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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Video Beer Review #1: Hot Water Brewing Kauri Falls Pale Ale

Let’s talk about beer reviews.

A friend and I have a running joke: if she was ever to start a beer blog, it would be called “This Beer is Nice”. Every single post would be the name of the beer with a single sentence: “This beer is nice”. Alternatively, if she didn’t like it, it would say “This beer is not nice”.

And when you get down to brass tacks, that’s kind of what all beer reviews do. Some do it with more words, some with fewer. Some with greater technical acumen, others with less. But in the end, it all comes down to a subjective opinion on whether someone likes a beer or not (“This beer is nice”).

And you know what? That’s fine. I don’t want to put anyone off contributing to the public discourse of beer in New Zealand. But beer reviews definitely need to be taken with a grain of salt, and a fairly large one at that.

Brewers reading beer reviews should consider the relative reliability of the source. A reviewer who has spent years in the industry, has brewing experience, or has beer judging experience/certified BJCP or Cicerone (I’m thinking of Phil Cook of The Beer Diary and Greig McGill from the short lived Awkward Beer Reviews), will probably give more accurate and constructive feedback than some schmo who’s decided to put their opinions on the internet.

Likewise, consumers need to be wary of taking any reviewer’s opinions as gospel. There are writers out there (like Greig and Phil) whose opinions I regard highly. At the same time, I know that my particular palate is quite different to both of theirs, so just because one of them likes a beer, I don’t automatically assume I will as well.

I recommend either finding a beer reviewer whose particular tastes overlap with your own. Or better yet, try everything and decide for yourself. Be your own beer reviewer. Start a blog even. I encourage everyone to take part in the conversation about beer in this country.

But you really do need to be wary of and acknowledge the limits of your own subjectivity (and I’m talking to the writers out there, both present and future). I’ve always struggled with writers who give reviews without qualifying them as opinion, particularly if they’re using a numerical/star rating.

If you want to assign beers a score according to your own system, that’s fine, but keep in mind one thing: In the end, someone writing “this beer scores 4.3 bottlecaps out of 5,” may sound intelligent, but it really isn’t any more valid than some loon, on his knees behind a table, burbling into a can of Kauri Falls.

Just for the record, I think Kauri Falls is pretty excellent. Ten ‘gurgles’ out of ‘hurgh’. But that’s just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

 

The First Rule of Hopstock

I’ve got to say it: there seems a weird sort of snobbery around the IPA.

There’s a whole faction of brewers and drinkers (this is definitely an issue that goes both ways) who seem weirdly proud of how the beers they brew/drink aren’t hop bombs, as if that somehow makes them a better, more distinguished class of brewer/drinker. Kind of like this guy:

This cartoon was inspired by an actual rant I was given by a New Zealand brewer.

This cartoon was inspired by an actual rant I once heard from a New Zealand brewer.

My theory is that this mindset comes from the misconception that throwing enough hops into any beer will cover any multitude of brewing sins. I can come up with many reasons and examples of why this isn’t true, but I digress (that’s for another post). I’m bringing this up because of Hopstock.

Hopstock, for those not in New Zealand/Wellington, is our annual wet-hop festival, where each of the beer bars gets to host a beer (or two) from a different local brewery. This year it was massive. I mean absolutely huge. Every bar was packing out, and a lot of beer was sold.

Hopstock2015LogoLarge

Now as I see it, Hopstock is a festival to celebrate the hop harvest, and as such, the first rule of Hopstock, and in fact possibly the only rule of Hopstock is:

Thou shalt make a hoppy beer. 

Like all of god’s commandments, this one often gets mis-interpreted. You see, what people (both drinkers and brewers) think this means is that every beer should be an IPA. Preferably a IIPA, perhaps even a IIIPA. This is not the case.

As I see it, there’s only one deadly sin at Hopstock, which is making a beer with absolutely no hop character. And I can name two beers that committed that very sin this year: Mike’s Hopstock and Two Smoking Barrels and Hallertau Bier das Schwarz Massive (BDSM for short… low-hanging fruit there Steve). Now the reason I can single out both those beers, is that although they broke the first rule of Hopstock they were both deliciously, fantastically awesome; so I guess they get a free-pass on that one.

N.B. there has been some debate about the hop character of BDSM. Some reckoned it was very hoppy; I found it comparatively not so. I must try it again with fresh eyes/taste buds. Anyway, let’s get back on track.

So if you don’t have to make an IPA, what sort of beer should you be making for Hopstock?

The simple answer is: anything.

You can make a Pale Ale. You can make a Golden Lager. You can make a Saison. You can make a Stout. You can make an Imperial Pilsner, an ESB, a Golden Ale, an India Pale Lager, Red Ale, a Hopfen-Weisse, even (if you’re bloody mad) a Black IPA. In short, you can brew anything as long as it has a perceptible hop character. Whether it be in-your-face-bitter-and-angry, or a soft, gentle floralness, cushioned by malt, then that justifies using fresh hops.

