Sunday, June 04, 2017

What to Do About RateBeer

I've been a member of RateBeer for over 15 years, and I was for quite some time a major contributor to the site as one of the leading volunteer administrators. Over the years I've pulled back considerably from involvement, but it's still been the site where I enter my beer ratings, and what I use to look up beers and places.
Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI) is the parent company of Budweiser, and has long been accused of anti-competitive practices. It's the reason why I refuse to buy any product they make, including beers produced by the many breweries they've purchased in recent years (e.g., Devils Backbone, Wicked Weed, Elysian, and Goose Island). Their acquisitions have been targeted such that the breweries are in most regions of the country (nothing yet in the Midwest), with various areas of specialization and style strengths. I'm not anti-big beer, I'm anti-ABI.

Friday's announcement that RateBeer had sold a minority stake to a subsidiary of ABI hit me like a ton of bricks, and while I've made a couple of posts on FaceBook about it, I've still been coming to terms with it, and what my response should be. With 48 hours to digest everything, I'm pretty sure that I now know my full response.

What concerns do I have about the announcement?

  1. It's eight months late. The deal went through in October, and only when an article was about to be published about what had happened did RateBeer finally acknowledge that ABI was already working with the site. There's no telling how long the silence would have continued without that outside discovery. I don't buy the claim that the delay was "because the two sides wanted to get 'points on the board' to prove the value of the partnership without the 'disruption' of making it public." I mean, perhaps that's also true, but there are far greater benefits of silence, including:
    • ABI access to the data without anyone getting upset and potentially leaving (as users are now contemplating doing); 
    • No potential walkout of brewers from the big beer festival RateBeer holds in January; 
    • No association of the change in the Terms of Service last Fall with the corporate investment; and of course 
    • No scrutinizing what's going on at the site for the time folks were unaware.
  2. It's a huge conflict of interest. Consumer Reports is wholly independent for a reason -- would you trust their reviews of dishwashers if Maytag were a minority investor? It's slightly different here, because the users provide the reviews, not RateBeer. But given that RateBeer compiles the data, and decides how to weight the data, certainly the potential exists for shenanigans, and I'd feel that way if any brewery acquired a stake in the site. I don't think they ever would do something illegitimate given the backlash that would follow if it ever came to light, but to say it looks bad is putting it mildly (and brings into question every shift in data weighting going forward). For similar reasons, I'm not as concerned as I originally was that ABI already may have an option to buy a majority stake/sole ownership -- I believe it's in their best interests to present RateBeer as majority-owned and operated by an independent entity, as I believe it's in their best interest that ratings continue to pile in. Which brings me to...  
  3. What's in it for ABI? Lots of speculation on the RateBeer forums on this one, some even suggesting that it's simply a way to make money. For me, I think it's pretty simple. Joe Tucker, a friend and the person behind RateBeer, states, "The API is being expanded so journalists, other breweries, industry watchers, as well as app makers, academics, scholars and researchers will have better access to the same data that ZX [the ABI subsidiary] has access to." I take this to mean that ABI is helping to improve the data the site produces, in exchange for making all that data publicly available. RateBeer data isn't going to help ABI on its core Budweiser brands, because RateBeer users aren't interested in those brands (and routinely pan them). Instead, I expect that ABI wants the data to assist in making greater penetration in the craft brew market. With its numerous acquisitions, ABI is uniquely situated in the marketplace to take advantage of the information gleaned from the site's data, and I feel this is why ABI bought its stake. Further, I suspect that ABI has little concern with sharing the data with non-commercial interests, or even with competitors that aren't as well situated (especially when ABI had an 8-month head start on accessing the data). To say that the data is available for everyone isn't particularly meaningful when no one else possesses remotely equivalent resources to utilize the information within the data.

So what am I going to do about it?

I've given this a lot of thought over the last 48 hours or so, and consistent with my approach of not buying any ABI products, what I've decided is that I'm not comfortable providing any help whatsoever to ABI's desire to expand further into craft beer. This makes continuing to enter ratings on RateBeer problematic. Unfortunately, it's not as simple as finding another site for my ratings, because my existing ratings aren't readily transferable, I'm used to rating beers in the RateBeer format, and no other site has the information as readily able to be compiled as RateBeer (there's a reason why I've stayed with RateBeer all these years). Perhaps as importantly, what's to stop ABI from making an acquisition of another ratings site?

So with no good alternative to RateBeer, and discomfort with continuing to use Ratebeer, I'm left with the solution of taking my ratings private and independent, just like I was before I joined RateBeer. It's not that big of a deal -- the primary reason for entering my ratings has always been to compile my ratings, and these days it's not so hard to do so in your own file accessible from anywhere you have an internet connection.

As I'd like to have all my existing and future ratings in one place, fortunately RateBeer lets you compile your ratings. And even though it does so in blocks of 1000, and the data is wonky as Hell, it's about as good as I'm likely to get. So I've downloaded my old ratings, am in the process of cleaning them up and converting them into a single file, and will enter new ratings into that file.

Goodbye RateBeer, and good luck to Joe and all the folks still active over there.  I'm fortunate to have made many friends through the site, and over the years have connected with many of them on Facebook and in real life -- I look forward to seeing you/them in the years to come.