Tyranny of the Tickers — How Untappd Ratings Became Craft Beer’s Most Fickle Prize
As Yelp made anyone with a smartphone a restaurant critic, Untappd has turned members of the public into beer judges.
Founded in 2010, Untappd is a beer-rating app that encourages users to “check in” the beers they’re drinking, tagged to a physical location like a bar or restaurant—or, during the pandemic, at home. Unlike its predecessors BeerAdvocate and RateBeer, Untappd was founded as a mobile app rather than a website, and it eschewed forums and discussion boards in favor of rating and tracking beers consumed. Further opening up beer ratings to the masses, rather than reserving the privilege for a select group of judges, writers, or insiders, would seem to be a democratic victory. Why let some tweedy snob with an editor’s title decide what the best beers are?
But, 11 years after its creation, what is now the world’s most popular beer-rating platform reflects the tastes of a more narrow subset of beer drinkers than it lets on. And when decision-makers in the industry use those views to choose which beers to make and sell, a minority of drinkers stand to wield enormous influence. Untappd isn’t an accurate measure of the collective tastes of the majority, but rather creates consequences based on the preferences of a fervid minority.
Untappd ratings influence bar owners’, e-retailers’, festival organizers’, and even beer distributors’ business decisions to a degree that other publications, apps, or ratings websites like RateBeer or BeerAdvocate don’t. (BeerAdvocate is also owned by Untappd parent company Next Glass.) They’ve taken on an economic significance that is unrivaled in the industry.
Next Glass CEO Trace Smith calls Untappd users “the world’s largest audience of beer drinkers,” distinct from the proudly nerdy user bases of RateBeer or BeerAdvocate. But Smith also calls Untappd’s users “tastemakers,” and says he believes there’s still a ways to go until Untappd reaches saturation among U.S. craft beer drinkers. There’s a tension between the two descriptions: Either Untappd users are rarified influencers, or they represent the craft beer plebian. Given the pressure Untappd ratings exert on how beer is made and sold, it’s clear that whatever the answer is, those users still have great influence—earned or not.ALL ABOUT THAT BASE
According to Smith, Untappd’s usage around the world has been “pretty tightly aligned with growth in craft [beer].” That means that as craft’s share of the beer market in the U.S. has plateaued in recent years, Untappd is increasingly reliant on drinkers outside the U.S. to comprise its new users—a reality accelerated by COVID-19’s hobbling of bars, restaurants, and festivals stateside. Untappd sees a runway for growth in Europe, and opened an office in the Netherlands in 2020.
The company estimates half of its total users live in the U.S. But Smith says Untappd users in other countries are early adopters and are therefore “more engaged” than their U.S. counterparts, interacting with the app more frequently.
Smith notes that Untappd adds 90,000 to 100,000 new registered users in the U.S. each month, but also says Untappd does not track daily active users to illustrate that all those users log in to the app consistently.
Across the board, U.S. check-ins declined last year, from 89.1 million to 67.4 million. Meanwhile, check-ins outside the U.S. grew from 63.8 million to 64.1 million. Major U.S. cities saw declines as the pandemic closed bars and restaurants:
Untappd’s number-two market, New York City, saw check-ins decline by -775,000, or -46%. (London remains Untappd’s top market; its check-ins declined by 28% in 2020.)
Its number-three market, Chicago, saw check-ins fall by -667,000, or -47%.
In 2019, six of the cities in the top 10 for most check-ins were in the U.S.—in 2020, there were just three.
Last year, users in Gothenburg, Sweden registered 50,000 more check-ins than users in Philadelphia, with a population less than half its size.
Overall, check-ins from the top 10 cities globally declined almost 38% in 2020 from the year prior.
Americans’ use of the app lagged in 2020, but Untappd’s use as a decision-making tool in the U.S. has only increased in this time. Next Glass offers Untappd for Business, a menu management and analytics service for bars, restaurants, breweries, and bottle shops. Many businesses that don’t pay for Untappd for Business simply use its publicly available ratings to decide whether to stock a certain beer, or whether to brew a specific style. Retailers and distributors desperate for data about an increasingly crowded field of breweries turn to Untappd’s simple one-through-five rating scale for quick insights.
But because of the types of behaviors the app incentives, and who constitutes its user base, such insights aren’t as generalizable as many assume. A former Untappd employee who requested anonymity because they still work in the beer industry says this is especially problematic in rural areas. There, information about trending beer styles or brands can be skewed by the low number of people using Untappd in that given area.
