Let’s Talk Rationally About: Beer Social Media

I’ve noticed a lot of articles going past my feed lately, focusing on negative issues and trends of the ‘craft’ beer industry. Now normally I’d be all over this sort of thing – I consider myself very much the social commentator and I have a reputation for having the least rose-tinted glasses of anyone in the industry.

The trouble is that frequently the articles are sweeping generalisations about the industry that I think just don’t stack up. Chief among offenders is that glossy heap of clickbait dross the Thrillist, but also a number of personal blogs voicing similar opinions, which I would like to provide a counterpoint to.

So today I want to rationally discuss an assertion I’ve seen several times:

Untappd is damaging ‘craft’ beer.

Originally I was going to say ‘beer social media’ is damaging ‘craft’ beer. I’m going to be discussing this in the New Zealand context (although I suspect what I’m going to say will hold true in many other countries). BeerAdvocate never really caught on down here, and RateBeer is virtual ghost town these days, so Untappd is pretty much it.

For those not in the know: Untappd is a website and app where users can ‘check-in’ beers at different locations, win badges for drinking different beers, rate beers, and share all this info with their friends.

The general crux of assertions I want to talk about is that Untappd is ruining beer culture by creating a customer base more obsessed with clocking up unique check-ins and winning badges than actually enjoying beer (I like to call these people ‘badgers’). Brewers in turn, will sacrifice quality by pandering to the badgers by making endless new and novel beers in pursuit of check-ins, instead of focusing on the quality of their brews.

So a question we need to ask is: are Untappd users just after the kudos and badges, or are there other, less ‘pathological’ uses for the app, and do said users constitute a serious threat to the ‘craft’ beer industry?

Well, I can only talk from my own experience on this one. I use Untappd myself, and I keep my eye on check-ins at Golding’s. Now I do agree that ‘badgers’ definitely do exist. People even go so far as to check-in beers they’ve never had (ask Garage Project about it), presumably to look cool.

The pertinent question here is do badgers constitute the majority (or even a significant proportion) of Untappd users? Whilst I can’t say definitively one way or another, I suspect not. At least certainly not in my experience.

There are many legitimate uses for Untappd. My personal reasons are multiple:

  • It’s a handy memory aid. “I think I’ve had that beer?” *checks Untappd* “Oh yeah, I tried it April last year”.
  • It’s great for socialising. I feel like popping out for a beer – “Hey Dave’s just checked in at Malthouse”.
  • It’s a useful research tool. Who makes a beer, how strong is it, what style is it and where can I find it?
I may occasionally also use Untappd for bragging purposes.

I may occasionally also use Untappd for bragging purposes.

Most of the activity I see on Untappd seems to broadly fit into the categories above, which are as good a reason as any to use the app. Even if that’s not the case, and a majority of users are just badgers, is that something we really need to worry about? I mean, how many people are actually using Untappd total in New Zealand?

I couldn’t find any accurate user data on this question. Whilst Untappd has over 1 million downloads, user data is, very sensibly, confidential. So I took a different approach. I went onto Untapped, and had a look at check-ins of certain beers. Then I cross-referenced them against a section of locations, both nerdy (Hashigo, Golding’s, Vultures’ Lane , 16 Tun) and non-nerdy (The Kelburn Village Pub, Southern Cross, Wellington Airport Mojo). My goal was to see how many check-ins a single keg might generate.

The most check-ins I found was ~20, from a keg of very nerdy beer that was on tap at Hashigo. The fewest I found was none – for a keg of beer that I knew happened to be on at the Golding’s on a certain date. The average though, was about five check-ins.

So out of the ~120 serves of beer in a 50 litre keg, ~4% of them generate Untappd check-ins. That’s nothing; and frankly, I think that’s a gross overestimate. Most of my data was scooped from places that would have the highest number of Untappd users in their customer base. Think about the many thousands of litres of Tuatara Pilsner, Panhead Supercharger, and Emerson’s Bookbinder that are sold through supermarkets and happily drunk without generating a single check-in.

I would be willing to bet that less than 3% of ‘craft’ beer drinkers regularly use Untappd. I would stake that the percentage of drinkers who are ‘badgers’ would be less than 1%. How can such a tiny group of people possibly constitute a threat to either beer industry a whole? It’s irrational.

Furthermore, I think that the whole argument presents incredibly patronising (if not downright insulting) view of brewers. Whilst I know a few brewers who sometimes take their Untappd check-ins a little too personally, none of them would ever compromise on the beers they make in order to satisfy the whims of a minority anonymous of app users.

You know what I think this all boils down to? Technophobia. It’s the same illogical fear that said Facebook was going to ruin our ability to socialise. That texting would kill the English language. That video games would turn us into psychopaths. It’s boring, it’s old, it’s run of the mill.

In the end, we should all recognise Untappd for what it is: a useful tool for professionals, a fun diversion for drinkers, but ultimately and particularly for brewers, so much pointless white noise.

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