Bissell Brothers Swish is one of the highest rated beers on the Untappd app. Photo courtesy of Bissell Brothers Brewing Co.

The drinkers have spoken, and the state’s best beer is Maine Beer Co.’s Dinner, with Bissell Brothers’ Swish snapping at its heels. Or at least, that’s what “check-ins” on the beer rating app Untappd would tell us.

If you’ve ever noticed someone taking a photo of their beer in a brewery tasting room, odds are that person is logging it in on Untappd. But the mobile app is not just a place to rate the beer; it’s also a form of social media (the app’s tagline is “Drink Socially”), where drinkers “friend” one another and can track what beers those around them are drinking. According to a 2020 blogpost by Untappd co-founder Greg Avola, there were about 820,000 unique users from around the world who had checked in at least once (user numbers for Maine are not available).

The highest rated beers on the Untappd app within 25 miles of Portland. Photo by Ben Lisle

What Maine beers do Untappd users most enjoy, besides Swish and Dinner? Run your eyes down the list of the top rated beers within 25 miles of Portland and you’ll notice a pattern: the top 17 are all IPAs.

To be sure, there are some great beers here, including stalwarts like Goodfire Prime, Maine Beer Co. Lunch, Bissell Substance and Orono Tubular. Relative newcomer Belleflower pitches in three delicious hazy IPAs of its own.

But it is also certain that this portrait of the Maine beer scene is a very distorted one – a funhouse mirror that virtually erases the remarkable breadth of expertise and depth of beer culture here. As with any social media app, the users create most of the content, for better or worse. And so, the Untappd universe is hardly a portrait of the world as it is, but a narrow and twisted representation of that world (in this case, a hazy IPA utopia, which isn’t inaccurate, but grossly reductive).

Just about any beer you’re likely to drink has a profile on Untappd, where you’ll find an array of information about the beer, including a description, its ABV and IBUs (a measure of bitterness); how many check-ins you, your Untappd friends and all app users have made with the beer; the ratings for those check-ins; places you can find it; tasting notes from users; an option to add it to a self-created “list” and a scroll of the most recent check-ins from around the world.

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Elsewhere on the app, users can search for breweries through a map feature, look for “trending beers” at different geographical scales, and find lists of top-rated beers and breweries (according to the Untappd user ratings).

Untappd was founded in 2010, and its rise has roughly paralleled the explosion of breweries across the country. According to the Brewers Association, there were 1,813 breweries in the United States in 2010, growing to 9,247 in 2021. The number of breweries in Maine, fueled by regulatory changes in 2011 that allowed breweries to sell their beer for on-site consumption from tasting rooms, jumped from 34 in 2011 to 165 this year, according to the Maine Brewers’ Guild.

It’s not the first beer ratings platform. The websites BeerAdvocate (founded in 1996) and RateBeer (founded in 2000) have long supported online beer drinking communities, including ratings and reviews of specific beers. These tend to be qualitative – often richly so – describing appearance, aroma, body, flavor and finish.

But on Untappd, the great majority of check-ins simply rate the beer numerically (on a scale of 1 to 5, in quarter-point increments), without explanation. The biases of Untappd drinkers are clear from just a casual glance at “trending beers” (which are searchable by distance and style). These tend to be, predictably, pastry stouts, pastry sours and those hazy IPAs. In other words, beers with big, intense flavors. It’s rare indeed to find more delicate or subtle beers with ratings over 4.

Even so, some in the industry take these ratings quite seriously, using them to shape their own decision-making. In a 2021 story for Good Beer Hunting, about the app and its influence, Kate Bernot reported on a number of episodes in which potential partners – like delivery apps, distributors, bars and even festivals – declined to work with breweries due to what were perceived to be inadequate Untappd ratings.

How do local breweries relate to the app? Gene Buonaccorsi, director of marketing at Mast Landing Brewing Co., said: “We don’t spend a ton of time focusing on it, but we do see it as an extension of our brand in little ways.” Untappd can be a drinker’s first encounter with the brewery, so most breweries – particularly larger ones – check to make sure that their beers are accurately cataloged on the app.

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“As far as the ratings go, we look at them, but with a grain of salt,” Buonaccorsi said. “It can be a really good indicator of what is resonating with the public,” and the brewery can “get an immediate reaction about a new beer.” Perhaps more important than the ratings themselves are the occasional user comments, which “can be informative to see how people are interpreting a beer,” he said.

Peter Bissell of Bissell Brothers Brewing Co. remembers that in the brewery’s early days, “being green to the stressful act of putting a product out into the world,” they would often check the app, sometimes engaging with users – and even “embarrassingly” arguing with them. But since moving from Industrial Way to Thompson’s Point in 2016, he’s largely ignored it.

Bissell employees might check in every once in a while, as a form of quality control, to make sure that they aren’t seeing repeated comments that might signal an actual problem with the beer’s production. But user ratings never come up in strategy meetings. “If you base your plans off something like Untappd, you are setting yourself up for an existence of perpetually chasing the market,” he said. That doesn’t mean others aren’t doing it: Bissell says that, judging from private conversations he’s had with brewery managers and owners, “it is clear that in many places outside of New England that Untappd is a major factor in shaping production schedules.”

But not in Maine, according to Bissell. “Untapped is viewed by manufacturers and others with industry skin in the game the same way Yelp is to restaurant owners” – and Bissell would know, as a partner at Highroller Lobster – “that is to say, a platform that gives voices to people who don’t know what they’re talking about.”

As a longtime user of Untappd (since March 2013), I can verify that there are a lot of garbage opinions and ratings there, as in any social media domain. Undoubtedly, some of those have been mine over the years. And while I check in less frequently than I once did, I still find it a very useful tool. I rarely rate beers anymore, but try to leave a narrative record of what I tasted – for others and my future self.

In this way, Untappd functions most prominently as a record of my own beer-drinking history, which has evolved over time, passing through different places and phases – from my very first check-in (Prairie Hop, from Oklahoma’s Prairie Artisan Ales) to my most recent, New Old Stock, a rich and creamy Baltic Porter from Bissell. What’s next? A Bissell Swish: Untappd tells me it’s pretty good.

Ben Lisle is an assistant professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries in Portland’s East Bayside, where he writes about cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Reach him on Twitter at @bdlisle.


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