Some craft brewers are wary of the investment.
In recent years, Anheuser-Busch InBev has continued to stick its fingers in everything beer-related. “The High End,” Anheuser-Busch’s craft beer acquisition arm, now owns ten different formerly independent craft breweries. Meanwhile, “ZX Ventures” ABI’s “global disruptive growth group, incubator, and venture capital team” has been dumping money into a wide array of projects – things like boozy tea and beer flavoring kits. In the past year, both of these groups have gotten their own beer websites, called The Beer Necessities and October respectively. All of these moves have been met with some level of pushback from the beer community as the world’s largest brewer continues to infiltrate the craft beer space, but the revelation of ABI’s latest move could be its most controversial to date: ZX Venture has invested in RateBeer – one of the largest and most popular user generated beer rating sites.
As the excitement around craft beer exploded in the past decade-plus, two sites served as major outposts for fans to share their opinions on every brew out there: BeerAdvocate and RateBeer. At times, these sites seemed capable of making or breaking beers and breweries. A high rating was a badge of honor, with many brewers posting their scores or even linking directly to these sites as a sign of their credentials. Top rated beers could become nearly impossible to find. More recently, the app Untappd has stolen a bit of these sites’ thunder, but if anything, the success of Untappd has proven that beer rating is as popular as ever.
That popularity and influence of beer rating sites is what makes ABI’s investment in RateBeer so concerning to the beer community. As much backlash as The High End has faced every time it buys a small brewer, Anheuser-Busch makes beer – so acquiring brewers makes sense. But the recent moves to be invested in the discussion around beer, first by launching beer websites and now by buying into a beer rating site, could be seen as a conflict of interests. In announcing the investment (which despite the recent statement actually happened back in October), RateBeer’s Joe Tucker wrote, “ZX Ventures has the utmost respect for the integrity of the data and the unbiased service we offer to the entire community and industry.” Then again, if Ford invested in Consumer Reports, would you continue to trust its truck reviews as much as before?
In a nutshell, that’s the biggest problem AB InBev will face with this sale: RateBeer – a site inherently tied to the explosion of independent brewers in the United States – could be viewed as having been undermined. Whether it's the case or not, the optics could outweigh the facts. Some craft brewers, with outspoken Dogfish Head Brewing founder Sam Calagione leading the charge, have already requested their beers be removed from RateBeer’s database. If brewers were able to get their products off the site (which could be tricky legally speaking), that would certainly reduce its appeal, but the fact that major players in the brewing world are calling for it to happen might already enough to damage the brand, especially when beer lovers have other options like Untappd. RateBeer is user-generated, and if users stop posting ratings there, the site will falter. It does give one pause to wonder if RateBeer could be facing its “Myspace moment.”
If the end is near for RateBeer, it would also mark the end of a craft beer era. Though a bit past its prime, it was one of the most important communities for beer lovers and has shaped the discussion on beer in innumerable ways. While the impact of ABI's investment is yet to be determined, what is true is that craft beer fans are an ardent bunch. Whether that passion causes them to flee from a community they once flocked to remains to be seen.