As the end of a year – and the end of decade, in case you missed it – comes to an end, the internet is awash in listicles – top-10 lists of the best of the year and decade, so basically double the laziness of any given end of year sprint to stuff empty content on pages to grab those clicks. I hate them for a number of reasons, not least of which being that most people can’t explain in any real detail why or what they like about a particular thing or how they come to compare and rank these items. The listicle exists to service and inform a willingly ignorant and often lazy reader/consumer – fight me if you disagree, and I’ll rank all comers based on some random criteria that I won’t name until after the first couple of fights. You see the problem here…
So, as a long-time beer nerd, there have always been some resources I could check on to see what was happening in the larger community outside of my local bottle shop. Beer Advocate and Untappd are the two most people are probably familiar with – if you aren’t, keep reading, and I’ll try to pry apart the differences and why neither one may fit your beering needs, but only after I finish this rant. Hold tight. I’m not really a fan of either, but I do find one much more honest and the other most of a posturing platform for people who think other people should really care what they think (haha you’d think I fall into that group but you’d be…right. Follow me on twitter and stuff…).
I’ll start with the more accessible, Untappd. Pop into your chosen app store and do a search for beer apps and hopefully this will be at the top of the results. In fact, if you just search for beer, it returns as the first item, with many of the rest being oddballs and a ton of ‘note-taking’ apps for the semi-serious beer nerd who actually takes notes – the rare bird who attempts to record their tasting thoughts and combines relative merits to determine an accurate, consistent rating for beers they’ve actually had some time to examine. Untappd features a twitter-esque comments section where you can log whatever thoughts you have about a beer as you check it into your personal history, but there’s nothing to direct users to fill anything out, literally at all, or to limit their musing to the beer itself. I am more than guilty of going off-topic in a description box, but usually after at least 1 legit critical check-in where I record tasting notes and my overall disposition towards a beer.
This is where the two platforms – Beer Advocate and Untappd – start to really show the differences between the user knowledge level and intent of purpose. Many, many, MANY untappd users don’t bother to leave even a single sentence in their check-ins, usually just a low star rating and sometimes, but not often, a picture. You can also designate how you had a beer (can, taster, pint, growler) and where it was both purchased and consumed. It has integrated social features so you can mirror-post to your twitter and facebook (I think FB, I’m not a big fan of the Zuck machine) and you can even tag friends(meaning other app users you’ve friended) in posts, if you think they’d like to know about a beer you had or were there with you. It’s basically a comprehensive, if shallow, snapshot of a person’s beer drinking history, if it’s used in any significant capacity as designed…but again, I find that the bulk of users – say 98% or more – don’t bother to explain their ratings or comment on the events that surround their beer consumption. Most don’t use the other features like where they bought the beer, which really annoys the piss out of me because…I mean…why bother?
I can’t force other people to my standards, but I will explain the benefits I’ve found from taking a brief moment to use this app’s features – not least of which is the fact that I don’t often drink a beer I didn’t like more than once. I hate spending the limited money I have on a beer I had before that sucked, or one that looks good on the shelf but that poured flat and foul. I’m not making big internet money off this blog so I find myself reluctant to spend $15 on a four-pack of some exotic 5% ‘pale’ ale that’s new, when there are other reliable options that I’ve had before in the same cooler section. I’ve spent many many hours standing in front of the coolers at Belmont Station or Beermongers (both in Portland) with my phone in hand, digging through posted reviews and my own history to see if I really want to pull the trigger on a $10 wax-dipped bottle or spend the same on a 6-pack of some dank double IPA from a small place right up the street. When I walk into a place like John’s Grocery in west Portland, I have typically reserved 15 minutes or more to shop for a single beer purchase, specifically because I know I will be looking up my options on Untappd.
