Friday, April 18, 2008

I Call It Civilized Discussion On A Valid Point; You Call It Wholesale Thievery

I'm a bit conflicted about this post. On the one hand, I feel like I'm ripping off the fine folks over at A Good Beer Blog (which, by the way, when I first ran across it, I was instantly jealous that Alan thought of the title before me, because it's a great title). See, last week Alan finally decided he was going to allow anonymous posting by some brewers who had contacted him asking for such a forum. It's an interesting dilemma. Having such first-hand accounts from the industry that we write about is a unique opportunity and one that could reap great benefits. But, anonymous posting by those in the industry is somewhat frowned upon unless there is a good reason for it - attribution and taking credit (or blame, such that it may be) for your comments and all that. Anyway, Alan finally relented it and allowed the brewer to post anonymously. So, what was so important that this brewer felt the need to air it publicly in his first post? Yeah. A bit of whining about the folks at R(h)ateBeer.

Now, I've never seen that "R(h)ateBeer" formative before. Kind of clever. But, anyway, this is where my dilemma comes in. I wanted to weigh in on this discussion. And, of course, the "proper" place to do that would be on Alan's site in the comments section of that post. But, I also wanted to make sure that if any of the fine Wisconsin brewers had this same issue and just happened to read this blog (is there anybody out there?), that they would get the message, too. So, I've decided that I would post my comments here, instead of Alan's blog. Sorry Alan.

So, that's a long way of getting to the wholesale thievery:
Sites like R(H) are a thorn in the side for many brewers. They are dominated by a handful of posters that don't reflect the opinion of the general public.
You can read the rest of the post over there to get more of Secret Brewer XJ17.

Despite the whiny and overly-aggressive tone and the singling out of RateBeer (BeerAdvocate gets some blame in here as do all of us to some extent), Secret Brewer XJ17 makes a good point. Namely, don't believe everything you read on the internet. With rare exception nobody knows who these raters are. Why put any trust in them? Would you trust a complete stranger who came up to you while you were in the beer section and said: "The aroma of that beer is hairy and sweaty, its flavor is like dried fruit, flowers and pencil shavings." (a real live comment at RateBeer, by the way) You don't know that person. What the heck do they know about beer? What do they know about sour brown ales? Have they even ever tasted another sour brown ale? No, of course you don't take their word for it.

But maybe we can take something from the fact that this same beer is in the "98th percentile" at RateBeer. But really, is this any different? "Dude, me and all my buddies got together and we rated a bunch of beers and that beer you've got in your hands; that beer, man, it's in the 98th percentile." That's nice. Sounds like a dull evening, but cool. How many of those were sour brown ales? Was this a blind tasting or were you peeking at the label? How many beers did you have that evening? How many of you even tasted this beer?

So, you can see, while not entirely worthless information, these ratings systems are, for the most part, masturbatory and congratulatory missives from nowhere in particular. Really not much more than the aggregation of notes scribbled on bar napkins.

Maybe, we can say that those beers with a large number of reviews are more accurate. Maybe. But, what's a sufficiently large number of reviews? 500? 300? 100? 50? And it still doesn't solve the "hype" problem - both for breweries and styles. Certain breweries, because they do actually put out good beer, have garnered a certain "mystique" about them; this "mystique" has been generated through the combination of creating great beer and careful scarcity (it can't be too scarce - people actually have to be able to get some to send to their friends somewhere so that the friends in the other place can brag that they got the beer from their friends and people will actually know what they are talking about). So, when people receive these "scarce" beers they think "ooo, it must be good - my friend told me it was good and he had to mail it to me." Many of the beers rated in these systems (and reviewed on blogs like this one all over the country) fall prey to the "hype" issue.

Nor does it solve the "purpose" problem. For example, is this beer intended (either by the brewer or the taster) to be carefully sipped and scrutinized carrying a new flavor explosion at every sip? Or, is it intended for drinking during a football game with chips and hotdogs? And, how does that "98th percentile" number figure into that? I mean, Stone's Double Bastard is in the "99th percentile" at RateBeer, but you wouldn't want to drink it during a football game with chips and a hotdog. Or, I don't know, maybe you would. In either event, "99th percentile" doesn't really answer that question, does it?

When beers are reviewed on this site (we never attribute numbers or ratings), we try to ensure that you are given as much information as possible to help you in the beer section. But, there are many sites that simply refuse to review beers at all. We toyed with this notion when we started this site, but finally realized that if we were going to call the site "Madison Beer Review", we should, probably, review beer (although, to be honest, we didn't really intend "review" in such a literal meaning - but, perhaps our true intent would have been made clearer if we called the site "Wisconsin Beer News Reporter" but that didn't really have the same ring to it).

So, to get back on point. I hope that the Wisconsin brewers out there that look at sites like RateBeer and BeerAdvocate (and this one, for that matter) take anything with a grain (or 10) of salt. While I've certainly been swayed by positive or negative reviews and/or ratings, I've also been swayed by things like pretty and ugly labels, phraseology on labels, clever or silly names for your beer or brewery, coin tosses, and random whims. All of which are equally valid reasons for choosing to drink, or not drink, your beer. So, just relax and have a brew.


  1. Hey - very good thoughts and certainly you need to speak to Wisconsin...but you still can't have my blog's name.

    I would point out (as you do note) that the brewer's issue was not limited to the one forum RateBeer but it does have that catchy rhyme with "hate" so it gets used as the example.

  2. I think the beer rating websites are more positive than negative. My biggest issues with them are:

    1. The potential for people to essentially vote more than once.
    2. The ease with which professionals can anonymously rate and/or discuss their own products.
    3. General pretentiousness.

    Like music and movie reviews, it's nice to get a general consensus on something you haven't experienced. I have faith in the honesty of most posters, and believe that the general populace is smart enough to filter out social posturing and recognize that beers generally get bonus points for being big and/or rare. If I'm in a new town and want to know which brewpub I should spend my time at, I trust sites like RateBeer to be ballpark accurate. As a professional, I can't expect people to try my beer based on positive opinions if nobody's allowed to post negative ones.


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