The power of the thumb

Useful channel for feedback, or tool of tyrannical mob rule? Katie Taylor asks how Untappd and other social review platforms are shaping the craft beer movement.
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From behind a bar, Untappers can be spotted a mile off. Even the subtle ones. They’re taking a photo of their beer in front of the corresponding pump clip, half listening to their friends while they give a good beer 3.8/5 because they like it, but they don’t ‘like it’ like it. Don’t hate though because, let’s face it, we need all the joy we can get, especially if it involves beer. A moment’s distracted tip-tapping is worth it, if it brings a smile to their eager little faces. Turn on your WiFi and let them do it.

Having said that, like all social platforms, there’s been a lot of speculation about potential dark sides to the app, and of rating and reviewing beers on social media in general. For many, the quest of finding hyped beers and rating them, whether on Untappd or via Instagram, Twitter or a thousand other virtual mouthpieces, is proving a curse rather than a blessing. The “gamification” of drinking has been discussed, with drinkers expressing concerns that good beers are being ignored in the pursuit of inferior limited edition brews by insatiable hypebeasts. There has also been talk around venues using Untappd to choose beers that are more popular in order to attract customers, especially in competitive locations.

Untappd has an estimated seven million users worldwide, with around 200,000 of its active users based in the UK according to co-founder Greg Avola. With this many people logging into the app at least once a week to leave at least one review, that’s a lot of freely available customer feedback. Just think, some of it might even be valuable.

Due to all the free, accessible customer opinion sitting there waiting to be read, online reviews have developed a secondary use. By tagging a brewery, drinkers are letting brewers know exactly what they think of the beer they are drinking, in real time. It’s possible then – probably even – to assume that some brewers have taken some of this information and used the feedback to their advantage.

“We do look at Untappd ‘reviews’ from time to time, but don’t pay much attention,” said Chris Clough from Torrside Brewing, sharing an opinion that many small brewers have of the app. “You never know when someone’s had a beer for one thing; if it’s their tenth beer of the evening, their opinion might not be entirely reliable… I suppose if something got a really low score across the board, we probably wouldn’t bother rebrewing it.”

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And here it starts. Making the call to rebrew a beer based on instant feedback might seem like a small decision, but it proves a level of reactiveness and customer interaction within the industry that hasn’t really been discussed before.

Moorhouse’s director Lee Williams said that his brewery had taken a more definite approach to rebrewing reactively. “Our White Witch started as a seasonal ale which grew to become a four-month special before eventually becoming one of our core range. We listened to the consumer and publicans to make this decision. In regards to Untappd/social reviews...more recently we had feedback for our M1 Pilot Brewery beers which led to Penhul and Sabbath Flight becoming big-batch brews.”

Michelle Gay, marketing manager at Hawkshead Brewery believes Untappd can be useful, but ultimately it’s low down on the brewery’s feedback priority list. “Of course we listen to comments from social sites and rating apps, and also our trade customers too. You can often find us sat round discussing new styles, ingredients or beers we’d like to brew. We are very influenced by current and upcoming trends, not only in the beer world but the food world too.”

However some breweries are taking the feedback they find online much more seriously. Dan Logan, director at Eyes Brewing finds the process a bit of a double-edged sword.

“It’s really great to see what’s selling well,” he said. “If people are digging a certain style of beer then it makes it easier for me to keep selling that product. On the flipside… it’s not nice to hear a dismissive view of what you are creating. That being said, there have been beers that have deserved to be criticised and even though we don’t like it we have to listen. One of our beers, “Deconstructed Jaffa Cake” offered a lot but didn’t bounce and that became pretty evident as we saw the reviews coming in. It wasn’t a bad beer by any stretch, but it didn’t deliver enough of what people were expecting from the name. We learnt a lot from that.”

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The most interesting point Dan makes here is that not only does a customer review potentially affect the brewing of a beer, but also the marketing of it. Deconstructed Jaffa Cake’s flaws, if they were flaws, were highlighted by real drinkers in real pubs and were then beamed straight back to the people who made it. As a result, Eyes Brewing have taken a different approach to the way they present their beers to the public. As we say on the internet: make you think.

North Brewing Co.’s communications and events manager Sarah Hardy maintains that although they do read Untappd reviews, it doesn’t influence their choices on new beers they brew. However, she did mention one reaction they had to feedback gained specifically from online reviews: “We have rebrewed beers, most recently Kurious Oranj, after seeing that they’ve gone down so well. It was both customer feedback and trade feedback that made us rebrew. The first batch sold out on pre-order which meant that not everyone was able to get their hands on it.”

As for negative reviews, Sarah says the brewery as a whole isn’t too concerned. “When we get bad reviews on Untappd it does bother us, but we also feel that we can stand 100 per cent behind the products, so try not to get too caught up with them.”

Not all negative reviews can be ignored, though. One unexpected side-effect of instant reviewing comes from the personal nature of the product being scrutinised. Most Untappd users might never assume their rating was being looked at by the people they’re discussing, but on the internet, you should never underestimate the range of your audience.

Eyes Brewing’s Dan explains why the whole team doesn’t read the reviews: “Our head brewer used to look at [Untappd] but one bad review out of twenty good ones would ruin his weekend. I try and put my own spin on the criticism in a way that is helpful to his brewing process.”

Behind the curtain, social media reviews are incrementally changing the beers that reach us at the bar. It would seem that the thousands of reviews and ratings posted each day are making a small but noticeable impact, no matter where they are posted. Reactive brewing and marketing is happening, and although the majority of brewers are careful to avoid knee-jerk reactions, it’s easy to see why negative comments could cause a team to change a recipe, or even stop selling a beer altogether. Conversely, seeing that overwhelmingly good reviews have brought beers back from special edition extinction, the love/hate relationship between the ruthless-but-faceless internet customer and brewer can work in the industry’s favour.

It’s important to understand the impact of customer feedback, but also to maintain a healthy level of cynicism. Breweries like Wishbone refreshingly have no time for it at all, and it’s working for them. “We tweak recipes mostly on what we think about a beer in the brewery rather than reacting to social media,” head brewer and owner Adrian Chapman says. And Neptune Brewery agrees: “It’s what we want to brew and what we think works for us,” says co-owner and brewer Julie O’Grady, who also founded the influential Ladies That Beer group. “We don’t want to brew the newest beers just because it’s a trend.”

In fairness to both, when was the last time a person left a review that wasn’t partly just peacocking or airing a grievance? Taking these insights with a pinch of salt isn’t just wise, it’s absolutely necessary. By avoiding them completely, maybe they’re enjoying a parallel world where they can create beers at will, maintaining a workable level of blissful, beneficial ignorance. Sounds ideal.

Dan at Eyes Brewing has some sage words to wrap up with. “When Untappd first came out I didn’t own a brewery and I used it all the time to voice my ill-thought-through criticisms. When I started in the industry I became very aware of how hurtful an unfairly dismissive review can be.”

“Something like Untappd could be used for good,” he concedes. “It would be really useful for me if we could get useful data that shows drinking habits in real time split into demographics of age and region*. As it is, it’s more of a force for bad. Breweries all know that it’s a waste of time, yet most of the people I know in the industry check it regularly and compete with others on there.”

So the next time you reach for your phone in the pub to broadcast your abject disgust, remember that your words may be used to influence a beer’s future. Is that empowering, or is it scary? That’s for your thumbs to decide.

*At the time of writing this article, Untappd were unable to offer live data, or provide data to be split into demographics for use within industry.

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