The first weekend in February brought thousands of beer fans to Boston’s Seaport World Trade Center for the annual Extreme Beer Fest (EBF), “the ultimate throwdown of craft beer creativity.” Despite the presence of such ballyhooed breweries as Florida’s Funky Buddha and California’s The Rare Barrel, when the gates opened, the vast majority of folks stormed for booth #28 in the back corner. There they found Tree House Brewing Company serving the first-ever pours of Give Me Truth, an imperial stout aged for nearly two years in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels. Despite the fact that each festival-goer was given a mere two ounces in a plastic cup, by Monday morning the beer had been reviewed on Untappd over 600 times, clocking in with a glossy 4.6 (out of 5) rating.
While wine ratings are now seen, at least by the cognoscenti, as the metric of the mainstream, beer ratings have long been a measure of geek appeal. Perhaps that’s because they are generally user-generated and, thus, sourced from the geeks themselves. Or perhaps it’s because, at this point in beer culture’s development, it’s pretty much the only option: There really aren’t professional beer critics (more on that in a bit), which means that if you’re looking to find out whether a beer is considered “great” or not, your best option is to check how it’s currently scoring on a rating platform like Untappd or BeerAdvocate.
“Even though a thousand people might say a beer is ‘meh,’ I might like it. And vice versa,” notes Todd Alström of BeerAdvocate, the website he and his brother Jason started in 1996 (they are also the long-time hosts of EBF). “So, trying a beer for yourself is always the best method.”
That’s a funny bit of advice coming from a guy who has essentially built an empire based on other people’s beer ratings. BeerAdvocate’s user-generated scores are often cited as gospel amongst American beer drinkers. BA shelf talkers grace displays in countless stores, and the site’s ever-changing Top 250 Beers list has pretty much become a cheat sheet for what beer geeks are rabidly pursuing at the moment. I’ve spent well over a decade consulting these ratings to inform which beers I should seek out—and which I should avoid.
But why do drinkers like me care so much about these ratings—especially when we have no idea who is really doing the rating?
The weekend before EBF, RateBeer—BeerAdvocate’s chief online ratings rival—held their first-ever awards banquet. At the ceremony, medals were presented in such categories as Top New Brewers, Best Beers in the World and Top Reviewers of 2015. Amateur users reviewed nearly one million beers on RateBeer in 2015; this year’s top reviewer was someone named “fonefan” who had logged an astonishing 4,785 of them.
“I love beer with a passion and beleive [sic] there is no such thing as a bad beer, so if you like it, drink it and don’t let someone elses [sic] opinion keep you from trying something new,” he writes on his RateBeer user page.
Fonefan is actually Jan Bolvig, a 55-year-old Danish business owner who enjoys frequenting beer festivals and tasting events. At each, he typically sips a couple ounces of countless new beers, then meticulously records his tasting notes to later enter on RateBeer’s website. He has reviewed over 40,000 beers since he first joined the site in 2006. (Yes, he’s a ticker par excellence.) Fonefan’s reviews are downright thorough 200-word dispatches that touch on each beer’s color, aroma, body, texture and, of course, flavor. These reviews aren’t exactly poetic (“Body is medium, texture is oily to watery, carbonation is soft”), but they do give fellow users a bare-bones account of what they might want to know.
RateBeer’s executive director Joe Tucker thinks people like Bolvig offer ratings that are every bit as good as any professional’s. “The person whose opinion meant the very most in wine, Robert Parker Jr., would sit down to taste 400 wines in a single sitting,” Tucker told Hot Rum Cow in 2014, back when Bolvig was at a mere 30,000 reviews. “So when people say the quality of what our raters are producing isn’t good, I think it probably is pretty good. Or as good as what counts as the best possible opinion in the wine world.” This amounts to a pretty heavy dose of flawed logic: Quickly rate a ton of beer samples and you, too, can become the next Parker!
Robert Parker Jr. of The Wine Advocate, who is indeed the world’s most famous professional wine critic, popularized the 100-point scoring system that greatly influenced wine purchasing (and making, for that matter). But a new generation (and a growing chunk of the former) is maturing beyond this scoring system. In fact, many believe it misses the point of wine discourse altogether, treating bottles more like consumer appliances—which is fitting, considering Parker actually started The Wine Advocate in the late 1970s with the intention of it being nothing more than a consumer guidebook. If wine drinkers are outgrowing this particular shorthand of ratings, they now seem to care more about in-depth criticism.
