Discover more from Hugging the Bar
57. Please Give This Issue Five Bottle Caps
Yes, we're talking about Untappd; plus tarot to remind you it's okay to ask for help--and enjoy discounted beer.
Breaking News: An App Where People Say a Lager Is Bad Because They Don’t Like Lager Is Maybe Not Great!
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how Instagram may be “not bad for, but a less than ideal, let’s say partner for craft beer?.” There were things there I wanted to address, but in doing so, something kept nagging at me, which is that there is another app that arguably has an even more direct relationship with craft beer, and that, in certain aspects, is much more immediately impactful to players in the industry. That app, of course, is Untappd.
In March of last year, I wrote about Untappd’s history and impact on craft beer for VinePair in the wake of the app’s co-founder Gregory Avola stepping down from his role as CEO. In talking to Avola, brewery owners and/or brewers, beer writers, and Untappd users, I explored both the negatives and positives—because sure, there are indeed positives—of this platform. I come back to the topic of Untappd here in the newsletter not under the motivation of, “ugh, journalism and all of its ethics and stuff forced me to be objective when what I really want to do is a hatchet job!,” because, again, Untappd is not all bad. I come back to it here because there’s more to say, and when it does come to the app’s less positive consequences in the craft beer industry, yes, frankly, I can express more of my personal ~thoughts and feelings~ here.
So, in the interest of fairness or a sort of good sportsmanship-like handshake before the match, let’s talk good stuff. First of all, I buy Avola’s explanation of why and how Untappd came to be. When we spoke for the VinePair story, he told me about coming to this not from the vantage point of an experienced beer drinker but from one of wanting to foster community, creating the convivial atmosphere of a bar, but on your phone, so you can get that connection with anyone, anywhere, no matter where you are. Obviously, that’s a concept that came in real handy when Covid hit, years after Avola launched Untappd with co-founder Tim Mather. I think that if Untappd were to function in some idealized manner, uncorrupted by the interaction of anyone who doesn’t approach every beer style with an open mind, it would be a great tool. A Utopian form of Untappd would remove barriers of entry, allowing anyone to learn of a beer anywhere in the world, and discuss said beer with fellow everyday drinkers, without language that proves inaccessible to anyone not studying for Cicerone certification—but with language that still fosters a meaningful sense of discovery.
Untappd can also be a handy little personal beer journal. The Untappd users I spoke with for VinePair story interacted far less with public ratings, instead using the app to track what they drank for their own reference, whether they were professionals needing to look back at certain beers for stories they were writing or just wanted to remember what they’d had and liked when looking at a bar menu or grocery store shelf. Some even mentioned liking the nostalgia of scrolling through their beer logs, like a concise little scrapbook of their craft beer journey.
But. That’s certainly not how all Untappd users utilize the app, is it? And Untappd indeed does not function in that aforementioned idealized fashion, does it? Untappd’s biggest, er, contribution to the craft beer industry is that it encourages hundreds of thousands (it’s difficult to find an actual, updated number of users; Untappd likes to provide stats like “cities with the most check-ins” instead…) to drink a beer and smash a number of stars onto their phones like drunken toddlers on a power trip.
Untappd did not invent the concept of a public forum where people could review beers. I know my personal craft beer journey was guided along by BeerAdvocate (now owned by Next Glass, alongside Untappd) and RateBeer. Obviously, like literally any public forum, there were misinformed and even problematic and just plain silly comments to wade through, but these sites largely existed for people to really unpack what they were seeing, smelling, and tasting. They were certainly not all the way there but closer to that idealized Untappd function, where anyone anywhere could log on and actually learn about any beer, and share their own thoughts. Beers were often judged according to their style: was this a good Belgian Golden Strong Ale? This is as opposed to Untappd, where explanations for why you’re giving a beer up to five bottle caps are not only not par for the course, they’re almost non-existent. And when they do appear, they’re maddeningly often along the lines of, “I don’t like saisons” for a one-star rating on a saison.
Public discussion is a good thing. Accessibility is a good thing. Discovery is a good thing. Anything that comes out into the world is up for debate, critique, constructive criticism…but there’s a line, and do you know where that line is? When you have an app that allows users to rate people’s hard work, work on which their livelihoods and their employees’ livelihoods depend, with zero explanation and therefore zero guardrail against personal biases—and then, you give that app an incredible amount of power and sway in the industry it rates without an ounce of serious consideration.
This dynamic feeds into two major consequences. The first is cultural. Ticker-cultural, to be exact. You don’t need me to go into this here; it’s been well covered in the past. Check out Aaron Goldfarb’s “Note to Craft Beer Fans: ‘It’s O.K. to Drink the Same Beer Twice’” for VinePair and Kate Bernot’s “Tyranny of the Tickers — How Untappd Ratings Became Craft Beer’s Most Fickle Prize.” Essentially, as folks I talked to for my VinePair story brought up, too, Untappd also did not invent ticker culture. I mean, hey, a lot of us started out getting into craft beer fueled by a desire to get our hands on as much as we could. It starts out as interest and curiosity, but it gets more feverish the deeper you get, and then it mingles with our very American need to feel like we’ve dominated something instead of just enjoying it, and the phenomenon of bragging about snagging rare finds that social media hoisted up onto a pedestal.
