of beer opened up in front of our very eyes: smoked Bavarian beers; wild yeast fermented beers in a seemingly wilder Belgium; steam beers from California and crisp, rounded pilsners from Czechoslovakia. And it was the star rating system that made it.  Jackson getting off the fence, stating his view publicly. It didn’t even feature in the main body of the book. Rather, it was so implicit it was the first words – there, on the frontispiece, above the ISBN number and the dedication to his dad.  Here was the key (see photo); the modest table that fuelled my excitement in beer…

A fateful few words at the start of a small book started a personal beer hunt

Jackson was too polite to award ‘no stars’; it was implicit where most beer being brewed back then fell in his eyes.  But ‘World Classic’!  They had to be found; discovered.  And it was a passion rekindled with the publishing of the new Pocket Guide by Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb.

Thus it was that over Christmas, I spent an idle hour or three reading and re-reading both the new ‘Pocket Beer Guide’ and Jackson’s 1986 original. I was interested to see how the top tier of beer  – as the authors saw it – had changed.  I totted up all the ‘4 star’ beers (★★★★)* and the ‘3 to 4 star beers’ (★★★->★★★★). Not the ‘3.5 star beers’ though – I only wanted beers that had attained the top rank, even if they were a little inconsistent either by batch or over time. This involved reading the books a couple of times over – no hardship, apart for the long suffering Mrs Tinted. For those interested in these things, the table is set out below in the Appendix (get me!).  Of course, you can cut the findings any number of ways, but here are the conclusions I drew:

Time is no respecter of reputation.  
Budweiser Budvar, Pilsner Urquell, Hofbräuhaus Märzen, Duvel, Rodenbach, Chimay Blue, Orval, Marston’s Pedigree, Guinness Foreign Extra Stout: all top tier beers in 1986; all beers that have influenced a generation of brewers, drinkers and writers. None rated as such today. Justified? Personally, Budweiser Budvar would still make the grade for me as it continues to display the multi-layered flavour, textured body, natural sparkle and richness of a beautifully lagered Bohemian beer; Pilsner Urquell not – still a great beer, but one that has lost some of that same character that Budvar has retained.  Marston’s Pedigree? Would I have ever rated it is as a 4 star beer? Likely not – when I moved to Staffordshire in 1991 it was, like today, too inconsistent. Orval – still does it for me, but I know the tweaks in its brewing process would count it out for many.

Really, it’s churlish to argue though: the tide is rising. Just look at a small selection of the 4 star beers today: Drie Fonteinen Vintage (a lambic blender, not even brewer in 1986); Mikkeler Beer Geek Brunch Weasel, Russian River’s Pliny The Elder, Le Baladin’s Xyauyù… and these are just the ones with the bizarre and unpronounceable names.  Of course you may disagree with the authors’ choice: but you can’t argue that the standard has risen dramatically; the sheer sweep and vista of beer has broadened almost beyond recognition. Challenge your preconceptions; challenge everything: that is the message.

Whither drinkability?
When working in big beer, I would often hear the refrain from brewers that ‘the problem with all these craft beers is that most are undrinkable’; most have so much ‘C’ hop that they ‘all taste the same’.  The converse if you like of what small, artisanal brewers lay at the door of the big brewers: all their beer is meek, tasteless and unbalanced by too little bitterness or too much sweetness in order to appeal to the ‘mass market palate’, if such a thing exists.  Yet, as mentioned in Part 1, one conclusion is ragingly clear: if you want a characterful beer – one to challenge, surprise; shock, or perhaps to lay down and age – a genuine ‘big beer’ if you will – then you need to ‘go small’.  My old company, Molson Coors, has a couple of ‘big beers’ in its portfolio – one, a barley wine called ‘P2’ is lucky if it is occasionally brewed in the Museum Brewery in Burton upon Trent.  I certainly never see it on sale outside a couple of places**. And Molson Coors are better than most (consider Creemore Springs; White Shield; Barmen Pilsner).