In fact, this year, Hopstock had some good diversity of styles. Besides the aforementioned Barrel Aged Sour and Imperial Schwarz, we also had a Berliner Weisse, a Märzen, an Imperial Red Lager, a Special Bitter, a Rye Black IPA, a good ol’ fashioned NZ Pilsner, and of course, more Pale Ales, IPA’s and IIPA’s than you could shake a mash paddle at. That’s pretty great diversity for a festival that people write off as just an IPA-fight.

This all links back to one of my larger bugbears, which is people complaining that every beer is too hoppy these days. Frankly, we have more diversity in beer styles available now than probably at any other point in New Zealand history. But whatever (again, that’s for another post). If you take away two things from this post, I’d like them to be:

1. It’s perfectly OK to not like massive hop monsters. No one should ever look down on you. You’re allowed to like what you like and not have to justify it to anyone else.

As long as….

2. You don’t look down on others for making or liking the big IPAs. There’s room for all tastes.

Being a good Beer Geek and citizen of the ‘craft’ beer community means making room for all types of drinker, whether they want a finely balanced ESB, the lightest Golden Lager, or the hoppiest, booziest, highest-IBU-perceptible-to-the-human-tongue IPA.

What I Do When I’m Not Doing This

This bloooog is my main outlet for most the words I stick on the internet. When I’m not writing this though, I’m frequently tapping keys for other publications. For instance, I’ve written a couple of short pieces for the Society of Beer Advocates Magazine: The Pursuit of Hoppiness. I’ve also penned quite a few Golding’s press releases for craftbeercapital.com.

But you know what my favourite publication to write for is? Salient Magazine. Yep that’s right, Victoria University’s Student publication. I’ve been co-writing it with Dave the Beer Guy for a number of years, which means that, owing to the rather irregular publishing schedule, I’ve only actually written a few columns, which can be found here.

Salient can be quite fun to write for. You can take a more relaxed attitude to other publications. on the other hand, you do need to temper your beer-geekery for what you might call an ‘introductory audience,’ or in other words, students, who frequently can’t afford to drink lots of exciting Mikkeller beers or the like.

So far I’ve refrained from crossing my Salient work to my blog, for reasons I can’t quite explain. A while back though, I wrote one that I’m a little proud of, so I thought I’d share it here. My column on extremophilia:

http://salient.org.nz/columns/beerd-extremophilia

I originally started writing about my own love for extreme beers and the way they seem to be looked down on by a certain section of the beer and brewing community (a subject I would like to return to sometime). However, I found it morphing into another, more positive and ultimately more useful column for this particular medium.

For the record, I actually seriously believe that a tour through the more extreme sections of the Hashigo Zake fridge can often be an effective way to get someone interested in beer. It’s a hell of a lot better than pissing-around in the sub-5% lager category with someone who clearly needs a little rock’n roll to get them excited.

I think I might start cross-referencing my Salient columns to my blog. If only for the sake of extending their audience.

That’s all for now.
Cheers,
D.

Three Men Walk into a Bar

As a barman, I meet all sorts.  Customers are strange creatures, and recently I met a trio that inspired a fair deal of ambivalence in me.  I’m not sure how best to explain the encounter, so I’m just going to take you thorough it as it happened.

So three men walk into a bar: an Englishman, an Englishman and an Englishman (sorry).  They walk up to the bartender (me) and pull out a piece of paper.

“Hi there, we’re looking for some hard to find beers; thought this might be the place to find them,” said their spokesman.  Certainly, said I.  What are you after?

He consulted his list.  “12 Gauge” (a strong lager from Leigh Sawmill Brewery).  No, we don’t have it.  Meow Cafe might have bottles of it.  My mind races for an alternative New Zealand beer: tap pilsner?  Liberty Alpha Dog?

He consults the list again.  “Mammoth?”  (Pink Elephant’s strong ale).  Sorry, we don’t have that either.  Hmm, Liberty High-Carb?  I mentally store that recommendation away for the moment.

“Got any Engima?”  Ah, Twisted Hop’s Barleywine!  It hasn’t been brewed since the earthquake.  We had a lot of the Red Zone version of it at one stage, but we sold out a while back.  That beer’s extinct in the wild as it were.  I know of a couple of bottles in captivity (private cellars), but none for sale.  I explain all of this whilst digging around in my brain for a recommendation. Renaissance Tribute Barleywine.  That’ll be perfect!

I’m about to recommend a Tribute, when he speaks again: “Emerson’s Old 95?”  Ha.  I should have seen that coming.  That’s another extinct beer.  Again, I know there are still bottles in captivity, but that hasn’t been brewed in almost two years.  As I explain this, a thought occurs to me.

