The word “saturation” pops up a lot in conversations about the current American craft beer scene. It’s often in regard to hazy IPAs, but it can also apply to the industry as a whole. In 2020, the United States reached 8,764 for its brewery count. That’s almost double where we were in 2015, and more than four times 2010’s 1,758 total.
BeerAdvocate and RateBeer were founded in 1996 and 2000, respectively. DRAFT Magazine (R.I.P.), which regularly ran beer reviews alongside other industry and culture content, kicked off in 2006. At the time, reviews helped those interested in beer discover new brews and make purchasing decisions. They were all valuable navigation tools as options suddenly grew exponentially from a handful of mass-produced light lagers to riffs on European styles pouring from microbreweries all over the country. Reviews were worth the time investment, both in writing them and reading them, because people were still learning what different styles were and the beers being reviewed stuck around — one could read about a brew and then actually go find it.
Considering the staggering growth in the beer industry since then, though, it’s worth questioning: What’s the point of beer reviews anymore? Is that kind of time investment logical? When we’re speaking about professionally assigned, researched, written, and published reviews (compared to quick “4.7” ratings on Untappd), who are these reviews even for?
A quick scroll through Instagram, or through the “press release” section of industry news site Brewbound, is enough to confirm that, yes, every day is a fresh flurry of new releases from breweries across the country.
“We have a lot more breweries than we had five years ago,” says Brewers Association chief economist Bart Watson. “So there’s more to keep track of, but it doesn’t necessarily mean every individual brewery is putting out a lot more beers. Even if the average number of beers per brewery remains constant, we still have tons more releases.” Watson adds that craft beer’s business model has shifted in the last five years or so, too; it’s now more predicated on getting people to your taproom, a goal many breweries accomplish with relentless novelty and variety.
Writing and editing for outlets like Good Beer Hunting and Craft Beer & Brewing, Kate Bernot was an editor at DRAFT before the magazine shuttered. “Ten years ago, there were just fewer beers, let’s be real,” she says. “These small taproom-only releases were not the phenomenon they are now. People were having, I think, a more homogenous beer experience across the U.S.” Fewer beers and this more homogenous market of options, Bernot says, made it easier for reviews to reach readers and introduce them to craft styles they could actually find.
With so many breweries and limited shelf space to compete for, there’s a constant pressure to keep consumers excited. There’s the path of consistency, sure, promising fans they’ll be happy with the same core beers you’ve been brewing for a decade, but in the age of Untappd, with craft beer enthusiasts on a perpetual hunt for what’s new and now, releases that tick the boxes of limited, rare, and novel seem like a more surefire method. When Elysian Brewing opened in Seattle in 1996, says co-founder Joe Bisacca, there were only about 450 breweries nationwide.
“The rule of thumb was you needed a pale ale, ESB, stout, wheat, and maybe an amber or pilsner,” Bisacca says. Now, he adds, there are nearly 9,000 breweries packaging their beer, vying for retail accounts. “Innovation is a necessary thing to just get a seat at the table. If you don’t, you’re left out in the cold.”
Rob Day, senior director of marketing at Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers in Framingham, Mass., thinks craft beer has hit a peak in terms of pace. “I’m not sure people can release beers much faster or more limited than now,” he says. “We’re down to single-barrel batches and it’s such a small amount of beer to talk about and promote.” In Nashville, Jackalope Brewing Company CEO and co-founder Bailey Spaulding says that while it was prompted by pandemic restrictions shutting down their taproom for six months, her brewery’s team released 27 different limited brews in 2020.
While certainly not every brewery is churning out the same number of releases yearly — some are debuting even more — the very basic math of 8,764 breweries keeping consumers engaged with limited releases equals a constant deluge of beers nearly impossible to keep up with, especially for beer publications covering the entire country. Add to the equation that not only has the number of breweries, and therefore releases, skyrocketed, but the number of beer media outlets has dwindled. Jessica Infante is a reporter at Brewbound who has worked in the industry for almost 11 years. “There was plenty more beer media around than today,” she says of the scene five, 10 years ago. “There were lots of outlets to review products, and a lot fewer breweries making those products.”
Now, it seems the fastest and easiest way for people to discover releases is social media, namely Instagram. Jackie, a Virginia-based beer Instagrammer known as @thatonebeergirl, says she mostly finds new beers via Instagram or email subscriptions with breweries and bottle shops. In Tennessee, Anita Carter, a.k.a. @nashbeerfluencer, says she also finds Instagram most useful. And in Florida, Jamal D., or @thehopcircles, says “Instagram plays a huge role in what beers I’m trying or looking to try outside of Florida. Before Instagram, I would just drink local beer or a new IPA on tap at one of my local bars.”
A beer journalist who now has his own beer and so has experienced beer reviews from both sides, Ale Sharpton points out that Instagram has an unrivaled ability to broadcast so many components of craft beer to so many people at once.
“Social media shows off different styles of beer, different cool artwork on cans, different things going on socially,” Sharpton says. “It brings attention to brewing, and what different brewing choices bring, good and bad. It’s helped with diversity, showing Black, women, Latinx, and underrepresented communities both brewing and drinking, so it’s bringing all these people into beer.” With a quick post of an image on Instagram, a beer can reach thousands instantly, power that a publication’s beer review just can’t boast.
