30 October 2019

Reflections not reviews

There has been a bit of back and forth on Twitter this week about beer appreciators / nerds / jerks / wankers leaving bad reviews of beer on Untappd and other platforms; and the relative merits, morals and ethics of doing so; specifically the act - deliberate or otherwise - of ensuring the producer is aware of your "thoughts" and your negative reaction to their labours.

I must make it clear I am talking about a horrible small minority of Untappd users here - the vast majority I encounter are reasonable and honest and realise that their words have consequences. As always with the dark underbelly of society it is they who tend to shout loudest, use the worst invective and as such get noticed more. It is they who this post is aimed at.

Firstly, a word about Untappd itself. Despite the temptation to do otherwise, it should not be taken seriously by any party in the producer/retailer/consumer trinamic. (Yes I took dynamic and made it into a three-way thing, I don't care if it's not a word, I like it.) It is not TripAdvisor. A purely objective review of a beer is impossible, even by the most skilful sommeliers, tasters, reviewers and judges. There will always be an emotional reaction, however small or subtle, to something which is designed purely to stimulate different tastebuds and other nerve receptors in different ways.

This is partly why I tend to be wary of pure blind taste testing; after all, despite what everyone says, you taste with your eyes as well as your nose and tongue. Add in adjuncts such as pump clip art or wordplay and suddenly the experience takes on, literally, new dimensions.

Ah but surely over time through the wisdom of crowds a consensus will arise from multiple checkins to reveal a true picture, surely?

Er, no. You see in order for that to be true, the reviewing abilities of each checker-in must be weighted equally, so we are literally equalising and homogenising every Tom, Dick and Melissa who happens to have Untappd installed on their distraction device of choice. Under Untappd, the newbie and the knowledgeable are the same and their rating has equal weighting. The person who is able to check in 50 new beers a month has the same standing as someone who goes out once a year at Christmas.

Idealistically of course this is a wonderful thing and long may valid opinions be formed from all sorts of experiences, but it produces bad data, unquantifiable data, unreliable data. It produces a score which, on the face of it, is little more than a popularity index. And if we were to rate beer purely by popularity, craft beer wouldn't exist and Carling would win every time.

Add to all of this the differences between Untappd and other review platforms which should seem obvious but aren't. TripAdvisor allows right of reply by those who feel unfairly wronged, Untappd doesn't. TripAdvisor has multiple metrics by which a customer can rate an experience at a hotel or restaurant whereas Untappd has a rating system out of 5 and 140 characters of text. TripAdvisor allows multiple photos as corroborating evidence, Untappd allows one, which more often than not is clumsily shot on a camera phone in less than ideal lighting at a non-specific time before, during or after the drink has been consumed.

Moreover, Untappd is moreoften than not, used in the heat of the moment. How many of us have been snapping away all night with the ratings getting steadily more clumsy as our blood alcohol levels rise?

As for myself, well I use Untappd as a diary and, aside from my first few checkins, have never rated beer. I rarely post anything about the beer in the text box and when I do, it's usually whimsy or something about the occasion or reason I am where I am drinking what I am.

If I do post tasting notes, I try to make them as sterile and as bland as possible to just give anyone reading them an idea of my reaction to a beer. I don't know what mouthfeel is or what diacetyl tastes like. Because, as I've often said, no-one should care what I think. Because I am not a beer judge, or beer taster, or beer sommelier. I'm just someone with a catchy Twitter handle and a half-assed blog. It's why I post what I term "reflections", not reviews. It's a bit corny and maybe too subtle for this polarised black and white world, but it's the approach I try to take and have tried to stick to.

That's not to say that I'm completely benign on those platforms. If on the rare occasion I have something to say about a beer - positive or negative - I am not afraid to say it albeit with a shit-ton of codicils. I will try and keep any overt negativity to a minimum. If I don't like it, I might just say "I don't like it" and leave it at that. Just means I won't have it again. I won't take one beer as being representative of a brewery's entire output or as being representative of how a venue cares for its products.

As for tagging a brewery and saying what they're doing in general or as a whole is bad, or making an overt statement that a particular beer is objectively bad, that seems to be a deliberately provocative attention-seeking dick move and should be avoided.

It also betrays a self-aggrandisation that seems to be contagious amongst the modern breed of beer bro with an Untappd profile and a Twitter or Instagram feed. Follower numbers, like Untappd ratings, are indicators of popularity, not quality. It's all too easy to fall into a trap of treating folk who've been around for a long time as sages or experts when their only achievement is being on the internet since age 11.

There is also a deeper, more menacing thing to consider - deliberate, malicious rating of competitors' beers and deliberate, dishonet upvoting of your own. Beer naturally elicits and encourages loyalty to brands, breweries and beer types. There is no hard or firm evidence to accuse any particular brewers of doing either of these things but when you get breweries with particularly rabid hardcore cult followings - like those willing to overlook racist or other immoral behaviour or perhaps those maybe with financial interests - you do wonder how much of the rating is done in an honest, idealistic manner. In an age where Facebook and Twitter can swing elections, it wouldn't take many sockpuppets to artifically emboss a particular set of beers in a given category over another. Share prices could rocket.

In light of all of this, my unsolicited and maybe unwelcome advice to brewers is, while it may be tempting and enticing to get feedback on your beers in real time from what may ostensibly appear to be an army of mostly appreciative, honest, engaged and conscientious consumers, please do not put so much stock in Untappd, or RateBeer. Look at the only things that matter - the fluid ounces consumed and the pounds, euros or dollars flowing in to your bank accounts. Listen to the folk who are willing to talk to you, not at you. Listen to the folk whose feedback is based on real experience. Ignore statement-making drain pourers and those threatening boycotts because you haven't brewed a new milkshake IPA for a week or so.

I've no doubt a lot of you are already doing this, but, as tempting as it can be to fire shots back on Twitter or screenshot a bad review and pin it to your dartboard, you are merely amplifying something that should be ignored and giving the beer douche who posted it expecting that reaction exactly the amount of attention they crave. After all, every Tweet, every social media post, is a marketing opportunity that should help your brand, not hinder it.