Where did you get this list I asked?  It turns out he’d copied it out of the book 1001 Beers You Must Taste Before You Die.  Now things are starting to make sense.  That book was published in early 2010.  Most of the writing was probably done in 2009 and the research for it as early as 2007-2008.  Now that’s not long ago in the scheme of things, but with the radical growth of beer in New Zealand, five years ago was practically the Dark Ages.

Don’t believe me?  Winter 2008 was the year Yeastie Boys launched with a single batch of Pot Kettle Black.  They only did four releases in the year following, the second and third being Golden Boy and Kid Chocolate.  The fourth was the second vintage (that’s right, vintage, it started as an annual release) of PKB.

Need more perspective?  Late 2009  was the year 8 Wired launched, with a beer called “All of the Above.” Never heard of it?  It was later re-named ReWired.  I suspect the book would have been nearing completion at that stage, and no one who worked on it had ever heard of the virtuoso Dane, brewing in small-town New Zealand.

Anyway, so now I know what I’m dealing with.  What else is on the list?  Invercargill Smokin’ Bishop.  Well, that’s a winter release.  You’ll be lucky to find it this time of year.  We have no other New Zealand equivalent, but maybe a Rex Attitude?  Harrington’s Big John Special Reserve.  Ah!  If only we had some Double-Barrelled Cockswain’s on tap!  Never mind, an 8 Wired Batch 18 will blow their minds, I think.

Look mate, I say, that book’s pretty out of date.  Let me recommend some New Zealand beers I think should be in that book.   “No thanks,” he says.  “I’ll just have a look through your menu.”  The three of them bury their heads in the bottle-list.

Ok, that’s odd.  Well, clearly they’re experienced beer-hunters, so they know what they’re doing.  Since I wasn’t busy, I grabbed the bar computer and had a quick dig.  Hey mate, I said, it looks like Regional Wines and Spirits have bottles of Smokin’ Bish’ and Big John.  They’re an awesome bottle shop not far from here, I can give you directions if you like.

He looks up.  “No thanks.  The rule is we have to drink them in an on-licence.”  Um… What?  Now I know it’s fun to make make arbitrary rules for simple tasks to make them more challenging; like say only stepping on black tiles when walking across a chequer-board floor.  However to me, what he said was utterly-nutterly-butterly insane.  Isn’t the point of beer-hunting that you go you go out of your way to try beers no matter how you get your hands on them?  I have a friend who once on a trip to Germany, went out of her way to go to Bamberg, just because she liked Rauchbiers.  Personally, I’ll walk across broken glass if I want a beer bad enough.  It’s about the beer, not the method of acquisition: the why matters, not the how.

I was still digesting this revelation when he finally ordered beers: three Rising Sun Pale Ales.  Um, wait, what the fuck?  These guys have come all the way around the world hunting specific New Zealand beers, to probably the best beer-bar in the country.  When they can’t find them what do they do?  Drink imports.  From snatches of their conversation, I gathered at least one of them had already had Baird beer before, in Japan!  Hashigo is probably the only bar in the country that still has Batch 18, but you’re drinking imported beer you’ve had before?

Ok, chill out.  I begrudge no one their tasty beverage.  Clearly these guys know what they like and like good beer.  Except…

They came back the next day and drank Chimay and Rochefort.  What?  Really?  Two (admittedly beautiful) Trappist beers that can be found in almost any beer-bar world-wide?

Alright, fine.  So you know what you want (god-bless you for that).  But readers might see why I’m a little perplexed here.  The point of international beer-hunting is that you go to a place and seek-out the beers that come from there.  Heavens knows I flout the ‘drink local’ ethos almost daily, but if I’m travelling somewhere, I want to try the beers I can’t get anywhere else.

I can’t help feeling like these chaps have lost sight of the wood because of all the pesky trees that keep getting in the way.  They came all this way to not try local beers because they weren’t on an obsolete list?   I suspect a Pokemon1 mentality has take over here: the act of collecting, the ‘Gotta Catch ‘Em All’ has become more important than the actual thing you’re collecting.

I’m going to finish by saying two things:

First of all, I like your style.  The enthusiasm and dedication of going around the world trying beers everywhere is something I applaud.  But also keep in mind that beer is a fluid thing (literally and metaphorically): breweries fail and change hands, new beers are created and new breweries start-up.  Books don’t change though.  The 1001 is fixed in history, so you’re doomed to failure.  You will probably never taste Old 95.  With that in mind, don’t lose sight of what beer-hunting should be about: enjoying good beer, in good places, with good people.

So yeah, keep that in mind.  And god-speed, you mad bastards.


  1. For those mature readers unfamiliar with Pokemon, it was a cartoon/trading card/videogame series where people imprison animals in ludicrously small cages and then sic them on random strangers.  Imagine a blend of stamp-collecting and dog-fighting and you’re pretty much there.