“It is the first beer style based around Instagram culture and based around social media.”
Garrett Oliver’s words weren’t the first shots fired at the “fad” of New England IPA, when he uttered them in November 2017, but they were, perhaps, the most important. The hot take carried more heat when voiced by one of the beer industry’s true heavyweights—a beloved brewer whose talents and tenure at Brooklyn Brewery have gained worldwide renown.
Oliver was, of course, very wrong about the style being a fad. But nobody seemed to take him up on the issue of hazy-to-opaque beer being nothing more than “Instagram culture.”
In modern vernacular, the phrase acts as something of a catchall insult toward Millennials, who—while being the most-educated generation in the world’s history—are still teased for their supposed obsession with an image-conscious social media platform. To lob that grenade into the field of beer just seems a little too easy. Brewing is a young person’s game, after all, given the physical labor and overworked days that can stretch on for years, and the 20- and 30-something set is now the main demographic snapping up beer at stores or in taprooms.
“Instagram is where the ‘lifestyle’ aspects of beer drinking shine,” GBH’s Michael Kiser wrote not long after Oliver’s words were shared across the beer-focused internet. “And the NE IPA—in all its orb-like, orangey, milkeshakey glory—perhaps shines brighter than most. It's awe-inspiring to some as much as it's confusing to others. That's a pretty rad thing to have happening in beer at all.”
But to really put the cap back on the argument that Instagram culture is acting as some kind of underground movement to destroy the sanctity of the Reinheitsgebot, keep in mind that any claim of social media ruining beer is made up.
Even in the absolute, most-generous scenario, based on polls and surveys from places like Pew Research, Gallup, and the Brewers Association, there’s no feasible way to track a correlation between social media users and beer drinkers that would prove a detrimental impact to whatever kind of “culture” we associate with beer. We simply can’t conjure enough members of this make-believe society of Haze Bois and Gurlz to be a problem.
On a near-daily basis, it’s easy to find examples of how social media has helped create a rotten core in domains ranging from politics to celebrity. The internet didn’t set out to ruin beer, nor has it, but if there’s a place on the internet for everyone, of course beer culture was destined to find its own island—one that’s both isolating and rewarding.
Platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and more were not made for beer, but it was inevitable a community found its way onto them. Alex Kidd, who built his persona of “Don’t Drink Beer” through a blog, transitioned that into a wildly popular Instagram account (about 40,000 followers) and podcast, even coining beer vernacular like “Pastry Stout” and “Barleywine is life.” He’s among a small collection of niche celebrities within beer, all because of his social media presence.
But the most populous online communities (which also include your high-school friends and grandparents) aren’t necessarily the ideal spaces for beer enthusiasts, even if they can help connect like-minded individuals. Enter the specialists. BeerAdvocate and its litany of message boards came along in the late ’90s. Shortly after, RateBeer was established in May 2000, during the “doldrums” of the American beer scene, says executive director Joe Tucker. It came after “The Shakeout,” a period of closings coast-to-coast and stagnated growth within craft beer.
“I really wasn't sure it was important or valuable at the time,” Tucker says. “The site was something I was working on in my spare time as a service to the beer community, and because it was really fun.”
With a user base across the globe and growing interest in the U.S. despite losses of breweries, RateBeer succeeded. Tucker won’t discuss the site’s number of members, but does note that only about 1% of users provide reviews. That population base has long been a focus for him and the site because they’re influential—“others would listen to them.” Building up RateBeer’s “experts” would in turn build up the site, but it also raises an important question that’s relevant for just about any rating platform: does imbuing users with that power create a good or bad thing?
When GBH broke news in 2017 that RateBeer had sold a stake of ownership to Anheuser-Busch InBev’s investment arm, ZX Ventures, in 2016—and had kept the sale under wraps for almost a year—a schism began. BeerAdvocate had long been a place for deep-in-the-weeds beer lovers, while RateBeer had a strong international presence that has since gained in importance as U.S. enthusiasts with anti-Big Beer attitudes turn away. At the same time RateBeer was making its sale, Untappd, a check-in app inspired by location-based Foursquare, had easily surpassed 3 million members. It currently boasts about 6.5 million. That contrast was set to become more stark when RateBeer announced that ZX would fully acquire the company in February 2019.
