A long time ago in a craft beer galaxy far, far away, there existed the ability to simply enjoy a beer without talking about it on the Internet. No instant beer selfies that showed the world what was in front of you. No ability to grade a beer that a brewer had likely spent months tweaking and fine-tuning a recipe for in 1-2 sips. No arbitrary badges or grand totals to achieve. It was just you and your beer. One on one. Til empty glass did you part.
Today’s landscape is different. In addition to a seemingly limitless portfolio of beer choices at our disposal, we also have technology as a drinking buddy. Apps, blogs, forums, websites, podcasts, videos…all these mediums are at our fingertips and play a significant role in our discovery, enjoyment, and opinion of new, artisanal beers. As a beer marketer that has developed and maintained all of the above, I realize the importance each medium plays in keeping beer drinkers connected to the product they love and seek.
Untappd is one of the most popular beer apps on the market. It’s a free download in an App Store or Google Play Store near you and offers several features that enhance your overall beer experience. In short, it allows you to chronicle, or “check in,” the beers you consume with a comments section to provide notes and/or opinions about the beer and assign your own personal rating of the product up to five stars. You can also use their database containing hundreds of thousands of beers to see what others have to say about each product, too. And, it integrates with other social media platforms…which means what you post on Untappd can instantly be shared to Facebook and Twitter and the like.
Recent updates to Untappd’s services allow bars, restaurants, and brewery taprooms to list their tap lineups and consumers to track where their favorite beers are being featured. For example, if you want to know when Pliny The Elder taps at a craft beer destination in your area, you can set up an alert in your Untappd interface that sends a notification to your phone when it’s available. Additionally, you can choose to follow any bar that’s set up on the Untappd for Business platform and receive notifications any time they update their tap rotation.
All in all, these features make Untappd a pretty handy companion when exploring the rich, sometimes overwhelming world of craft beer. But, a seemingly unspoken element of this phenomenon is the culture it has inadvertently reared. Instead of enjoying the beers in front of them, people have become slaves to the application. They cut off real social interaction to check in a beer in hopes of unlocking a new badge. They want to see how others rate a beer before giving it a whirl themselves, for all intents and purposes eliminating the very subjective nature that craft beer is founded upon. They want to see how many beers they can check in in a single session (yep, there’s a badge for that). They’re more concerned about the game than enjoying the experience that lays in front of them.
This feature takes an in-depth look at what I’ve dubbed “The Untappd Culture” and how it’s impacting the overall scope of today’s craft beer landscape.
Anti-Social Social Media
As I mentioned, Untappd has its good qualities. However, depending on who you speak to, its basic function is as subjective as the beer its chronicling. Some love it, others hate it. Some like having a personal drinking diary to refer back to. Others couldn’t care less. Some take genuine stock in the reviews they receive. Others feel those reviews deliver no value. Personally, I use Untappd as a quick reference guide when I find myself in a situation where I’m helping a friend or client explore beer names. But I gave up the check-in feature and quest for the 1,000th unique beer badge and beyond when I realized the act of doing so was taking time away from real-life conversations happening right in front of me.
What led me to this realization was the following story: During Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week 2015, my family and I went to a kegs ‘n eggs event. I knew the former GM of this bar and restaurant, Dave, from events we had hosted together at his locale in the past. He came over to our table to sit and chat after we placed our order. We were in the middle of a conversation and I felt my phone go off in my pocket. Instinctively, I pulled it out to see what had come my way. Almost immediately, the conversation ended and Dave went back to his duties overseeing the floor.
My dad was quick to point out what I had just accomplished: “You realize you just fucked up, right?”
As it’s been for most of my life, my old man was dead-on correct. I was having a real-life exchange with a human being, but an alert that could’ve easily been a junk email or a sports score from ESPN that holds no real bearing on my existence apparently was more important than the conversation happening in the moment.
I learned a valuable lesson that day. When it comes to social interaction, nothing is more important than the person in front of you.
We are a society very reliant on our devices and, trust me, I plead guilty to this as much as the next person. So it’s only natural that we, by default, become over-reliant on the apps those devices contain. In many ways, while Untappd helps us chronicle each beer we’ve consumed, it inadvertently causes a disruption in the incredibly simple act of just drinking and enjoying a beer.
Let me explain by providing a real-life example. I was conducting a beer tasting for one of the breweries I represent at a local watering hole here in Pittsburgh. A woman approached the table and asked what brewery I was sampling. When I informed her, she quickly said she had had one of their beers before. It just so happened I had that beer for sample that night and offered to pour her some. Her response? “Wait a minute, let me check my Untappd to see if I liked it or not.” This was proceeded by radio silence as she scrolled through her phone in search of the ‘motherload’ of information.
To a degree, I can understand this mentality when faced with purchasing a case or a growler. But this sample was free and, all in, was about a 3oz. pour. Wouldn’t it be more fun to drink the beer and find out all over again whether you enjoy it? Who knows: maybe the recipe was modified. Or, maybe your tastes changed. I know people are concerned about “wasting beer,” but I can assure you each one of these breweries can make more. These sampling events are designed to introduce you to something new, something different. If you don’t like it, that’s OK. But I’d rather discuss your likes and dislikes based on what’s happening in the moment versus your check-in from months, maybe even years, ago.
