Drinking beer is a relatively low-tech endeavor. You pick a beer, order it, then it flows through a tap system pressurized with gas and is deposited into your glass. You take it, you drink it, and you continue with your evening. But in our 21st-century lives, even the simple act of drinking beer can be enhanced through technology.
If you’ve ever seen a gaggle of beer drinkers receive their pints and then immediately bow their heads to fiddle with their phones, you might have seen them using a craft-beer-focused app. Untappd (pronounced “untapped,” as if it still contains its trendy missing “e”) is a popular mobile phone application created by a tiny startup begun by two people and now supports a user base that numbers in the millions. The app’s initial purpose was simple – to allow people to “check in” beers that they were drinking and share that information with other people via social media. It became, essentially, a beer-centric social network. The basic functions allowed you to search for a beer and select it, and it would stay in your history. For added fun, if you checked in multiple beers of various styles or for holidays or at different venues, you could earn badges that would be attached to your profile.
There are other social aspects of the app that allow you to make friends with other drinkers to see what they’re excited about, and to toast or comment on the check-ins of others. When I use Untappd, it is almost exclusively as a memory aid, to acknowledge and record the beers I’m trying so that I can look back at them later. With so many beers with hard-to-remember or similar names, it also allows me to make sure I’ve got the brewery and name correct when I recall the beer later. It can also help with research, though it’s a bit like Wikipedia in that some of the info is user-provided, so it helps to double-check alcohol content, style, etc. with the actual brewery.
As the beer drinkers and users of the app evolved, so did the technology behind it. You can choose to be notified if a certain beer you’ve been looking for is on tap within a certain radius of your location. If you want to find a pint of Foundation Epiphany to toast in celebration of its five-year anniversary this month, you could click the bell icon in the corner of the listing for Epiphany. You’d then get a notification when it detects you’re near where the beer has been recently checked-in. You can also be alerted when some beer venues change up their tap lists. I recently set up an alert for tap changes at Craft Brew Underground in Auburn, which was recently voted the Reader’s Choice for the best beer bar in Maine on craftbeer.com. I enjoy seeing the notifications, and the diversity of what’s on draft seems worthy of the accolade.
One of the most debated features on Untappd, however, is the ability to give a star rating to an individual beer. Originally launched as five “whole” stars (e.g., only providing options for whole numbers between 1 and 5), it was later changed to allow half-star ratings. So the scale, really, is from 0.5 to 5. There is no zero on this scale, so the only option for a zero is to not rate the beer at all. The problem comes from what is being done with that data.
The app aggregates all the ratings and data about individual beers and lets you scroll through users’ comments. So, what you post is visible to others – including the brewers that made the beer. At its outset, the app was designed to be kind of a personal logbook for beer tasting, a place that you could jot down and share the feelings you have about certain beers you’ve tried, and many still treat it that way.
There’s a running joke among brewers that they don’t trust the aggregated ratings from users on Untappd because they are filled with comments like, “I hate IPAs, and this is an IPA, so I give it one star.” The conflict is that many users are using the app as a personal beer journal and don’t realize that their individual taste preferences can be outliers that affect the ratings.
If you’re concerned about the lack of crowd wisdom, you could always skip some of the crowd-sourcing aspects and head to the experts. Employees at bottle shops like Bier Cellar spend hundreds of hours writing shelf tags that describe beer, and trained bartenders at craft-beer bars are quick to provide assistance when asked. While you don’t have to go it alone, you don’t have to crowd-source every beer decision.