In a way that RateBeer and BeerAdvocate couldn’t, the mobile-friendliness and gamification aspect of Untappd gave beer lovers a chance to level up.
“I don't think brewers really knew what customers wanted until, really, the advent of things like RateBeer and BeerAdvocate earlier on, and five years ago, I would say Instagram, and apps like Untappd," Other Half Brewing co-founder Sam Richardson said on a February 2019 episode of the Craft Beer & Brewing podcast. With his customers increasingly going mobile via social-media and rating apps, Richardson grew interested in the speed at which people could “hate” or “love” his beer during release days.
"I don't obsessively look at [Untappd], but I check it,” he said, “because we're not doing our due diligence on trying to make better products if we don't look to see what people are excited about.”
When Greg Avola and Tim Mather first discussed the idea that would later become Untappd during summer 2010, they thought about creating a new, beer-focused feature for Foursquare. The pair had been avid users of the app for years, but quickly saw their idea as something worthy of its own platform.
“The industry has an inherently social aspect, with everyone interacting at bars and restaurants—that’s a preeminent part of what drinking beer is all about,” says Avola, co-founder and chief technology officer for Untappd. “What brought us to this table was seeing us becoming more of a real-time nation.”
In some ways, that’s become part of a unique strategy for breweries. During an interview on the Good Beer Hunting podcast, Jeremiah Zimmer of Hop Butcher for the World mentioned how he and co-founder Jude La Rose use Instagram to monitor local releases and what’s trendy, but work Untappd into routines on their own release days.
“We take the beer home and watch Untappd to see what people think, people are tweeting at us,” Zimmer says. “If you happen to check it before bed at night to see how people are taking it, it can be exciting for sure.”
It’s an example of how social media helps spread ideas within beer. Brut IPA may have inevitably found its way into pint glasses at breweries all over the country, but the immediacy of being able to share and learn about the new hop-forward style sped up awareness. From Instagram to Untappd, it was a matter of hours—not days or weeks—for beer lovers and brewers alike to find out about the popular style.
The immediacy of being able to share and interact with beer lovers all over the world—a factor that’s taken for granted today—first attracted Avola and Mather, who ran the site on their own for nearly six years. Along with general upkeep of the app, Avola worked to personally respond to as many customer service emails as he could each week, which would reach as high as 400. It wasn’t until the company became a subsidiary (for an undisclosed amount) of Next Glass, a similarly-focused app that specializes in wine and beer recommendations, that a support person was hired to handle those responsibilities.
But what really put Untappd on the must-have list for beer lovers (and the general public, according to Time’s “Best Apps” of 2016) wasn’t just an ability to log beers. It was what users could earn. Tangible success came from badges. Not counting sponsored or locally created badges from breweries, which can vary day-by-day and across the world, Untappd currently provides between 300-400 badges that reward users for checking in different styles of beer, ABV, locations, and more.
“Some people can argue this is a negative thing, that they’ve lost the perception of what beer is about, but I’d say it actually enhances it,” says Avola. “Maybe you didn’t know some brewery had a badge and now you’re going to go out and seek it.”
He jokingly says he’s created “badge monsters,” given the array of ways people can tally their beers and earn a psychological reward for their drinking efforts. Badges aren’t meant to encourage anything outside of responsible drinking, Avola is quick to note, but offer recognition for active users who enjoy the thrill of the hunt.
For better or worse, and given your particular point of view, that feature may have also created a worldwide collection of Captain Ahabs forever searching for one white whale after another.
“I like to tell people I drink to track,” says Ricky Potts, a California resident, beer enthusiast, and one of the first five people who have checked in over 10,000 unique beers on Untappd. “I will trade and I will travel to unlock badges. I am obsessed with that app.”
But his passion isn’t rooted in some kind of one-upmanship or effort to prove his craft beer chops. His No. 1 beer for check-ins is Coors Light, and he admits that he was “young and dumb” before he started using Untappd on May 7, 2011.