 It does beg a question about the impact of beer writers though: there is a tendency to class these ‘big beers’ as ‘better beers’.  And this trend was just as prevalent in Jackson’s Pocket Beer Book as in Beaumont and Webb’s recent Pocket Guide.  In 1986 for example, 15 of the 67 top tier beers were Stouts (generally Imperial Stouts at that) or Barley Wines: that’s 23%.  Rounding up, I reckon that Stout and Barley Wine has about 1% share of the global beer market – a little more in some countries of course. In 2013, only 4 of the 50 top tier beers were Stouts or Barley Wines (8%) but many others were ‘extreme beers’ – Samuel Adams ‘Utopias’ being a case in point.

So whither drinkability?   It’s there of course – but the nature of drinkability is being rediscovered by small brewers and drinkers.  All great beverages have balance:  take roast and ground coffee.  The best examples have a chocolately roast character with a raisiny balancing sweetness.  Or even blended tea: take a well distributed brand like ‘Yorkshire Gold’, which is more slowly fermented and has a bigger cut – the end result, a cleaner green leaf character, a better colour and more tannin balance giving delightful drinkability.  So it is with beer: removing bitterness or negating hop character doesn’t enhance drinkability, it actually makes it worse – the beer becomes cloying and rather than drinking it, you have to ‘chugg’ it, a phrase which always has an unpleasant edge of fight about it.  And in Beaumont and Webb’s Guide, some amazing, drinkably moreish beers are there: many are ‘above average’ and many are ‘worth seeking out’ or better.

A love story
Reading Jackson’s 1986 book again, there’s a different impression than when I read it for the first time (in 1989).  Back then, everything was optimistic: look at this amazing world of beer!  Now, it’s clear that it was a world in danger, something I came to realise after I started working for a brewery which had 13 breweries (in the UK) when I joined it and three by the time I left.  The 1990s was a time of consumption growth and style decline.  Jackson wasn’t just writing about the beer world he loved. He was trying to save it. Perhaps he realised this, perhaps he didn’t: I only met him twice and didn’t have the perspicacity to ask.  Love it he did though; and perhaps this led to some unintentional biases.  Germany and Belgium, with so many unique styles get the most top scoring beers – out of 10 Belgian beers for example, 8 are 4 stars.  The UK and Ireland seem to enjoy a disproportionate number of the top tiers: Mackeson Stout is judged a 4 star beer chiefly because it is a milk stout; Draught Guinness 3 to 4 stars because it is, well Draught Guinness.   In comparison, the more recent edition is a little more balanced; helped in part by having more ‘consultants’ behind the scenes the authors could call on.  There’s great diversity of beer style and greater geographic diversity too. The reality is that today there are not only more breweries brewing different stuff, but more beer writers popularising it too.  There can be no better testament to Jackson’s work.

The second wave.
There are questions of geography.  Critics of Jackson’s work question the seeming bias in approach: starting with Czechoslovakia, soon moving through Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom.  France gets one page. Latin America just over one. Asia just under two. “It’s a First World bias”, they said.  To me he called it as he saw it.  At the time of writing, Czech breweries were effectively frozen in aspic; Germany was still a country of fragmented independents and the U.S. scene was just entering lift off phase.  Yet Beaumont and Webb have been criticised too, starting with Belgium, Germany and the UK. “First World bias”? No. The reality is this: along with the U.S. these four countries, all widely different in market shape, are the craft brewing leaders. Half of the top tier beers are from Belgium, Germany and the UK. Add in the U.S. and it moves up to 70%. It feels right; it feels likes it is reflecting the world of beer as it is today.

And positively, it is a world changing rapidly.  Scandinavia stands out: all the countries there restricted by punitive alcohol laws even today, yet nonetheless there has been a flourishing of breweries, brewing and interest in beer. Likewise the Netherlands, which seems to be picking up on its neighbour’s creative beery fertility. France too, which although it gets no top tier beers is very much on the up. Beyond Europe, the story is just as true: burgeoning interest throughout central and Latin America, parts of Asia, Australasia – to mention a just a few.  Only Africa feels like it is sleeping.