“But that data’s going to look the same on the back-end, like, ‘Oh, this is the trending beer.’ But it’s not telling you that there’s only six people that checked in in the last 30 days,” they say.TRENDING STYLES
Smith compares Untappd scores to film critics’ ratings. Films and beers, he notes, can be commercially successful without positive reviews. (Regarding film ratings, website Rotten Tomatoes in late 2020 added 170 new critics to its “Top Critics” pool in response to criticism that the previous pool represented too narrow a group of reviewers.)
Smith acknowledges that certain styles, like Pilsners, generally don’t receive as high Untappd ratings as IPAs and Stouts do. Currently, the highest-rated Blonde Ale on Untappd has a score of 4.1; the highest-rated Kölsch has a 4.1; the highest-rated Table Beer has a 4.3. Meanwhile, the highest-rated Double IPA has a score of 4.7, and the highest-rated Russian Imperial Stout has a 4.6. The top three most-checked-in styles on Untappd are American IPA, New England IPA, and Double IPA. Smith says that a product feature that would calibrate ratings more fairly across styles is something the app is considering.
The disparity in scores across styles is a product of the preference among Untappd’s users for intensely flavored and high-ABV beers. That’s in contrast to the majority of beer sold in America, which is session-strength Light Lager. The stylistic skew indicates that Untappd’s user base is a very narrow portion of the overall beer market. According to the former Untappd employee, even before the pandemic began, Untappd never reached 2 million monthly active users globally. In the U.S., that would mean less than 1% of beer drinkers, as defined by market research company Nielsen, use the app. (Smith did not provide monthly active user numbers in response to GBH’s requests, saying only that total registered users increased from 4.61 million in December 2019 to 5.21 million in December 2020.)
“That data is just spread so thin. I wouldn’t call it statistically viable data,” the former employee says. “If you start peeling back the layers of the onion, it’s like oh, there’s maybe 10,000 people on the whole East Coast that this [score] actually matters to.”HOT OR NOT
Examples abound of Untappd scores being used to justify business decisions. Libby Crider, co-owner of St. Louis’ 2nd Shift Brewing, says two potential business partners have cited Untappd scores as a reason not to work with 2nd Shift. The first was Tavour, a U.S. beer delivery app that uses Untappd ratings to help decide which breweries it sells as a third-party vendor. She says the second was a boutique beer distributor. Crider detailed that interaction in a tweet, saying the distributor declined to work with 2nd Shift because the brewery’s Untappd scores weren’t within certain parameters.
“The only beers they want are the limited-release, high-scoring beers. They don’t want a relationship, they want hype,” Crider says. “Kudos to the folks who do that and do it successfully. It’s just not us.”
2nd Shift’s average beer rating on Untappd is 3.93. Its most highly rated beers, which score above 4, are limited-release, barrel-aged, high-ABV, and intensely flavored beers like a bourbon-barrel-aged Imperial Stout with vanilla, cinnamon, cacao nibs, ancho chilis and arbol peppers, or a rum-barrel-aged Imperial Stout with coconut. The brewery’s core Czech Pilsner, Technical Ecstasy, has an average score of just 3.6. On the flip side, nine of the top 10 most highly rated beers on Untappd are barrel-aged Stouts; the tenth is a Double IPA.
A U.K.-based brewer tells GBH that their brewery was uninvited from an international beer festival when organizers saw the brewery’s average Untappd scores were lower than those of other attendees. But, this brewer also admits to using Untappd scores themselves to gauge whether or not they might want to collaborate with another brewery they haven’t worked with before. (This brewer asked not to be named because they fear backlash from the industry in speaking about these decisions.)
“So it works both ways,” they say. “I’m guilty as well.”
Untappd ratings are even determining the styles of beer this brewery makes.
“We know if we produce a Lager that we’ll score low … Your really hoppy, really intense beers, your high-ABV beers score really, really well,” the U.K. brewer says. “Whereas subtler beers—Lagers, Wheat Beers, Table Beers—tend to score quite poorly. Now I totally have to take it into account because bars do check your Untappd score before they purchase.”
This also translates to e-retailers, whose importance has grown during the COVID era. A second email provided to GBH—in addition to the one provided by 2nd Shift—shows Tavour has gone so far as to tell a brewery the company won’t consider working with it until the brewery has five or more beers boasting above a four-star rating, with over 100 ratings per beer.
“I don’t necessarily agree with Tavour. … They’re doing that for the main nature of supply and demand,” Untappd founder Greg Avola told the GBH podcast this month. (Avola announced in January he would be stepping away from day-to-day operations at Untappd.) “People want to have a beer everyone else says they want to have, so that helps them provide that kind of metric.”
EeBria, a U.K. online beer wholesaler and retailer, displays Untappd scores next to well-reviewed beers on its wholesale site. EeBria’s CEO, David Jackson, says his platform only displays Untappd scores above 3.7, because that’s the threshold at which the score begins to encourage a purchase, based on years of buying behavior through the online store.