“There’s no question it’s been a 100% influence on me as a drinker,” Potts adds. “I’ve literally flown to other sides of the country, which created experiences I never thought would happen visiting breweries, bars, and meeting people.”
In one instance, Potts and his girlfriend flew from Scottsdale, AZ to Chicago, partially so he could earn an Old Style Badge. They visited 17 neighborhoods to share sips of the Windy City’s heritage beer. “I will never drink Old Style again, but it was awesome,” he says. And it was all because of Untappd.
Potts is an avid ticker of just about anything quantitative in his life. Daily calories have been logged for more than five years. He wears a Fitbit to monitor his wellness, keeps tabs on sleep and steps taken each day, and uses Foursquare and its sister-app, Swarm.
“Every day I try to figure out what goes into my body and what comes out,” he says, before taking a moment to reflect on what this level of detail has given to—and maybe taken away from—his experiences with beer. “I don’t know if I could have a beer without an app in front of me. I don’t know what that feels like.”
Potts recognizes the dramatic nature of the claim, and admits he’d like to just have a pint at a bar with friends, but habits are hard to break. Still, he often points toward a digital and real-life community he’s built through online interactions, cross-country trades, and real friendships. He’s got a friend in San Diego he met because of efforts on Google Plus to track down certain beers, and went from emails to texting photos back and forth to weekly calls to talk beer. Whenever he, or his girlfriend, Sheryl, unlocks a badge on Untappd, they yell “yahtzee!” if they’re together, or send a text with the word if they’re apart. She’s at about 6,000 unique beers on Untappd.
“If the app disappeared tomorrow, I might not drink beer because it would be a totally different experience for me,” Potts says, easing into a laugh. “I’ve spent a lot of money because of that freaking app, I’ll tell you that much.”
Potts’ experience—and undoubtedly those of many other users—offers insight into the different kinds of interactions these social communities can foster. For some industry pros, however, it’s another story.
“There aren’t a lot of them, but several of my liquor stores that have growler-fill stations and cater to beer geeks don’t want anything that doesn’t have four stars or higher,” says Sarah Ritchie, sales and brand manager for Gilbert, AZ’s 12 West Brewing. “It just doesn’t move.”
Here are the awkward results of everyone acting as an expert in their own field. Despite these platforms’ good intentions, there’s simply no way they can avoid being what many things become in the online world: ugly.
Part of the reason older or less digitally-savvy Americans may decry the “Instagram culture” of today’s youth is because of a real, tangible toll it can take. In a study published in November 2018, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that experimental data collected from users of Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram connects to decreased well-being. “Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness,” Melissa Hunt, associate director of clinical training in UPenn’s Psychology Department, said in an announcement of the findings.
Couple that with another, separate study from last year, and dots start connecting when it comes to online beer culture. A month before UPenn’s findings, faculty at the University of Virginia shared unrelated research of how evaluations, whether for TV game shows, short stories, or products on Amazon, change over time. In the analysis, these ratings and others were found to be at fault of “misattribution process.”
“If something feels easier to evaluate, people believe that it must actually be better,” lead researchers wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “In other words, they misattribute their own feelings about evaluation (it feels easier to make an evaluation) onto their assessment of the actual merits (this thing must deserve a higher rating).”
Even worse, participants disagreed that their assessments were getting higher, unaware of their own bias.
Extrapolate these studies to beer and what you’ll find are enthusiastic raters who don’t see their own changes in behavior. Feelings of expertise due to time spent ticking and checking-in might lead to meaner online conversations when disagreements take hold, which may sound familiar to those who’ve experienced some of the wilder forums on RateBeer or BeerAdvocate.
None of these feelings and interactions are solely the ownership of beer or its fans, but the internet and social media have limited control over where and how they spread. It may be inevitable that enthusiasts who participate on these platforms have to take the good with the bad.
To get beers into those specialty accounts, Ritchie says preferences skew hazy, and 12 West’s New England IPA, K-Lax, sits at or just below the critical four-star cutoff. The brewery’s West Coast IPA, Frontside, is a notch below at 3.8, but Ritchie says it’s received more recognition from BJCP judges.