There’s the question of bias in my selection too: it would also be worthwhile to look at 3.5 star beers – all incredible beers – a category that Jackson didn’t use but is used in the new guide. Some countries are overflowing with them: the U.S., Japan, France – many more besides. This perhaps reveals a truer picture of the underlying health of beer. These are the likely second wave of leading beer cultures in the next generation.

All in all: 3000 beers in one small book from who knows how many?  If you want a measure of the growing health of beer around the world today, well, pocket-sized or not, you can draw your own conclusions from that.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

* See the effect of showing the stars?  This for me was the power of the system – not only reading about a certain beer but seeing the stars break up the page; extend the length of the beer, that was its power:  for example,
Anchor Brewing Steam Beer (
★★★★) or Worthington White Shield (★★★->★★★★)

** One: the Museum Shop. Two: the Molson Coors Staff Shop (which is open to the public)

Appendix: The ‘Top Table’: 4 star beers, 1986 – 2013
(note the table is giving me some technical trouble – if you can’t see it, drop me a line at and I’ll ping it over to you)


The Pocket Beer Book. Part 1: Thirty Years in Beer

It is now almost a generation since Michael Jackson published ‘The Pocket Beer Book’ – 1986, in fact.  It was part of a series of Mitchell Beazley ‘Pocket Guides’ – in my experience all crisply written; all concisely helpful; all pithily illuminating.  And I had other beer books: Jackson’s ‘The New World Guide to Beer’ for one – now, rightly, considered a classic and for many the inspiration to brew.   But it was the Pocket Beer Book, hard backed, one hand high and a thumb length across in its succinctness, that lit my interest up.  It was elegant, erudite and more than a spark to my curiosity, more a rocket. And the real bonus: it was pocket sized; slipping neatly into an inside coat pocket and from there, travelling widely.

IMG_0891Why did it work so well? Every beer book starts with an overview to beer; and so did this. Yet it was not florid in phrase: this version got to the point, and in a few short pages helped the reader deconstruct beer styles; suggest how different beers could work with food (Jackson’s passion) or how beer varied by season. And then off at a canter, in fine-point text, through the world of beer as it was at the time. Then there was the pièce de résistance. The 4 star rating system that added the edge. Jackson said that they were merely meant as a guide and to assess beers within countries against one another; nonetheless, here was a proxy, a shorthand that showed what the principle Guru of beer thought of different beers.

What prompted this harmless reminisce was the publication of a new ‘Pocket Beer Guide’.  Different authors; different publishers; different format. But a pocket book all the same; paperback not hardcover, a little shorter but markedly thicker – three times so – which in itself says a lot about a generation of changes. The authors, Steve Beaumont & Tim Webb have made the decision to stick to the four start rating system – so the beauty is we can get a snapshot of how the world of beer has changed in that time. And so, my research began – I started with the new version, which despite the sheer overwhelming number of beers discovered and reviewed, is a real page turner; then back to Jackson’s original, equally so. Presented here, the main findings.

The tide flows in. It’s fascinating seeing the changes. Back in 1986, Sierra Nevada for example, was still effectively a start up, a “classic boutique” in Jackson’s words. He gave its Pale Ale 3 stars (‘worth seeking out’) and Big Foot Barley Wine 3 to 4 stars (4 stars being the coveted ‘World Classic’).  Today, Beaumont & Webb give Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Bigfoot Barley Wine both a clear 4 stars. More than that, in 1986, only five US beers were judged 3 to 4 or 4 star beers. Today, it has more than doubled to 11 – this may not sound much; but if I had included the number of 3.5 star beers (a classification that Jackson didn’t use), it would be an even clearer illustration of the innovative, inventive and stunningly creative advance of American beer:  the reality is that in the U.S. and elsewhere a measure of the good health in beer is both the quantity and quality.  There are some beer writers who bemoan U.S. beer culture and its quality – claims not without substantiation – but at this level, of beers ‘worth seeking out’ or ‘World Classics’ the rising tide of quality is undeniable*.  It will be difficult for Sierra Nevada, Anchor Steam or Lagunitas (say) to hold onto their ratings in thirty years’ time if the level of brewing and beer development proceeds at the pace it is now.