Another example of the anti-social element from that same tasting event:
A gentleman stepped up and asked what beers I had to sample. I explained. He replied, “OK, tell me about this one.” So I poured him a sample, stated the beer’s name, and, mid-sentence, he said “Wait, hang on a minute.”
“OK, here it is.”
He stopped the conversation to search the beer on Untappd.
My objective was to tell him about the beer, some characteristics and flavor notes, and its ABV. Basically, I was at his disposal to answer any questions or listen to any feedback he had. Instead, he found it more important to pull the beer up on Untappd so he could check it in and tell the world he drank it. Not only does this kill the social element that is the very foundation of beer, or any other adult beverage for that matter, but it gives a false representation of your experience with that beer. You’re not enjoying it for its artisanal qualities or the work a brewer put into it. You’re just trying to elevate an arbitrary number and maybe graduate to a new level of badgedom.
Beer, at its core, is meant to be social. It’s a ‘lubricant’ that helps people loosen up, unwind, and be themselves. But burying yourself in a smartphone when the opportunity to discuss beers in an open forum arises is robbing you of opportunities to learn more than an app could ever tell you.
There is a time to utilize these mediums, but in replacement of actual conversation is never that time.
The Untappd Culture at Beer Festivals
Beer festivals have become synonymous with the growth of the craft beer industry. Each offers its own unique experience and gives you a fantastic opportunity to discover beers from breweries new and tenured. At the same time, you can meet brewers, owners, managers, and brewery representatives from each destination and find out more about their business, including what to expect if you visit their taproom and where you can find their beer outside of it.
And, if you’re addicted to Untappd, you can check in 50 beers in three hours!
That sounds ridiculous, right? Sadly, this is the mentality of some individuals who, quite frankly, are doing it wrong. It’s not supposed to be about the quantity you drink. That’s what college is for. It’s about discovering a product you enjoy and can return to in the future. Additionally, it’s about opening your mind and trying new beer styles. You may find something that truly hits home that you never thought would.
I have absolutely no idea what badge(s) you can unlock by checking in a cubic shit-ton of beers in an hour or two, but I have to believe they’re flashy and plentiful because there’s a lot of people doing it. And with those check-ins comes antiquated reviews that not only drag a brewery’s overall rating down, but also don’t deliver an accurate portrayal of the beer simply because the reviewer isn’t spending enough time with the subject matter. Not to mention their palate is off-kilter from drinking multiple styles. More on reviews in the next section.
Earlier this year, I was doing another tasting event where a guest proceeded to tell me, quite proudly, that he recently had checked in over 60 beers at a festival. I’m not sure if he was expecting a high-five or chest bump, but his actions clearly were not to help other beer drinkers get familiarized with the products he was consuming nor stimulate conversation about a beer. They were to unlock badges. This is not ‘social’ media. This is ‘solo’ media and a contradiction of Untappd’s ‘Drink Socially’ slogan.
In researching and preparing this feature, I tapped my friends for their thoughts on this subject and, since my Facebook community consists of folks who drink, sample, podcast, blog about, brew, sell, or just enjoy a lot of craft beer, I knew the feedback I received would be both genuine and diverse. It was just that. But the comment I felt summarized both the anti-social element of Untappd as well as its overuse at festivals was provided by Brooke Franus of Stewards of Beer, a company that helps manage beer festivals and conducts samplings at distributors and bottle shops across the Pittsburgh market:
“I haven’t used it (Untappd) in over a year. I just can’t be bothered. I’m happy to just enjoy the beer in the moment. Who cares if I’ve had it before or what I thought of it. My tastes might change over time anyway. Also, I wish it would include a size reference for how much beer a person consumed before logging an entry (and their “review”). I *hate* watching people log entries for the 1-2 oz sample I give them at events. That’s not enough to accurately judge that beer! It might put a lot of reviews in better perspective if they logged their “meh” as a 1 oz sample that they swigged in one gulp.”
Brooke’s point clearly reinforces the fact that the majority of Untappd users are not using the platform to engage socially about the products, but to ‘beat the high score,’ so to speak. There’s much more to be gained from a beer festival than a couple badges and a new check-in count. Interaction with fellow beer drinkers. Conversations with brewery personnel. A chance to expand your horizons by delving into beer styles you typically don’t gravitate towards.
This is all happening in real life. Not on your phone.
Reviews: On Untappd and In General
I finished up at a sampling event not long ago when I decided to belly up to the bar and enjoy a pint or two for all my “hard work” that evening. My first selection? Fat Head’s Hop Juju, one of the best Imperial IPAs in all the land. Just my humble opinion. Only tonight, it wasn’t tasting like one of the best Imperial IPAs in all the land. It was tasting like Hawaiian Punch. I took a couple more sips before asking the bartender if anyone had complained about the abundant fruitiness in this normally hop-forward offering, to which he replied “not at all.” He replaced my beer with a different selection and, as he did, pointed out the Hop Juju had been running through the framboise line. A framboise is a Belgian Lambic style fermented with raspberries. In other words, it’s a fruit beer, thus explaining the off flavor of my Hop Juju.
