Hopped Up On Hype
At the end of the day, I think we can all agree that having an opinion is important. You’ve met people without opinions and, on balance, they’re not the most interesting folks. Opinions tend to drive behaviors, which in turn drive innovation and most of the fun to be had in the world today.
I’d like to give you an opinion, and I hope you can understand where I’m coming from. But first I’d like to give you a quick anecdote.
I was visiting my hometown recently and I stopped into one my favorite markets. It’s the crunchy, hippie, green, (insert your favorite “local” themed adjective here) grocery store in the middle of downtown. In a number of important ways, it epitomizes the entire city.
As you might expect, it also has a tremendous selection of craft beer. I ordered a fresh breakfast sandwich from the deli and proceeded to take a lap of the store, absorbing the vibes that can lower blood pressure like nothing else.
As I took my lap, a hush started to fall over the store. It was bizarre. Whispers reached me: ”It’s here…” ”Right over there…” “They just got a shipment.” What the heck was going on?
Then I saw it. An entire cart full of freshly delivered cases of a not-to-be-named-but-quite-famous beer. This beer was the stuff of legend in the craft community and there was a lot of it sitting right in front of me.
The grocery clerk proceeded to clear out a solid third of the craft beers on the cooler’s shelves, displacing some extremely good brews in the process. He then loaded up the empty third of this enormous beer cooler with the beer from the cart. Just one kind of beer. Probably close to 100 cases of the famous four-packs. A wall of 16-ounce cans of pure craft ambrosia.
Then they pounced. A feeding frenzy like no other.
In no more than five minutes, all of said beer was gone. All of it. A sad looking beer cooler was left to recover its dignity while the people dispersed like a bunch of startled pigeons in Central Park.
I was flabbergasted and, admittedly, giggling audibly (imagine a 6-foot-7 man with a beard giggling). I knew I wouldn’t see that happen again in my life.
Then it happened again. The man came out with more cases. The scenario played out precisely as it had before. He refilled the entire portion of the empty cooler, and it was devoured by the locals once again. The normally laid-back citizens had been turned into a pack of beer piranhas.
How could this be happening? What was making people react to this beer in such a ferocious fashion? Regardless of the reasoning, it was a sight to behold and certainly a great entertainment while I scarfed down my bacon-egg-and-cheese bagel.
But I think the explanation for this phenomenon is simple. Popular beer websites had ranked this particular beer “the best beer in the world,” and now the brewery can’t keep the consumers at bay. They haven’t been able to meet demand for the last two years and they probably won’t ever meet it again. Actually, I know they’re not even trying to.
Now here’s the opinion part that I mentioned earlier.
I do not like the way the ever-connected, online beer community is obsessed with rating beer. They rate beer on websites, phone apps, and all manner of platforms dedicated to placing a number on the beverage they’ve got in their hand, seemingly at the expense of good, healthy conversation around the same topic. I don’t think this is good for the craft brewing industry, and in all honesty, I don’t think that most people care about your personal numerical rating of a particular beer. Your opinion is important, but it can’t be reduced to a supposedly “objective” number.
Now, I’d like to make sure that you’re not mistaking this author’s humble opinion for hating. If it weren’t for a lot of these digital platforms, there would be millions of people out there who probably wouldn’t have gotten into craft beer. And most of the apps and websites aren’t just about beer ratings. In fact, they’re mostly a fantastic resource for the craft community. They’ve had a noticeable and beneficial effect on the industry.
Anecdotally, I can speak to the ubiquity and popularity of these platforms amongst my group of friends. Beer ratings speak to our natural desire to compete and be “the best,” creating a pervasive legend and mythology around craft beer. It’s appealing in the most primal way, and in our hyper-competitive society, I can’t say that I don’t understand why.
And therein, as the bard says, lies the rub. The beer mentioned earlier is a fantastically good one. I absolutely enjoy drinking it. It’s huge and complex and lovely. That brewery managed to make an outrageously flavorful beer that a lot of people like, which is an admirable achievement and should be touted as such.
But…in my opinion, it’s not that good.
No beer is that good. I know breweries all over this country that are making famously delicious beers, and most deserve the majority of their accolades. We all love a good legend and a great beer. But most of those beers didn’t receive their notoriety the way this particular beer did. This beer was put on a pedestal, and the rest is history. The brewery in question was brewing that beer a long time before the online community got wind of it, and it’s been a very good beer the entire time. But who knows what kind of organic growth it would’ve had without the infamy of a top-notch online rating?
Beer ratings should not drive consumer demand the way they currently do. Just like most things in life, I’m probably going to like some things you don’t, and vice versa. We should continue to build a craft community around a healthy and opinionated discourse, relishing the occasion to imbibe with friends and soon-to-be friends. But let’s not let that discourse fit neatly onto a graph or devolve into an irrelevant single-digit ranking of the beers we’re consuming.
Craft brewing is not about numbers. It’s a labor of love and a point of pride for most breweries out there to say they made the beer you’re drinking, and you can trust me on this one, folks: They would love to tell you all about it. Most of these breweries laid down a lot of sweat equity and leveraged a lot of real equity to build something they hoped other people would enjoy.
It’s a big craft world out there, and we should let ourselves discover it with an unfettered view of its flavors and stories. Take yourself away from the critical, polarizing lens of beer ratings and approach your next beer with an open mind and a little background on the brewery that made it. Don’t let your phone tell you what your taste buds already know about your preferences. If you’re up to it, learn what went into brewing the beer. Find out about the brewery, and by all means form a personal opinion on the beer.
Just don’t try to pin a number to it.
Chris McClellan is an avid craft beer fan and founder of The Brew Enthusiast. A native Vermonter currently moving to NYC, Chris loves a great concert and an equally compelling conversation. You can find him on twitter @brewenthusiast or feel free to shoot him an old fashioned email at email@example.com.