“Below 3.7 there’s almost no difference at all. … But then when it hits above that 3.7, it starts to ramp up quite nicely,” he says. “The big Imperial Stouts, your big hoppy IPAs, and heavily fruited Sours are all those high scorers. That’s always, I think, going to be a problem for these kinds of crowd-review sites.”
The problem he’s talking about is homogenization: the fear that using Untappd scores to guide decisions will result in tap lists full of IPAs and fruited Sours. Hawthorne Bottle Shoppe in St. Petersburg, Florida, for example, displayed Untappd ratings alongside the five IPAs, three pastry-flavored beers, one fruited sour, and two Lagers that it recently offered through its 11 draft lines.
In an attempt to combat homogenization, EeBria allows retailers to filter beers by style and to see high-scorers within each category, which Jackson believes encourages stylistic diversity on shelves and draft menus. But he may be optimistic about how much retailers really value stylistic diversity versus high-scoring hyped beers that drinkers are eager to buy, providing faster-moving products and higher revenues for businesses.
“The pub isn’t going to sit there going, ‘I only buy beers that are 3.8 and above. So I’m never going to buy a Bitter,’” he says.
In a mid-February tweet, Avola acknowledged: “Untappd still has a lot more to do with education and exploration and I hope that continues in the future.”GAME ON
Contrast ratings on Untappd with reviews on RateBeer. The core RateBeer users are self-described “beer nerds.” The site’s most active raters spend, on average, 10 minutes writing each beer review, according to founder Joe Tucker. In that way, RateBeer is quite different from Untappd’s mobile-based interface that encourages ratings and check-ins while a person is in public, probably socializing with friends rather than typing a poetic review. Interestingly, a 2019 study published in the Journal of Marketing Research found that consumers give more credence to reviews they know were posted via a mobile device: “Consumers assume mobile reviews are more physically effortful to craft and subsequently equate this greater perceived effort with the credibility of the review.”
Untappd saw, during the pandemic, that check-ins plummeted during COVID-related bar and restaurant shutdowns, when users weren’t drinking in public. The app registered a -93% decrease in check-ins to public venues beginning March 13. In response, the company created Untappd At Home, a check-in location that allowed drinkers to check in to “home” from anywhere in the world. This illustrates a core principle of Untappd: the app is a conduit for social interaction, not just around “cheers” or comments on other users’ check-ins, but for socializing in the real world as well.
Universally, the incentives a website or an app creates through its interface shape its users’ behavior. Because RateBeer was slow to develop an app, most of its ratings took place via webpage, encouraging longer posts. It also had a strong forum culture that promoted discussion of travel and regional beer styles; Tucker deliberately hired moderators from around the world to translate its content into many languages.
Untappd shares some of RateBeer’s incentive structures, but differs in key ways.
“One regrettable incentive that we were creating was that people wanted to drink different beers instead of the same beer. That may have affected the market; I’m not sure,” Tucker says. “But the gamification at Untappd is much more developed.”
Gamification is a tool apps use to keep users engaged beyond the app’s core function. Because most users might not drink beer every day, the app has to offer other reasons to open it more frequently. Untappd has social media integration, and awards badges to users who take certain actions: checking in a certain number of beers within a style category, for instance.
Given that social function, Untappd users are also potentially swayed by the ratings of others, and by their own biases and preferences. The example of an Untappd user rating a beer with one star and then writing in the review text that they don’t like that style is so ubiquitous, it’s become an industry meme. (The Instagram account @untappdwtf, which posts screenshots of Untappd reviews, writes in its bio: “I don’t like malt 1.75/5.”) In a typical example, this 2.5-star review for Alaskan Brewing’s award-winning Smoked Porter from Feb. 21 reads: “Holy camp fire in a bottle. Just a tad to [sic] much smoke for my taste.”
Avola acknowledged on the GBH podcast that those types of ratings were a problem for the app, and that people’s biases toward certain hyped breweries or styles were swaying ratings: “If people don’t rate based on what their experiences are with the beer they’re having, that’s where it gets kind of muddy.”
But Avola stopped short of prescribing any solutions. Trace Smith says instances of users rating beers poorly because they don’t like that style are “isolated.” But they’re frequent enough to populate @untappdwtf’s entire Instagram account.
“I don’t think that the Untappd rating is necessarily a direct correlation across styles with commercial success,” Smith says.
Yet the industry is awash with instances of breweries’ Untappd ratings barring them from economic opportunities, whether that’s attending a beer festival or selling their beers through Tavour. Some low ratings, whether entered as a joke or as a response to a beer style the drinker doesn’t like, can actually lead to lost sales. As the economic ravages of the pandemic drag on, lifelines like e-commerce sales matter more than ever.
