On Jan. 20, Gregory Avola announced he was stepping down as chief creative officer of Untappd, the online beer platform he helped found and then actively ran for a decade. This, Avola writes, is driven by a lifestyle change, and he will remain at Untappd’s parent company, Next Glass, as executive advisor. As when software developer Next Glass purchased Untappd in 2016, and then joined it with newer purchase Beer Advocate in 2020, this update is stirring up conversation and reflection on Untappd’s impact on beer culture.
Such reflection yields a mixed bag. In the 11 years since it launched, Untappd has facilitated a wider-reaching community in beer. It’s helped users find beers they otherwise wouldn’t, and, therefore, has helped breweries reach new customers. Some, however, feel that Untappd has fueled “ticker culture,” and that its rating system is a breeding ground for biased, baseless ratings that only favor hype beers and often hurt breweries. Beer’s relationship with Untappd might be complicated, but Untappd’s role has proven undeniably significant.
Foursquare for Beer
Avola created Untappd with Tim Mather in 2010. Perhaps surprisingly, he wasn’t all that into beer when he started working on the app.
“My main interest was in communities and building social platforms to connect people in different ways,” he tells me in a recent call. Avola and Mather used Foursquare as a model — which the press ran with — but, as Avola puts it, with more focus on what those check-ins could do. “No one cares if you’re checking in at a grocery store,” he says. “But people checking in at bars, saying what they’re drinking, that starts connecting people across the globe.”
Avola wanted to take the inherent social aspect of craft beer and grow it online. At the time, there were only BeerAdvocate and RateBeer, both representing an older generation in beer. Untappd arrived at the party hot on the heels of IPAs becoming a thing people traveled and waited in hours-long lines for, a ready and willing platform for drinkers to discover, share, swap info, and, by checking in that they were at those hype breweries drinking those hype beers, brag. In a way, and as was Avola’s intention, Untappd became a wide-scale, virtual tasting room where beer geeks could talk shop but, coming from different cities and even countries instead of different barstools, they could introduce each other to new brews. Avola says that at the time he was living in New York City and learned what Fat Tire was when Mather, living on the West Coast, checked it in.
The Next Generation of Beer Raters
Whereas BeerAdvocate’s pages were filled with long, thoughtful beer reviews, Untappd catered to a generation of beer drinkers that was always on to the next and wanting an app to keep up. This is why Untappd is credited with — or blamed for — “ticker culture.” After all, while Untappd was still in its infancy, The Alchemist was able to survive closing its brewpub after Hurricane Irene by pumping Heady Topper out of its production brewery. There’s no telling if this could have happened had Untappd been in its prime, fueling beer seekers to move on in search of a hot IPA they hadn’t already tried. Indeed, within a few years, the script had flipped. How to be a beer nerd went from having a discerning dedication to select brews to relentlessly trying every new beer released. The proof of your beer cred was in your Untappd portfolio, where millions of fellow users could marvel at the sheer breadth of hype beers you’d checked in.
“Ticker culture represents an emphasis on breadth of experience over depth,” says Alex Kidd, of Don’t Drink Beer. “The pour sizes seem to diminish, the style ratings seem to be heavily skewed as a result, and the check-ins seem to be a system of accomplishments predicated on consumption over contemplation.”
At best, it could be argued, ticker culture catalyzes beer sales by keeping drinkers motivated with the thrill of the hunt. At worst, it can be an arrow through the heart of brewers’ ability to create and diversify their offerings, since the haziest IPAs, slushiest sours, and most candy-packed pastry stouts are going to win ticks every time over a loving homage to an English mild. This can also hurt beer sales for breweries on an individual basis, if they decide to commit the cardinal sin of making the same beers and therefore lose luster in the eyes of tick-seekers.
“I don’t want to be an old crank who decries ticker culture, but I really can’t imagine what positive impact it could have on anything,” says beer writer Will Gordon. “The most obvious downside,” Gordon continues, is too many people “stumbling around juggling flights and phones in their mad dash to overrate beers that are either too sweet or too sour.”
“Ticker culture is negative, full stop,” says Gage Siegel, founder of Brooklyn’s Non Sequitur Beer Project, citing people buying cases of beer just to flip and festival-goers trying to cram in 100 different beer pours in three-hour time slots as less-than-ideal results. “Ticker culture certainly doesn’t start or end with Untappd, but I’d say they did a lot to normalize it [and] make it easier to participate in.”
An Inevitable Evolution in How Drinkers Engage With Craft Beer
The ticker-culture discussion never happens without mentioning Untappd, but it’s important to clarify: The app did not create ticker culture. It has aided what could be considered human nature in an industry exponentially exploding with new options every year. One could get bogged down in a chicken-or-egg quandary: Do breweries continuously push the envelope to meet the demand of tick-hungry Untappd users, or are tick-hungry Untappd users tripping over themselves to keep up with the constant deluge of hop innovations and wacky adjuncts? It’s a two-way street, and Untappd provides the platform for everyone to talk about it.
“Untappd serviced ticker culture, but I feel comfortable saying it would have happened anyway,” says beer and spirits journalist and author Tara Nurin. “Across any number of industries … younger generations are more peripatetic. … It’s about what’s next, what’s new, and that plays out very profoundly in beer.” Nurin has mixed feelings about the way Untappd has arguably “gamified” beer. On one hand, it’s a great push for people to try new things. On the other, it could disincentivize people revisiting brews.
“I do think the novelty effect can be harmful to breweries,” says beer writer Carla Jean Lauter. “The pressures of ‘newness’ have led to some of the proliferation of extremely similar beers (e.g., having eight IPAs on tap at once) to try to give something new, rather than to just provide the best.”