Untappd didn’t start the fire, and didn’t even stoke it alone (looking at you, Instagram), but boy-oh-boy did it streamline it, motivate it, and make it easier and more appealing to many craft beer drinkers than ever before. This is where we start to get into the whole “gamification” effect that always comes up in conversations about Untappd. “Ticking” beers off a list you made in your notebook was once quaint, especially when it used to take real legwork tracking those beers down—you were bound to savor them at least a little. Now that you can trade with any Tom, Dick, or Hazeboi through a simple #ISO post, or order beers through certain delivery services, how much more is the whole shebang just about hammering in a performatively jaded three-cap rating on Untappd for so many people? And before you ask, “Who is that hurting?” let me remind you that the manic gamification of ticker culture makes it ten times as difficult for your average brewery to stay afloat unless they can somehow relentlessly churn out new beers at a breakneck speed, and unless those beers all meet the Untappd masses’ approval, which means they’ve quite often got to be the haziest and hoppiest IPAs, the slushiest and fruitiest smoothie sours, or the most candy-like and booziest pastry stouts.
This whole phenomenon cranks up the heat on so many breweries while simultaneously stifling the possibility of variety and creativity. Last week, I talked about what great variety you see on the tap lists of breweries in New Orleans, and sure, I can sit here and name plenty of other breweries in plenty of other cities with very eclectic menus, menus that refuse to bow to the “haze rules everything around me” decree. But let’s be real, it’s harder to do that—you’d better be damned sure you’ve got a crowd thirsty for those grisettes. Of course, if you’re a brewery who feels like you’ve got to submit to the Untappd raters, you’d also better be damned sure you can make a fantastic hazy IPA that manages to surprise and delight that guy Evan who always comes into your taproom and has coordinating “Riwaka” and “Idaho 7” tattooes on his forearms.
This is the second of the major consequences, which is that Untappd absolutely fucks with a brewery’s bottom line. For the Good Beer Hunting story I linked to above, Kate Bernot reports on examples of this like two separate potential business partners deciding not to work with 2nd Shift Brewing based on Untappd scores and a UK festival uninviting a UK brewery after realizing its scores were lower than other breweries pouring. (Interestingly, that UK brewery then also admitted to using Untappd ratings to decide whether to collaborate with other breweries—a vicious little web this app has woven!) You’ll see Untappd scores in beers’ product descriptions on delivery services’ websites, and we know that retailers and bar buyers use Untappd as a research cheat code. But if you’re a brewery not doing this whole “make more hazies to feed the hypebeast” song and dance, you could be making absolutely beautiful altbiers that will tank your business opportunities because they’re getting two-bottle-cap scores.
Not only are people who publicly rate beers on Untappd so frequently rating solely based on their own beer style preferences instead of what the style is supposed to be, but as we know from literally anything else in this here internet age, the anonymity of all this empowers trolls at worst and creates a safe little confrontation-free cushion for everyone else at best. Steve L. in Iowa isn’t considering the future of your brewery when he rates your fantastic brown ale with one bottle cap—Steve L. in Iowa doesn’t give a shit.
“I’ve been in the food and beverage industry since [I was] 16 in some form or another and never liked user-generated sites like Yelp or Untappd based on, well, how the public can humiliate others rather than lift them up,” beer journalist and marketer Samer Khudairi told me. “Not to mention that Untappd, like all social channels, are just data collectors. So people should be more critical in using these platforms in understanding that they exist solely on users’ unpaid work.”
Samer shared more with me in our Twitter DM conversation, too, about how in Untappd’s early days, its moderators were volunteers. Where then would the structure be, the best practices, those guardrails for personal biases? You have unpaid people moderating unpaid user-generated content.
These objective, seemingly arbitrary bottle-cap scores don’t do beer drinkers any favors, either. You’re not really learning anything on this app, are you? You’re not getting any useful information, no truly helpful feedback on whether that porter is actually a good porter or not. This is also bad for beer! But worse, of course, for the breweries for which it stifles creativity and even makes survival more difficult.
To throw Untappd another credit bone, I’m sure there are plenty of helpful functions if you’re running a taproom or beer bar. Or maybe there just aren’t enough alternatives? I’m purely speculating, but at least it seems to facilitate streamlined menu management, especially if your taps have got high turnover. And sure, you could look at Untappd scores to gauge how patrons are liking your offerings, but then we end up back at the objectivity, too-often-lacking explanations, and cloak of anonymity, don’t we? Beer and hospitality writer and consultant Courtney Burk shared this with me on Twitter about her experience with Untappd when managing a bar taproom:
“[I] hate the idea of consumers rating anything, ever. But [I] found some joy in seeing a low rating come through, finding the person, and asking about their experience with the beer. Oftentimes they'd say everything was great. When I asked why they rated the beer so low, they would always stare open-mouthed at the accountability of it. Most users have zero clue the impact something so ‘small’ has. Especially the ones that ‘never give anything five stars.’”
