If you're going to navigate the vast, hops-infused ocean of craft beers, you need a suds Sherpa, an expert to guide you. So when Asylum set out to celebrate American Craft Beer Week by crowning America's Next Top Beer, we assembled some of the finest minds the beer world has to offer. Critics, bloggers, bar masters and even a sommelier -- these people have dedicated their lives to beer. Their expertise led us to 12 of the finest craft beers in the country, and you'll see those selections when we unveil the finalists for America's Next Top Beer tomorrow.

Jay Jankowski
As the manager of Chicago's Map Room, one of the country's finest beer bars, Jay Jankowski holds the key to beer nirvana. The Map Room boasts more than 200 different beers representing 36 distinct types of brew, and Jankowski knows the color, bitterness, mouth feel and clarity of each. "When I'm judging a beer, I judge it against what the style is supposed to be," Jankowski explains. He's also a card-carrying Cicerone beer expert -- basically, the man knows his beer. Ironically, though, his first beer love was Busch. Hey, we all have to start somewhere.

Finish this sentence: A truly great beer has to ...
Beg you to take another sip, and another, and another.

What criteria do you look at when determining the quality of a beer? Taste? Color? Pour?
This is very dependent on the style. Cloudiness for example is a no-no for a pilsner, but absolutely should be present in a hefeweizen. Most of the time, though, when I'm just drinking, I say yes, I'd like another, or no, I wouldn't. Over-analyzing takes the fun out of something that should be at the very least fun. Drink it! And if it's good, drink another!

Recommended breweries:
Three Floyds, Goose Island, Piece Brewpub and Hoppin Frog

Joe Sixpack
Long before Sarah Palin dropped his name on Joe Biden, the original Joe Six-Pack was covering all things brewed in one of America's great beer cities, Philadelphia (nice work if you can get it). In nearly a decade of dedicated service to suds, Joe's become one of the beer world's authoritative voices with his weekly column in the Philadelphia Daily News. He's also written Joe Sixpack's Beer Reporter Notebook, and moved his empire online, offering reviews and ruminations on Joe Sixpack.

Finish this sentence: A truly great beer has to ...
Make me want to drink another one. Right now.

What's the biggest mistake small (or even large) brewers make -- the cardinal sin of beer?
Winofication. Beer is the Everyman's Beverage; any attempts to emulate wine (by jacking up the price and making it "precious") are wrongheaded.

Recommended brews:
St. Somewhere Saison Athene, Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, Duck Rabbit Milk Stout, Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald porter, Victory Prima Pils, Ommegang Abbey and Yards ESA on cask


The Beer Wench
Not merely content to be a beer expert, The Beer Wench aspires to be a "beer evangelist." Wenchie, as the familiar call her, is fluent in the Beer Judge Certification Program guidelines – appearance, aroma, taste, mouth feel and overall impression, and shares her expertise and craft brewed flights of fancy at Drink With the Wench. "I have my pulse on the craft beer industry," she says. But she's not above reaching out for a little help. "Everyone knows I am addicted to the Internet," the Wench says. "At any given time, I can post a question about a beer on Twitter -- right from the store if I wanted -- and almost instantly get a response on whether or not I should buy it. The Internet is ridiculous like that."

What was the first beer you fell in love with?
If memory serves me correct, the first beer I feel in love with was Bell's Two-Hearted Ale -- a fantastic IPA from Bell's Brewery in Kalamazoo, MI. That was my very first IPA experience. It was that exact beer that turned me into a hophead and inspired me to learn more about the process of making beer.

Recommended brews:
Lagunitas IPA, Bell's Two-Hearted IPA, Dogfish Head 60 minute IPA, Stone IPA (or Stone Ruination, New Belgium Ranger IPA and Sierra Nevada Torpedo


Marty Wombacher
Like many of us, Marty Wombacher had a dream. And like many of us, that dream involved spending a lot of time in bars. Thus, A Guy Walks Into 365 Bars was born. The idea is simple – Wombacher visits a different bar every day, taking readers along on his 365-day bar crawl. There's no talk of aroma, flavors or mouth feel -- just a dude in search of a decent place to get buzzed. "I'm not a real beer aficionado," Wombacher quickly notes. "I have somewhat pedestrian taste buds after ruining them with cheap beer in my wild youth." Maybe, but his suds-soaked spirit quest makes him an expert in our eyes.

What was the first beer you fell in love with?
The first beer I fell in love with was Blatz beer (believe it or not). I was 10-years-old and my mom let me have a sip from her can. This was in 1968 and beer has been the one consistent love of my life. Just ask all the women that have walked out on me through the years!

Can you actually judge a beer by its label?

You can, I remember in the '70s or maybe '80s there was a beer that had nearly nude women on it, they should bring that back!


The Beer Sommelier
Yes, you love beer, but Matt Simpson is on another level. He's the Beer Sommelier, a man attuned to every detail of your brew, from hops selection to proper fermentation to its ideal food pairings. He is host, teacher and guide -- basically, a beer Jedi.

"Determining the quality of a beer is not only qualitative (interpretive), but intuitive (introspective)," Simpson tells Asylum. "First, I examine the color and overall appearance, then the aroma, then the flavor. What I look for is based on the brewer's intended style, as well and the beer's general impact on my senses. How does it compare to other beers in its style I've had? How does it compare to other beers in general? Is it average, good, or exemplary? Are there brewing flaws? Is it transcendent?"

Have you called a beer "transcendent" lately? I didn't think so.

What was the first beer you fell in love with?

The first beer, from which I had an "epiphany" (we literally call these "epiphany beers") was Chimay Cinq Cents. I'd never had a Belgian beer and this one was astounding - so complex, rich and flavorful that I was hooked. I was in New York, hanging out with a cousin of mine, who ordered a couple of bottles (750 ml) for the table of friends. I remember taking the bottle home, just so I could reference it for later purchase again. I've had several more epiphany beers since then, but nothing's really like your first.

Recommended breweries:

Sweetwater and Terrapin, Alesmith, Cigar City and Three Floyds.