Beer by the numbers? Hmmm.
In the art world, painting by numbers is a joke: Even if your aunt’s loving production of Grandma Moses’ best work is a family treasure, it’s still amateurish, a number missed occasionally, the color red substituted for ochre.
But what about RateBeer.com? Anybody can vote for their favorite beer. just long on and vote. No qualifications needed. Then the site crunches the numbers and spews out lists — best beers and breweries in the United States; best beers in Sri Lanka. The mind boggles.
Think about it: Joe Tucker, Ratebeer’s number one guy, says they average 25,000 separate visits a day. Tucker crunches the data _ and produces an amazing set of lists, which have not become famous because of their modesty:
Best beer in the world: According to RateBeer.com it’s Westvleteran Abt 12.
This is truly a great beer. Tim Webb, author of the Good Beer Guide to Belgium (CAMRA Books, 2005) says this:
“One of the world’s great barleywines, a dark, intense vinous brew that should improve for up to 10 years in the cellar.”
Here’s the question: Can the masses on the web _ those among the 25,000 daily visitors to RateBeer.com have such good judgment? And how about the second best beer in the world, according to RateBeer.com: Three Floyds Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout, Three Floyds, Munster, IN.
or number three: Bells Expedition Stout, Kalamazoo Brewing, Kalamazoo, or number four: Kuhnhenn Raspberry Eisbock, Kuhnhenn Brewing, Warren, MI, or number five: AleSmith Speedway Stout, AleSmith Brewing, San Diego, CA.
Joe Tucker makes no excuses. “Mostly what we do, we just open it up to anyone who wants to share their opinion,” he said. “We make some provisions against trolls — people who show up on the site and cause harm. There are a couple of mathematical tricks we do to weed them out.”
Trolls can be ratings written in a deliberately insulting, weird manner, designed to provoke outraged response and overload the site.
Tucker adds that ratings aren’t strictly a numbers game. Beers with fewer ratings can show up in lists early on and the numbers for beers with huge responses in a short time are balanced somewhat.
In theory, it may be possible for a dedicated group of users to rate a beer very highly and push it up in the ratings. But Tucker says that what happens is that people read about the beer on the site, then travel to find it. “Ninety percent of the time the early mystique is destroyed,” he said.
I did this interview on the phone last week — then, when I sat down to write it as promised in my Oakland Tribune beer column , I saw another flaw:
The web has no Audit Bureau of Circulation like newspapers do. How do we know RateBeer.com isn’t doing what some newspaper publishers did before the ABC: They scooped the papers off the press and drove them to a warehouse somewhere, then claimed those copies as paid circulation (allowing them to charge advertisers more). On the web, that might mean cooking the numbers or nudging them toward better beer or worse beer or…?
Tucker hasn’t responded, but I’m sure he will and when he does, I’ll post his reply on this blog.
Skepticism aside, the site’s great fun and because the data’s digital, it gets cut many ways: best beers in California. Best Beers in Sri Lanka. You can also vote and for $12.99, one can become a member and gain access to articles written by expert beer journalists.
Founder Bill Buchanan started RateBeer.com in Atlanta. “It wound up to be too much work for him,” Tucker says. “He handed the reins to me in April, 2000. I was living in Berkeley at the time, but I moved out to Austin (TX).”
He gets help with the data from Josh Oakes, who originally lived in Toronto, Ont. but now lives in British Columbia. “We’re a completely virtual operation,” Tucker says.
Orignally from Southern California, Tucker moved to San Francisco after graduating from the University of California, San Diego. “After college, I bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco, I slept on floors and worked in a coffee shop,” he said.
He got caught up in the dot.com boom and crashed when the boom went bust. He said he’s always liked beer and Northern California. So RateBeer.com was a natural fit.
Joe and his wife and new baby are headed back here from Bush-land next week. Home will be in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. Two good reasons, Tucker says: the Russian River and Russian River Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa.
Welcome Joe and company.
Top Breweries in California*
1. AleSmith Brewing Company,San Diego
2.Stone Brewing Co., San Marcos
3.Pizza Port (Solana Beach)
4.Bear Republic Brewing Company, Healdsburg
5.Russian River Brewing, Santa Rosa
6.Anchor Brewing, San Francisco
7.Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico
8. Pizza Port (Carlsbad)
9. North Coast Brewing Co., Fort Bragg
10.Lagunitas Brewing Co., Petaluma.