See that? Maybe Courtney is really good at finding silver linings, and maybe we have here a positive hopelessly tangled with a big, fat negative. You can see feedback but it’s not even reliable until you use it to start irl conversations with these patrons. And then those patrons have to tell on themselves! And there’s a whole type of Untappd user who just won’t give anything five stars because they’re so goddamned cool! Excuse me while I allow my head to explore for just a moment.
I also heard from a few folks that Untappd is just not a user-friendly app, which I totally believe and so feel is worth mentioning but I know nothing about…what would you call that, technology? Programming? Idk. So I won’t get into that. I don’t think I need to. Unless Untappd becomes a more user-friendly app that is really just for personal beer-tracking and/or actively fosters meaningful discovery, it’s just not the craft beer industry’s friend. And when it comes to the craft beer-gulping public on there rating things, this is yet another thing we’ve got to start shouting about in the hopes that literally anyone understands…or cares.
This week, I pulled the Five of Pentacles.
Pentacles as a suit speaks to money, property, and achievement. Especially after last week’s message of chaos and disaster, I am…uh…sorry to report that the Five of Pentacles is about loss, poverty, isolation, and worry or anxiety or dread. Of course we are worrying and dreading and anxiety-ing, look at the world! Look at these mean tarot messages!
So, the Five of Pentacles comes up when you’ve had any sort of financial loss—job loss, business troubles, emergency home or car fixes, medical bills, etc. It’s rocked you in some way. But it can also mean that just something, even if not specifically financial, has come in and capsized your sense of security and stability, and so has created an urgent situation, and you feel isolated. That’s a big takeaway here—you need help and are wondering why it hasn’t yet appeared. I know it’s tough, but the only way that help is going to show up is if you ask. Help is absolutely out there, but your friends or family members or co-workers don’t know you need it because maybe you’ve done a great job hiding that not everything is super great right now. Remember that people want to help you, but everyone’s got their own messes going on, so you’ve got to raise a flag and sound the alarm to get their attention. Take comfort in knowing you can find support if you’re just vocal about it, and also, remember another important message from this card: don’t let whatever this situation is throw you off your course. Shit happens, but only let it screw up your now and not your forever. Yeah, life is short, but life is also long, and there are loads of ups and downs—you can probably see a whole mountain range when you look back, of times things tanked and times things were great. So, once you get your help, try your best to move forward because that’s the only way you get to Better Times.
I know this is going to seem like an #ad, especially considering I work with TapRm on content, but I promise this is my own authentic recommendation because it just makes too much sense here: TapRm has a “Deals & Steals” section where cans are just a buck and fancy bottles are $5. It’s the site’s way of keeping that inventory cycling out to keep things fresh, and if the Five of Pentacles is rocking your financial world right now, this is a super helpful way to keep enjoying some craft beverages for much less than you’d normally have to shell out.
This Week’s Boozy Media Rec
I love mezcal. I love it so much that it recently occurred to me that I actually want and need to start learning more about it. Up until now, I’ve always ordered based off of bartenders’ recommendations, which I don’t want to stop doing all together because it always leads to a nice little chat—but I definitely want to have a better understanding of what I’m ordering and why. Another thing I love is the work of brilliant drinks writer Emma Janzen (who literally wrote the book on mezcal!). So, it’s no surprise that reading her piece for Good Beer Hunting, “Slow, Reflective, Quiet — Meditations on Mezcal in San Baltazar Guelavila,” was a dream. Read it to learn more about mezcal and develop a better appreciation and understanding of its traditions and why they must be protected, and also read it to feel totally transported to an artisanal, fifth-generation family-run distillery outside the center of Oaxaca.
Ex-BEER-ience of the Week
This month’s Pink Boots meeting here in NYC was at Bronx Brewery, which means I ventured up to the Bronx for maybe only the second or third time since graduating from Fordham—the meeting was a great excuse to finally check out this brewery that I’ve long loved the beer from (and have gotten to get to know a bit better through their newer location in the East Village). I spoke on a panel about different careers in beer, you know, other than brewing, which was a wonderful experience for many reasons: I was honored to sit up there next to incredible women doing incredible things who I very much admire, I got to have great conversations with so many of this chapter’s just simply awesome members, and I got to drink a smoked kölsch-style ale with honey, which was fantastic. If you can, go try the Habibx, which by the way benefits the important cause of Callen-Lorde.
Until next week, here is Darby basking at Source Brewing.