Everyone's A Critic

woman on phone with beer glass
Photo by Kyle Jacobson

Is nothing sacred? There’s a fine line between masochistic intrigue and sacrilege toward things we hold close to our hearts. But that’s more a reflection of who we are than who might be contesting the value of pieces we identify with and assemble to establish our assumed individuality. Still, there’s a sense that it’s our turf. I love Tom Waits, and though I fall well short of fisticuffs when someone bashes his creations, there’s still a needle that pinches my skin. Now imagine people listening to your favorite artist knowing they’re not going to enjoy the music. Without a doubt, regardless of the song, they’re going to hate it. But then some music app will reward them with an achievement for wasting their time writing a review. In the beer world, that’s a reality.

Untappd and apps like it have created landscapes for all beer drinkers, from the binge-drinking teenager to the Cicerone-certified cervezaphile, to lay down their knowledge, or lack of, as equals. This isn’t to say there isn’t good in these apps, but how they’re used can sometimes leave other beer drinkers and brewers scratching their heads. I sent a questionnaire to individuals who might help me shine some light on the pluses and minuses of such platforms, and Cicero, Sterling, Willamette, and Dr. Rudi were kind enough to respond.

Photograph by Kyle Jacobson

For those unfamiliar, Untappd, what Cicero calls the “Yelp of beers,” encourages its users to keep track of beers they’ve tried by rating them. When they do this, users are awarded badges. They also get badges for trying new and different styles of beer. On its face, it’s a great way for beer drinkers to interact with one another and stay up to date on the micro and macro beer-verse. But as with many digital treasures, intention of design doesn’t always translate to user application.

“Apps like Untappd basically create Beer Pokemon,” says Sterling. “It’s becoming less about a great beer experience and more about a new beer experience. … That consumer behavior is destructive in any industry, and especially one rooted in manufacturing. It’s unsustainable.” This leads to some pretty ridiculous beer reviews, like people who hate hoppy beers reviewing IPAs. Cicero jokes…half jokes, “If we did a beer called ‘blueberry beer,’ there may be a review that says, ‘This is good, but I’m allergic to blueberries: one star.’”

I don’t like to tell anyone how to enjoy beer, but this isn’t how anyone should enjoy beer. I’m a firm believer in time and place functioning as essential components to the overall experience of a beer. For me, the exact same Stout in the summer on the lake will taste notably different when enjoyed in the winter by the fireplace. Willamette says, “There’s an encouragement to buy a sampler, taste one to three fluid ounces of the product, then write a review.” After one taster, the beer drinker moves on to the next, then the next. In a sense, it’s like going to a concert where you hear 10-second snippets from bands covering a variety of genres, from folk to rock to jazz to death metal to ballet to jingles. No matter how you order them, each experience is going to influence the next. I’ve yet to meet a person who can drink a sour beer and transition to a Pilsner without the flavor being tainted.

Photograph by Kyle Jacobson

So we have people drinking beer they know they won’t like. We have people adamantly gulping through the catalog at different breweries not for the experience, but to review ‘em all. It sounds like the positives are few and far between. Not so fast. Dr. Rudi points out, “It’s another place to engage with people who have tried our beer! … I generally don’t read the comments, or ignore the bad ones, but do engage people who have something interesting to say or if they take a great photo of our space.” In addition, these apps have the potential to inform brewers that there might be some technical issue on the brewing side of things.

And for the beer drinker, they’re places to navigate beer on a personal level. They allow users to keep a beer journal they can refer to when trying new beers or rediscovering old favorites. The potential in an app like Untappd to help engage beer enthusiasts with one another across the state, nation, and globe is there. I think app users would do well to remember that these platforms aren’t there in hopes of being abused and that reviewing a plethora of beer does not an expert make.

Photograph by Kyle Jacobson

Even experts could use a reminder from time to time that brewing is an art. There is the science of the craft, but it’s so much an expression of the individual behind the beer that to ignore where it’s coming from and what’s going on in that person’s mind does a disservice to the product. There are a lot of people on Untappd saying what the brewer should do to make the beer taste like they want it to taste. Sterling says, “If everyone says a beer is too this or too that, it won’t make me change a recipe on something that matched my original vision.” It’s not uncommon to hear of a brewery working on a new beer and dumping the entire batch because it didn’t come out the way the brewer wanted. I remember years ago mixing beers and having fun seeing what profiles worked well with one another. I asked the brewer to try some and he refused, saying, “If I wanted to taste a beer like that, I’d make that beer.”

The takeaway I hope for from this article is continued acknowledgement that we have the ability to put our opinions out there without any filter whatsoever. Whether or not a person respects Tom Waits, Picasso, or their local brewer, I wish them to remember that what artists do, they do with intention. Drinking a beer is access to something intimate that deserves more consideration than fulfilling quests for digital awards.

To the mindful, the appreciative, and the accomplished. May their relationships further our own.

Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.