It’s still about the ‘old world’ – old ‘beer’ world that is. What is striking about the new guide, despite the wealth of detail on countries where in the mid ‘80s there was nothing to write about, is that the creative momentum behind beer still resides in the old – largely Germanic and Anglo Saxon world.  And by this, I include North America and most northern European countries. We simply cannot argue, with the U.S. in particular at the forefront of the ‘craft beer’ revolution thirty years ago that it is a new front.  No, the next few decades will surely increasingly be about the now nascent craft beer movements in regions such as Brazil and Argentina, Austria and Eastern Europe, even Australia and New Zealand. And at the forefront of this Italy now maturing as a country brewing sensational beers and Japan – where the authors scored many beers 3.5 stars but which haven’t yet pushed over the boundary to ‘World Classics’. Their time will be soon.

Large turns small.  Consolidation and acquisition sings out from the years between the guides. And with it the decline in quality is equally evident – particularly in Germany and the UK with brands like Spaten, Paulaner, Courage or even Thomas Hardy’s Ale falling away. The contrast between ‘big beer’ brewed for efficiency, scale and profit and ‘small beer’ brewed with pride, principle and integrity has never been clearer.

Small brews large. The question of innovation is fascinating. I’ve worked on both sides of the great divide and can speak with some experience (and at length, alas) on the subject. But the overall conclusion is this: the focus of innovation for big beer is on consistency; brewing speed, cost reduction and accessible flavour (not necessarily natural beer flavours).  Small brewers are the genuine innovators – and their innovation will in the long term have much more benefit on beer’s reputation as well as the brewery doing it.  And if you want envelope-pushing brewing then you have to look small. Take IPA: a beer style virtually dead 20 years ago. Now there is British IPA; American IPA; double IPA; Pacific IPA; New Zealand IPA, Black IPA – IPA is being brewed in lagering nations, like Germany and the Czech Republic. Equally, you’ll have to look hard to find one of the World’s top 20 brewers making a decent barley wine or Imperial Stout; or any that are aging their beer on wood.

Better burn out than fade away? With all the hoo-ha in beer blogdom with new styles created and old styles rejuvenated (Porter, Amber lager), it’s easy to forget that many classic styles have in the last few decades either remained in peril or almost gone. Take Lambic – whilst there are still amazingly exciting spontaneously fermented beers being brewed, I believe they have been weakened by faux-lambics and a raft of overly sweet mimics**. Or Dortmunder and Berliner Weisse which seem to have slipped below the mire –certainly the quality examples. Another – I remember driving out of my way to find the Rauchenfels Steinbier brewery – but alas, it had closed. Maybe in the world of craft these beers are either not distinctive enough or conversely too distinctive – a little too convoluted, complex or challenging to brew and make a commercial return?

Reading both books made me slightly wistful about a time of personal innocence; before I understood the breadth of beer and was walking into that world wide-eyed; before I had worked for a major brewer and learnt how the soul of beer can be crushed and I lost my passion for beer only for it to be reborn – reborn because of the characters working in beer today and the new wave of brews and brewers making change.  That is the hope that lies within the 320 pages of the new Pocket Beer Guide. Let’s pray that it is hopelessly out of date within a year.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

* Of course, the scoring in the 4 Star system is bound to be highly subjective.   It’s clear from reading the guide that Jackson had a soft spot for some countries and some breweries for example (see Part 2), but such qualms would mean letting the tail wag the dog and losing sight of the bigger picture he was painting at the time.

** On a related note, I find it hard to rave about the main British beers ‘brewed with fruit’, which to me seem insipid, unbalanced and sickly compared with the elegant finesse of a true Kriek or Framboise, which has the boney, dry structure to handle the intensity of real fruit.