Beer reviews may no longer serve a discovery and navigation purpose in an industry where, by the time you read a review, the beer it’s about may well be long gone. But that doesn’t mean they serve no purpose. In fact, there are two important jobs for beer reviews now: education, and helping breweries stand out to retail accounts.
Beer reviews have always been tricky because of their subjectivity. There are hundreds of beer styles, thousands of beers, and millions of beer drinkers; varying opinions and preferences abound.
“Everybody doesn’t have the same palate,” Sharpton says. “It’s not like buying a car, where you’d read reviews to find something concrete, like what has the best gas mileage. Someone could hate sour beers and give them a low rating, then a sour fan comes along and says, ‘What are you talking about? This is fantastic.’”
Social media and Untappd have democratized beer. People can find beers on their own feeds and develop their own reviews for themselves, feeling less of a need to rely on professional reviewers for suggestions.
“People who use Untappd don’t necessarily want to read reviews by ‘experts,’” says beer writer and author Jeff Alworth. “Indeed, while a number of influencers and consultants call themselves experts, there’s really no famous reviewer or tastemaker in the beer world (à la [wine’s] Robert Parker of 2000). Beer is the people’s drink, and people feel entirely comfortable in their own tongues.”
What even the most subjective beer reviews can offer, however, when written by professional writers and beer judges, is education. Infante says she thinks reviews can help consumers become more informed beer drinkers. Rather than reading reviews to find out what beer to buy, consumers might today be best served by reading reviews for beer they’re already drinking, to see how their experience tracks with that of the reviewer’s, which could help build a stronger understanding of their own palates.
Jamie Bogner is the co-founder and editorial director of Craft Beer & Brewing, which caters to professional brewers, homebrewers, and dedicated beer enthusiasts. Reviews are a big part of the magazine’s content. “For us, there’s a component [of our reviews] that’s about helping folks develop their own language around beer and understand the connection between flavor and language,” he says. “You can try this beer and read this review and as you’re tasting the beer, you’re understanding what it means when someone says catty or woody or bright.”
@thatonebeergirl’s Jackie says she uses reviews for this purpose rather than individual beer discovery. “[It]t is usually because I have already opened my beer and tasted it and I want to see what others thought of the beer and compare their tasting notes to mine,” she says. “Also, if it is a new hop or a new-to-me hop and I can’t pinpoint the flavor, I’ll read reviews to help me decipher what I’m tasting.”
Those who are interested in growing their own beer education are one of the major audience groups for beer reviews in 2021. Writing for both Good Beer Hunting, which focuses on business and culture, and Craft Beer & Brewing, which drills down into brewing, ingredients, flavors, and aromas, Bernot identifies the latter’s readership as “deeply invested in beer recipes, processes, and development.”
“They care about homebrewing and beer judging, so a beer scoring high with professionally trained judges, they care about that,” she says. “They use scores and reviews to calibrate their palates to certain styles, and to know they’re drinking something reliably good.”
The other major audience for beer reviews today? Retail buyers. Along with innovation and consistent quality, another necessary piece of the puzzle when it comes to snagging precious shelf space for breweries is storytelling: What are you and your beer all about? Bogner says we are increasingly seeing breweries build their reputations on strong reviews and medal wins at competitions to stand out from the crowd to buyers at stores, restaurants, and bars. And buyers can use professionally written reviews from trusted critics and judges to delve deeper than Untappd ratings on beer quality when making purchasing decisions.
“Trying to get your beer into a new account, reviews lend some credibility,” Jackalope’s Spaulding says. “That’s still a useful tool for us. A brewery might be trying to say, ‘Hey, we’re doing this new thing,’ where maybe they don’t need to have every single one of their hazy IPAs reviewed, but want to show off something else they can flex their muscles in. That’s where it’s helpful to have a beer reviewed well.”
Positive reviews and competition victories can help build legacies for beers breweries would like to make flagships (which subsequently erases reviews’ relevance). Elysian’s Space Dust IPA is No. 1 in the brewery’s portfolio, Bisacca says, with a huge volume compared to its limited-release beers. Reviews help beers like Space Dust grow into retail accounts and solid sales numbers, but then, as Infante points out, who really needs to read a review for a beer that’s been around for years, like a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale? The reputation is already there.
Still, breweries looking to build brand stories off their core beers with limited releases will want those positive reviews in order to portray consistency to retail accounts as well as consumers. Jack’s Abby pioneered the hoppy lager style with Hoponius Union. That brew’s been a core beer for the brewery for a decade now, so for many craft beer fans, Jack’s Abby devotees, and even retail buyers, reading a review on it would be unnecessary. But reviews can and do help build on Hoponius Union’s brand when Jack’s Abby releases limited offerings that tie back to that flagship, like the Kiwi Rising hoppy lager, Day explains.
The days of craft beer enthusiasts flipping through a magazine to learn about beer styles and find beers brewed in those styles to try via reviews are, for better or worse, gone. Beer reviews have not, however, lost their ability to help breweries develop solid track records nor their value in pushing drinkers’ palates and beer knowledge forward. Those two factors make reviews relevant no matter how many single-barrel releases or limited offerings bombard your Instagram feed on the daily.