Subjective and Unqualified: How Ratings Affect Breweries
Whichever side of the fence one falls in the ticker culture debate, one specific aspect of Untappd’s rating system that helps propel it is especially murky: the subjectivity. Even the industry insiders we spoke with who generally like the app acknowledged that the ratings are far from uniformly trustworthy. Many users skip actually commenting on their beers in favor of punching a number of “caps,” from zero to five. These ratings are obviously completely personal and often offer no explanation, yet, as Siegel points out, they’re considered by beer buyers at stores and bars as well as consumers weighing their beer options. The problem is, what a “3” or a “4.5” means can vary wildly from one person to the next. There’s no agreed-upon metric.
“I’ve just never put faith in numeric ratings of beer,” Lauter says. “In Untappd’s case, there’s also the twist that many people for a long time treated the reviews as their own personal tastes. ‘If I don’t like pineapple on pizza, and I order a pineapple pizza, I give it one star just to remind myself: Yep, still don’t like that.’”
The range of expertise among Untappd’s millions of users may range from from zero to cicerone, but on average, these ratings aren’t coming from people with beer-judging criteria. In some cases, this can be great, as it levels the playing field for anyone who’s enthusiastic about beer. It can be not so great but harmless if you remember to take rankings with a grain of salt. Or, it can do a bit of damage to some breweries.
“Some people develop an over-inflated sense of self because of their amount of check-ins, and they think this makes them some sort of expert despite the fact that they have no formal beer education,” says Paulina Olivares, Sacramento Pink Boots Society chapter leader, who notes that this issue isn’t exclusive to Untappd. Olivares says she’s stopped rating beers on Untappd unless it’s a “5.”
Of course, subjectivity as a concept also isn’t something Untappd created, but for all of its positive features, the app has become such an authority, and the microphone it therefore gives to biased, careless, and/or ungrounded opinions can now in some cases actually affect whether a brewery’s beer makes it onto shelves. A beer might not get a high rating from the Untappd masses because it isn’t hazy or dank enough, even if that wasn’t the brewer’s intention, and many retail outlets take those ratings into consideration. They could therefore decide against selling what could be a perfectly great beer. And this can create pressure on breweries to stick to what lights up the ratings board on Untappd.
As Avola points out in our call, this is rating culture. It happens with everything from restaurants to dry cleaners on Yelp. And yes, it even happens to Untappd itself in the form of one-star, “this-app-sucks” reviews in app stores based on one-off experiences with little context. Avola says he understands that it’s frustrating for breweries to see their beers rated poorly, beers they put a lot of effort into. These subjective rankings, though, are a by-product of Untappd’s main goal to help people share what they’re finding and drinking. The downsides of this are something Avola says really can’t be policed, but that he hopes can be mended as Untappd continues to evolve.
A Platform for Visibility, Discovery, and Nostalgia
On the flip side of the biased ratings are some of Untappd’s key tenets. There is community on a global scale, more relevant now than ever as most beer drinking is done at home, and poised to only become more crucial as beer culture and even beer retail grow online. There is increased visibility, discovery, and access between users and breweries.
Plus, as many users report, Untappd is a helpful tool for tracking one’s own beers: It’s less about a rating for others to see, and more about actually being able to organize and remember brews you loved and brews you didn’t love. This becomes increasingly helpful as the number of options in craft beer only grows and styles bloom into sub-styles and hybrids year after year.
“I do feel like more and more people are using it just to keep track of what they’ve drank versus tracking ratings,” says beer Instagrammer Valerie Delligatti, who appreciates being able to remember what she’s sampled from breweries to (pre-pandemic) bottle shares.
This is even a helpful professional tool, as beer writers can track and sort brews they try and report on, something beer writer and “former semi-professional blackjack player” Mike Pomranz values, noting that even if it weren’t free, he’d pay Untappd for this feature. Checking in beers creates your own library to refer back to whenever needed. “When I check in beers … I am thinking about what I’ll want to know later,” Pomranz says. “So, someone asks me for a good IPA in Arizona. Well, I haven’t been there in a while, but I can filter IPAs produced in Arizona and then sort those by rating, and then read my notes and boom, I have the perfect beer ready to go.”
This also creates a sort of scrapbook for craft beer lovers. “I personally love the nostalgia of looking back and remembering where [I was] when I had a certain beer,” says craft beer drinker and wellness coach Amanda Steele. “That’s kind of my favorite thing about Untappd.”
Beyond this core tracking function, Nurin notes that by the same token as Untappd possibly deterring users from returning to beers in favor of trying new finds, it can just as easily be a conduit for users to remember beers they love. While we spoke, she scrolled through her feed and found promos poised to remind users that a beer they loved once is on sale, or a bar they forgot about is doing a great happy hour. Speak with enough users and it becomes clear: Untappd has definitely, if inadvertently, provided a stage for ticker culture and its disadvantages for breweries. But it’s also achieved its goal of creating a virtual community for beer drinkers, and it’s proven itself quite the handy tool for tracking a whole wide world of beers.
The Future of Untappd
All that remains is to see how Untappd continues to evolve, especially in this new, increasingly online chapter, and how beer culture will evolve alongside it. One safe bet is on Untappd increasing its attention to international markets: In 2020, the app saw growth in European cities where it saw declines in the U.S.
In December, Next Glass also acquired digital beer magazine and event producer Hop Culture; according to Hop Culture founder and now creative director at Next Glass Kenny Gould, we’ll be seeing further integration of Next Glass acquisitions Untappd, Hop Culture, Oznr, and Beer Advocate, playing to the unique contributions each of these has made to beer culture. “I think we’ll continue to see the development of a digital craft beer community,” Gould says, “with more content, sales, and connections happening online.”
Published: March 16, 2021