Untappd ratings’ influence is unlikely to wane as bars reopen, festivals come back, and social lives return to a more normal state. Smith says that as that happens, Next Glass’ priority will be to further integrate Untappd into its suite of products, which currently includes BeerAdvocate, beer publication Hop Culture, and e-commerce site Oznr. That means the stickier points of Untappd ratings—the low scores for certain styles, for example—are only likely to become more influential.
Smith hints at further purchases that will allow the company to increase its ability to gather information about customers and their interactions with beer. This will allow the growing company to collect data and potentially use it to personalize experiences and influence purchasing options.
The more Next Glass knows about Untappd users and the more it’s able to provide that data to its properties and partners, the more that data’s influence grows. But whether the data should be considered reflective of beer drinkers’ preferences in a way that drives decisions is an open question. Smith is adamant that, regardless of how the app’s data is used, Untappd has been a net positive for U.S. craft beer. Encouraging beer drinkers to explore beer—regardless of how they rate it and what consequences result from that—is posited as a win for beer overall.
“If we brought more people to craft beer who’ve heard about Untappd, downloaded it, checked in a couple beers, really enjoyed that experience and then because of that, it’s a part of their onboarding experience to the craft journey,” Smith says, “I think it’s hard to say that we haven’t been a tailwind rather than a headwind.”SOME DATA, ANY DATA
Beer rating tools are nothing new. BeerAdvocate was founded in 1996; RateBeer came online in 2000. And a segment of craft beer drinkers have always used such scores to make purchasing decisions. In 2005 or 2006, RateBeer sold a T-shirt that read: “Loved by few, hated by many,” referencing brewers’ feelings about its ratings and rankings. Today, Untappd could do the same.
Aggregate ratings are free to anyone with a smartphone, and the ease of the Untappd interface makes it much more appealing than spreadsheets full of sales data. A scale of one-to-five promises to quantify the most potent magic in craft beer: hype.
The expectation of simple, accessible business data is part of a much broader trend, says Caryn Wille, a senior user experience designer at Google. There used to be a clear split between business-facing or enterprise tools and consumer-facing tools; enterprise tools could be clunky and complicated, but users accepted that as the norm.
“But as people interact with better and better consumer design, they have higher expectations for enterprise design,” Wille says. “My hypothesis is one of the most appealing things about Untappd [for business owners] is that it is consumer-facing. It’s really straightforward.”
More robust data sets that include scan data and standardized market research do exist—but they require time to sort and interpret. Or a business could simply track and analyze its own sales data in various ways—a free but time-consuming option. A business could also pay for Untappd for Business to gain greater insights, but again, none of these options are as free and easy as simply looking up Untappd scores on the app.
“People want technology to do the work for them now,” Wille says. “That’s the expectation people bring: ‘This app or this technology should help me do my job, it shouldn’t just dump the data on me.’”
Untappd’s straightforwardness, though, might come at the expense of comprehensive data: Untappd’s raters are a narrow segment of the beer-drinking population.
“There’s an adage you’ve probably heard: Good and cheap and fast, pick two,” says Michael Uhrich, founder of Seventh Point Analytic Consulting and former chief economist for the Beer Institute. “So most folks we’re talking about here are small and on tight budgets and they need stuff in a hurry, and that tends to make their default decision: This is the fast, cheap thing.”
He says that for bars trying to choose which beers to stock, or for distributors trying to decide whether to carry a particular brewery’s products, sales data would be a much richer tool than Untappd scores. And that sales data is generally available for free, with a bit of effort to find and interpret it. Making the subsequent effort to present that data to a distributor or retailer in a compelling way is where small breweries sometimes fall short.
“If a brewery wants to convince a retailer or distributor to fairly weigh the Untappd score of a particular beer, they need to be bringing them something that they can weigh that against,” Uhrich says. “And most suppliers are not walking into their meeting with anything to measure against that Untappd rating.”
Tucker agrees that RateBeer’s ratings are not analogous to commercial success. RateBeer doesn’t offer the ability to rate hard seltzers, for example, yet hard seltzer is a $4 billion market in the U.S. and is nested within the beer category in sales data tracking.
If a brewery were to scan RateBeer forums to find out whether drinkers liked hard seltzer, that search wouldn’t reflect reality. This disparity is fine with Tucker. To him, RateBeer ratings are about “connoisseurship,” not whether something is commercially successful. To gauge that, he says, “You might get better feedback from checking the till.”
Anthony Gladman contributed reporting to this story.Words by Kate Bernot