“It’s really unfortunate,” she says. “It was supposed to be a tool for all of us, not a way for people to use it as a personal vendetta against a brewery, if they wanted.”
It’s also important to keep in mind what a small number of beer lovers are actually influenced by, or influencing, through social channels. DataQuencher, a marketing research firm focused on craft brewery analytics, found that about 90% of beer drinkers responding to its polls report not going on Twitter for beer information. Many beer-themed Facebook groups—places where name-calling and trolling of people and businesses alike occur—are private or have curated membership. Instagram gave us the Iceman Pour, only to have it almost immediately shat upon for its odd aesthetics (which its creators say are for the sake of fun, or even art).
All good things must come to an end, and shifts toward negativity are only hastened by anonymous platforms that embolden vocal minorities. But if there were ever a medium to offer an immediate rebirth of hope, it’s the internet, representing a devil and angel not on our shoulders, but mouse and keyboard.
When Sapwood Cellars opened in Columbia, MD in fall 2018, the early weeks were slow. The owners were celebrated local homebrewers and one, Michael Tonsmeire, had already built up a reputation in the industry for expertise on wood and barrel-aging, including consultation work for professional outfits.
To get more butts in seats in a taproom that can hold around 220 people, but looks more barren than it is when foot traffic is light, Tonsmeire and Scott Janish talked up the brewery locally and even had staff hand out fliers for a free beer in a nearby neighborhood. It turns out the panacea for their worry wasn’t in door-to-door connections, but digital ones. And a beloved Double IPA. It was Snip Snap, a 7.9% ABV beer dry hopped with 22 pounds of Citra hops, then again with the same amount of Galaxy hops.
“Untappd went crazy, the local Facebook group for beer drinkers in Maryland went crazy, and that beer was gone in, like, less than two weeks,” Tonsmeire recalled on a recent episodes of the Good Beer Hunting podcast.
“I jumped in to help bartend,” Janish adds. “There was one moment I remember filling a growler and [taproom manager] Spencer was filling a growler, and I was like, ‘I think we’ve kind of made it.’ It was a really good feeling to think a week before we were brainstorming ways to get people in.”
Both their fathers now check Untappd regularly, giving Tonsmeire and Janish updates on scores and what people are saying. “I can’t imagine how people opened small businesses before the internet,” Tonsmeire says.
For Sapwood, the results of social media success were literally in dollars and cents, but there are exciting personal victories, too.
Bil Cord is closing in on 14,000 followers on Twitter. In 2008 he started My Beer Buzz, which kept real-time tap lists for bars in Pennsylvania. The site was mostly for his own interests, but after three years, Cord stumbled onto state and federal resources for beer label approvals. Rather than draft lineups, he started sharing images of recently-registered beer brands, growing page views on an exponential scale—"I went from 100 views a month to 100,000 a month inside six months," he says—and his number of Twitter followers took the same path.
"You start to feel like you're onto something," Cord says. "It resonates with people and it was a significant change from a social media standpoint."
When Cord began posting from his website to his @mybeerbuzz Twitter account, engagement with online followers soared. In 2010, he'd average about 40 website posts a month tracking tap lists. He's currently at around 700 today, and earns 200,000 to 250,000 monthly views, many coming in via his social platforms. Now, even Reddit’s main beer forum focuses on new releases amongst its many conversations.
As an IT professional, Cord has set up some automated processes to pull new labels, but still puts in 60-90 minutes a day, seven days a week, to feed this unquenchable beast. The niche market of label news has proven so popular, other sites have taken on the same beat, like Tenemu or the now-defunct Beer Pulse. Even GBH has shared the occasional breaking package news.
The social media community-within-a-community wasn’t invented for beer, but it has changed it. The platforms that exist on Beer Twitter or Beer Facebook extend outward, creating new cliques along the way. Social sites and smartphone apps have emboldened some and created new possibilities for others. The beauty of invention isn’t in phase one, but in all the trials, errors, and successes that come after. At the end of the day, it’s just human nature—and humans discovering new places to interact.
"I have a scanner that runs at home so I know why the police car or fire truck is going by the house," Cord says. "I have breaking news alerts from CNN. This is the beer equivalent of that. People love being the first to know about something."