Tap Lines: What Does Rating App Untappd Really Say About Maine Beer?

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Bissell Brothers Swish is one of the highest rated beers on the Untappd app. Photo courtesy of Bissell Brothers Brewing Co.

The drinkers have spoken, and the best beer in the state is Maine Beer Co.’s Dinner, with Bissell Brothers’ Swish snapping at its heels. Or at least that’s what the “records” on the Untappd beer rating app would tell us.

If you’ve ever noticed someone taking a picture of their beer in a brewery tasting room, chances are that person is logging onto Untappd. But the mobile app isn’t just a place to rate beer; it’s also a form of social media (the app’s tagline is “Drink Socially”), where drinkers “befriend” each other and can follow the beers those around them are drinking. According to a 2020 blog post by Untappd co-founder Greg Avola, there were approximately 820,000 unique users worldwide who had registered at least once (user numbers for Maine are not shown). available).

Top rated beers on the Untappd app within 25 miles of Portland. Photo by Ben Lisle

What Maine beers do Untappd users enjoy the most besides Swish and Dinner? Scan through the list of top-rated beers within a 25-mile radius of Portland and you’ll notice a trend: the top 17 are all IPAs.

Sure, there are some great beers here, including stalwarts like Goodfire Prime, Maine Beer Co. Lunch, Bissell Substance, and Orono Tubular. Relative newcomer Belleflower offers its own three delicious misty IPAs.

But it’s also certain that this portrait of Maine’s beer scene is very distorted – a funhouse mirror that all but obliterates the remarkable breadth of expertise and depth of beer culture here. As with any social media application, users create most of the content, for better or for worse. And so, the Untappd universe is hardly a portrait of the world as it is, but a narrow, twisted representation of that world (in this case, a fuzzy IPA utopia, which is not inaccurate, but grossly reductive ).

Just about any beer you’re likely to drink has a profile on Untappd, where you’ll find an array of beer information, including a description, its ABV, and IBUs (a measure of bitterness) ; how many check-ins you, your Untappd friends and all app users have made with the beer; the evaluations of these recordings; places where you can find it; user tasting notes; an option to add it to a self-created “list” and scrolling through the most recent recordings from around the world.

Elsewhere on the app, users can search for breweries via a map feature, search for “trending beers” at different geographic scales, and find lists of top-rated beers and breweries (based on Untappd user ratings).

Untappd was founded in 2010, and its rise has roughly paralleled the explosion of breweries across the country. According to the Brewers Association, there were 1,813 breweries in the United States in 2010, rising to 9,247 in 2021. The number of breweries in Maine, fueled by regulatory changes in 2011 that allowed breweries to sell their beer for on-site consumption from tasting rooms, has grown from 34 in 2011 to 165 this year, according to the Maine Brewers Guild.

This is not the first beer review platform. The websites BeerAdvocate (founded in 1996) and RateBeer (founded in 2000) have long supported communities of online beer drinkers, including ratings and reviews of specific beers. These tend to be qualitative – often lavishly – describing appearance, aroma, body, flavor and finish.

But on Untappd, the vast majority of check-ins simply rate the beer numerically (on a scale of 1-5, in quarter-point increments), with no explanation. The biases of Untappd drinkers are clear from just a glance at ‘trend beers’ (which can be searched by distance and style). These tend to be, predictably, pastry stouts, pastry sours, and those hazy IPAs. In other words, beers with strong and intense flavors. It is indeed rare to find more delicate or subtle beers with scores higher than 4.

Even so, some industry players take these ratings very seriously and use them to shape their own decision-making. In a 2021 story for Good Beer Hunting, about the app and its influence, Kate Bernot reported on a number of episodes in which potential partners – like delivery apps, distributors, bars and even festivals – refused to work with breweries due to perception. be inadequate untapped notes.

What is the relationship between local breweries and the app? Gene Buonaccorsi, director of marketing at Mast Landing Brewing Co., said, “We don’t spend a lot of time focusing on it, but we see it as an extension of our brand in small ways.” Untappd can be a drinker’s first encounter with the brewery, so most breweries – especially larger ones – check that their beers are properly cataloged on the app.

“As for the ratings, we look at them, but with a grain of salt,” Buonaccorsi said. “It can be a really good indicator of what resonates with the public”, and the brewery can “get an immediate reaction about a new beer”. Perhaps more important than the ratings themselves are occasional user comments, which “can be instructive in seeing how people interpret a beer,” he said.

Peter Bissell of Bissell Brothers Brewing Co. recalls that in the early days of the brewery, “being green about the stressful act of putting a product out into the world”, they would often check the app, sometimes interacting with users – and even “in an embarrassing way”. argue with them. But since moving from Industrial Way to Thompson’s Point in 2016, he’s largely ignored it.

Bissell employees may check back occasionally, as a form of quality control, to make sure they don’t see repeated comments that might signal a real problem with the production of the beer. But user ratings never show up in strategy meetings. “If you base your plans on something like Untappd, you’re setting yourself up for an existence of perpetual market pursuit,” he said. That doesn’t mean others don’t: Bissell says that, judging from private conversations he’s had with brewery managers and owners, “it’s clear that in many places outside of New England, Untappd is a major factor in developing production schedules. .”

But not in Maine, according to Bissell. “Untapped is viewed by manufacturers and other in-game industry players the same way Yelp is viewed by restaurant owners” – and Bissell would know, as a partner of Highroller Lobster – “that’s- that is to say a platform that gives voice to people who do not know what they are talking about.

As a longtime user of Untappd (since March 2013), I can verify that there are a lot of unhelpful opinions and ratings, just like in any area of ​​social media. No doubt some of them have been mine over the years. And although I check less frequently than I used to, I still find it a very useful tool. I rarely review beers, but try to leave a narrative trail of what I tasted – for others and my future self.

In this way, Untappd mostly functions as a record of my own beer-drinking story, which has evolved over time, going through different places and phases – from my very first recording (Prairie Hop, from Prairie Artisan Ales from the Oklahoma) to my most recent, New Old Stock, a rich and creamy Baltic Porter from Bissell. And after? A Bissell Swish: Untappd tells me that’s pretty good.

Ben Lisle is Assistant Professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries of East Bayside in Portland, where he writes about cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Join him on Twitter at @bdlisle.


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