The issue I have is that, based on the bulk of other reviews, I still have no idea what a particular beer tastes like or why some rando from Eugene ranked it 5-stars or 1-star. Given my depth of knowledge, I can usually suss out the details based on the brewer’s description (but we’ve all fallen for that bullshit PR flak before, haven’t we?) and a few other details, but rarely can I count on a literal description from someone who has tasted the beer with a critical eye. I could have cultivated a following of friends that exhibit these skills thru the app, and I do have a feed of beers from other people I’ve met along the way to reference, but I’ve really had to accept that untappd is only as much of a help because of my efforts and existing knowledge base, and not because of the other people who use it, which was, theoretically, the promise behind a social beer tracking app.
That said, the various feeds you can tap into – local check-ins, for instance – can help someone in a beer-dense city like Portland stay abreast of the current trends, or watch a beer release from a distance to see if it’s worth rubbing elbows to grab a limited item. I find it’s almost as good as ‘Brewer’s Twitter’ for following these things, but again, it’s still limited due to the…proclivities of a transient social awareness (that is, laziness and a lack of critical analytical skills). It’s frustrating, to be sure.
So, beer advocate has been many things over the years, but it is essentially a web-based forum that branched out into print and other media over the years as the brewing thing got more popular and self-described experts gravitated together for the same purpose I use untapped for…just in a more classic, information-dense, self-righteous sort of approach. Where Untappd is a mobile, searchable database of simple reviews, BA is the sort of site you want to research on before you go shopping. There is no end to the forum sniping, elitist chest-pounding, and trophy-beer ass-kissing on Beer Advocate – it’s like wading into any other content-specific forum (think Honda fanboys and whatever the hell Reddit is up to these days), where the average poster is: Male, mid-30’s with a decent income, a wife and kid, and some need to be the all-knowing wise one on at least one topic, in this case, beer. I am not, in fact, on Beer Advocate (maybe…I may have a profile there from a long time ago), but it’s because I despise my own kind, and only one of us on this here internet is @rightaboutbeer, and that’s me.
Seriously though, aside from the posturing this sort of forum allows, there is actual information on the beers, tasting notes, and the reasonings people have for giving something a specific rating. Scrolling through the site – again, BA is web-based and does not appear to have an app – there is a fundamental difference to the quality of the data presented. There are listicles – always listicles – of the most popular, the highest rated, the up-and-coming trendiest, and whatever other ranking system you might want to reference for your own needs. The content is a mix of ‘editorials’ and user-generated stuff plucked from the forums, so you’ve got a decent depth to the content that isn’t apparent on untapped (which, it should be noted, is also available as a website, but exists mainly as a mobile bingo card for beer, with badges and such).
This is where things start to get murky for a guy like me – an early adopter, a sponge for information, someone who resists groupthink as a rule and is sometimes almost anti-social in my adherence to staying as un-biased as my limited mental capacity allows. Through BA the rise of the Trophy Beer has precipitated the short months-long popularity of new styles and ‘flagship’ beers from various brewers. What I mean is that, via this ranking format and given a platform from which beer nerds can bellow, popular beers rise up and become more sought-after than they might otherwise, simply from a social absorption standpoint. You’ve got dudes like myself that have spent thousands of hours posting reviews and comments on BA, and they in turn influence others’ opinions, and eventually you have groupthink about a particular beer or brewery that doesn’t actually reflect the quality or consistency of the beer itself, rather an elevated consensus that can be manipulated by breweries for their own gain.
For instance, today’s top ‘trending’ beers feature Founder’s in about half of the trendiest leader’s list. The KBS release has been much sought after for more than a few years now, as it has been a leader in the ‘breakfast beer’ style of barrel-aged stouts, itself a developing style of beer that wasn’t much known (or accepted, I.e. ‘Beer for breakfast?’) a decade ago. Founders has been pumping out great beer for the masses, and this article isn’t to critique them, rather an example of what I’m talking about with Trophy Beers. Simply because it’s on BA as a trending beer, more people will want some, more will check it in as a prestige item (badges of honor and glory), more people will talk it up as the best beer ever, etc etc, creating a cycle of utter bullshit as people pursue KBS and only KBS this year, instead of digging deeper to find the stuff that every neckbearded VP-level douchebag has passed over because it wasn’t in a top-10 listicle on BA.