As of yet, no user-generated app or ratings site has taken off in the wine world the way Untappd has amongst beer drinkers. Sure, there’s CellarTracker, with over 410,000 users, and Delectable, which is popular amongst an important portion of the wine crowd (including critics, sommeliers and winemakers, who are identified by name), but those ratings don’t carry the same weight in the wine world as, say, a BeerAdvocate or Untappd rating does in beer. The spirits world has a few crowd-sourced ratings systems of its own, most notably Distiller, but with 200,000 downloads it’s still minuscule compared to Untappd, which currently touts three million users and over 255 million beer check-ins.
“We hope that we take a big part in telling users if a beer is good both with overall ratings [and] with the social data of their friends,” explains Greg Avola, one of Untappd’s co-founders. “[Users] can look at both ratings from the community, but also segment them into ratings from just their friends.”
Of course, the beer world’s reliance on this insular, friendly world of user ratings inherently has its own problems, which have, of late, lead to a backlash amongst more seasoned drinkers.
The biggest problem is that limited releases generally tend to get rated better than more mainstream offerings. Tree House’s beers absolutely dominate the ratings websites, which is one reason why they’ve had such a meteoric rise to success. The same thing holds true for breweries like Decorah, Iowa’s Toppling Goliath and Greensboro Bend’s Hill Farmstead—small-town breweries making great beer, sure, but fairly limited beer as well. Those three breweries nevertheless account for a total of 40 beers on BeerAdvocate’s top 250, a number that seems unfathomable considering there are over 10,000 other breweries in the world. In clear cases like this, where it is so obvious that rarity is causing a bias, perhaps the beer world could better benefit from the maturity and seasoned palate of a professional critic.
“Why don’t major food publications have full time beer critics?” asked Almanac Beer’s co-owner Jesse Friedman last year in an op-ed for Eater. “An expert who can decode all of the complicated, jargon-laden beer-terminology to customers, and help imbibers sort good beer from bad.” When I asked John Holl, the editor-in-chief of All About Beer, about this at a recent beer festival, he was almost offended. As the editorial head of America’s longest-running beer magazine, he believes he has published plenty quality criticism from such industry luminaries as Charlie Papazian and Ray Daniels. He fondly recalls the days when the British writer Michael Jackson loomed so large, his criticism helping introduce the world to breweries like Dogfish Head and The Lost Abbey.
“He died in 2007, and the beer world has grown so rapidly since then, it’s almost tough to accurately remember where things were a decade ago,” Holl notes. “I think if he was still alive, he’d be a great force, and brewers around the world would be seeking his opinion, but he’d have the same problem that the rest of us do—keeping up with all the change and new brewery entrants.”
Professional beer criticism remains somewhat of a rarity, certainly on a mainstream scale. And I think that’s mainly because of the esprit de corps that American craft beer was initially built on and still prevails today. Craft beer attempts to portray itself as one happy family, with brewers drinking with bar owners drinking with writers. I personally count many brewers as actual friends. It’s not unethical; it’s life. But I also know many beer writers and would-be beer critics who have no interest in actually reviewing their friends’ work, for fear of angering them.
Don’t believe me? When Will Gordon, ostensibly a beer critic for sardonic sports website Deadspin, had the audacity to criticize the much-acclaimed Cantillon brewery last year, beer geeks went after him on social media, including Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead, who tweeted that he was “annoyed by (the) beer ‘industry’ and the people that ‘work’ without really working at all.” (Gordon’s response to the haters was a pointed “I’m a fucking REVIEWER, man, not a cheerleader. Sometimes reviews are negative.”)
In order for professional critics to embed in beer culture, there first has to be a belief that real criticism, even if it doesn’t always favor you, moves the industry forward. But that kind of discourse might still be a ways away from mainstreaming. When I asked Alström, of BeerAdvocate, if beer needed more professional critics, he offered a swift and blunt, “Hell fucking no.”