I can’t speak to how many other people experienced the Hop Juju in this state at this establishment, but I know I overheard a woman within earshot saying how much she enjoyed it. Subjectivity being what it is, I’m not going to argue. But say this woman checks this beer in on Untappd and comments about its fruit-forward characteristics or literally says, “It tastes like Hawaiian Punch and that’s awesome!” A user looking to have the same beer at another location might see that and get turned off instead of trying it for themselves. Or this same woman tries it again elsewhere in its correct state and gets confused, wondering if the brewery is having consistency problems.
This is just one area where reviews, not just on Untappd, but in general, need to be taken with a grain of salt.
We are all entitled to our opinion. Only today, the volume knob for said opinions is turned way up thanks to social media. We are all within our rights to use these platforms however we desire, for better or for worse. Some people are positive, some people are negative. And you have the freedom to listen to whatever you want to hear and turn off what you don’t via the block or unfollow button.
For my money, other than politics, nothing seems to spark the vitriol in people more than beer. Everyone wants their voice heard, wants the world to know what they’re drinking, what they love, and what they absolutely hate. And, thanks to Untappd, beer drinkers have 140 characters in which to provide a mini-review of the beer they’ve just consumed.
The flaw in this is not in the actual application, but rather the point of whether you use these reviews as your guide instead of experiencing beers for yourself. This is the problem with all reviews.
A common misconception that people seem to have is that brewers don’t want to be called out on a beer. Have you ever hung out with a brewer?! These are some thick-skinned, creative, intelligent-as-all-hell people. Their job is to create art in a glass and they fully understand it’s as subjective as art hanging on a wall. Not everyone’s going to like it and that’s never the intention. The intention is to put a quality product in your glass each and every time and you decide whether it’s for you based on your personal tastes and preferences. And if you feel something is lacking, they want to know about it so they can continue to present that beer in its most proper fashion.
That said, there is many criteria that can skew a review on Untappd, thus giving a brewer and/or a consumer looking for information nothing to truly work with. This list includes, but is not limited to:
– Limited Characters – Just like a tweet, you have to condense and summarize with limited characters. And while that can be efficient, it may not paint the most accurate description of the beer you’ve consumed.
– Amount of Beer Consumed – As Brooke mentioned above, a 1-2oz. sample is really not enough subject matter to provide a meaningful review of a beer. Things can change as a beer rests in its glass. These samples are merely the trailer for a good movie: they’re not telling you the full story, just getting you excited for it.
– Number of Beers Consumed – If you’re sampling several styles over the course of a festival or tasting event, chances are your palate is off and can’t truly give the review a beer deserves.
– “I Don’t Like IPAs, Therefore I Don’t Like THIS IPA” – You can’t approach beer styles you haven’t liked in the past with a preconceived notion that the next one won’t hit you in the feels either. Most likely, you simply haven’t stumbled upon the IPA that is in your wheelhouse and that’ll never happen if you automatically disqualify the whole lot.
– “Not Bad For a Stout” – Again, not helping much. Clearly, you’re not a fan of stouts. But you’re not giving a portrayal of what you like about this particular one. The roastiness? Hints of chocolate? Coffee? There has to be something that stands out that makes you feel differently about this exact beer.
– “Meh.” – Did this beer not stop your baldness? Did it not turn a loaf of bread into a feast for thousands? What exactly were you expecting from this beer? “Meh” doesn’t help anybody. No brewer can make potential changes based on ‘meh.’ No beer drinker can learn more about a product based on ‘meh.’ Stop using ‘meh’ for the love of everything that’s sacred.
The point is this: Reviews can be useful, but they can’t be your driving force. When the subject matter is subjective, you have to make your own decisions and experience everything for yourself. Your favorite beer could be the one I hate the most. The pizza I could eat 3-4 times a week could be the one you cross the street to avoid. But that doesn’t make any of it “meh.” It just makes our tastes different.
No matter who’s providing the feedback, whether it be your best friend or a stranger, whether it be good, bad, or neutral, take it with a grain of salt until you’ve experienced it yourself. Then, use the mediums at your disposal to provide a meaningful review; one that can be used to let someone know they did a good job or what areas they might want to focus on for improvements. When you do that, everybody wins.
In conclusion, Untappd is not a bad thing. It has connected over three million beer drinkers across the planet and given them a platform to communicate with one another about their favorite adult beverage. The medium itself has transformed the beer world, but the culture that has stemmed from it is one that can cripple the way beer is enjoyed. That can change by silencing our phones and enjoying the events, the beers, and the people that can truly impact our experiences.
When it comes right down to it, you can most likely go back in time and reminisce about friendships born, relationships forged, business deals closed, and lifelong memories made with the people you love the most while enjoying a beer or two. And while those moments will last you a lifetime, chances are you don’t remember the beer you drank while it was happening. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
In short: Have experiences. Make memories. Live life. And drink some damn good beer while you do it. Always focus on the people and surroundings in front of you and check your beers in later.