I’ve seen breweries rise and fall on these listicles, and BA certainly has some responsibility for the rise of breweries IN THE MIDDLE OF FUCKING NOWHERE like Toppling Goliath and Treehouse gaining massive popularity because of the Trophy Beer listicle effect. (As an aside, I’ve had multiple drafts for articles on both of these operations, and can’t find a way past my own bias to give either a fair examination, yet. And so these drafts will languish for a while, but this topic here is absolutely integral in the way these breweries have become so popular-g8). It’s hard to know for sure how these kinds of sites/apps have impacted the larger growth of the beer industry, but it’s pretty clear that getting your beer in the midst of these longtime top-10’s can jumpstart your national presence in beer coolers and bottle shops very quickly. I’d wager that even ABI has marketing folks watching these social sites as they ponder their next buyout or big competitor – all that user data is just sitting there, compiled for free from potential customers, who are practically begging to be monetized so they can be the first spotter of the next big trend. It’s kind of repulsive, if I’m honest, but this is where we’re at 20 years into this modern century and about as many into the craft brew industry’s’ resurgence.
Take this article as a think piece, with no real conclusion meant from my perspective to the reader. I want other people to engage more with these forums and apps, if only to help myself choose beer from the bottle shop that I won’t want to dump down the sink (I would never. I give away beer I don’t like). Untappd would be a great resource if more of the people using it would take a minute or two to describe their experience with it. As a user and reviewer (I also do yelp and google reviews, or did, as needs require), I’ve spent hundreds of hours trying to be diplomatic about a restaurant’s overall presentation (how do you describe a bathroom wall covered in dirty grease in a way that isn’t immediately as offensive as the wall itself?). I know it isn’t easy, and there are times when I don’t get as deep as I’d like to – like at OBF, where an intrepid beer explorer can sample more than 100 different beers in a single day with enough money. But the bulk of my reviews hold some commentary on the beer itself.
But what if you’re not a beer nerd, and just want to keep track of stuff you liked without going balls-deep into cicerone territory? That’s a fair point, not everyone can or wants to learn the skills to describe their beer. Not everyone has a dog-eared copy of Jeff Alworth’s ‘The Beer Bible’ to look up generally excepted style guidelines, even if they should (books make great anytime gifts, people). I can’t expect some 20-yr-old kid in deepest Kansas to be able to describe the differences between two mostly- similar beer, for simple lack of experience…but then again, as I’m reading the ratings and reviews of a user, I need something to go on in order to weigh a reviewer’s rating against the others and how much it means to me at that moment. It’s like popping into yelp to see if a place is any good, and there’s a 1-star review at the top from a person who has only posted that single review. Without any commentary, and just a bad review, what have I got to go on? If that single review was articulate and detailed the reasoning behind the 1-star, it’s easier to give that review consideration. I know this sounds obvious and yet these platforms leave all of that interpretation up to the end user, most of the time.
I’d like to encourage more people to engage deeper with these platforms. The more I look, the more room there is for personal experiences to influence this industry. As the money it generates grows and breweries fight over market share, there exists an opportunity for people with the desire to engage in this deeper review style to become leaders and step outside of the beer nerd bubble. Breweries NEED consumer info to decide on their next project, they need honest, legit feedback from people who aren’t around solely to inflate their own ego and kiss the ass of a brewer they’ve never actually met (fanboys are the real problem here but that’s another article). I’ve used my check-ins and many hours talking to people to help grow my own understanding of this thing I love so much, and this blog is the logical, if much-delayed, extension of that desire.
My goal will be eventually to help other writers develop this space (beer writing generally not my blog), but that can only happen if we foster the kind of critical conversations and knowledge base that is currently dominated by a small handful of people that aren’t really interested in sharing the space with others who might steal their thunder. I’ve got an ego too, but I’ve earned it, because I’m right about beer. You could be, too.
Have a Happy and Safe New year. I’ll be back soon with some actual researched items and more about my own beliefs in a few weeks. Thanks for stopping by… gravit8