FOX in the Henhouse

It’s no secret that Big Beer is trying to get its fingers into the craft beer pie by buying up breweries. Breweries such as Goose Island, Ballast Point (in an astounding $1 billion deal with Constellation Brands) and most recently, and possibly most shocking, Wicked Weed Brewing have been snapped up. But when news broke earlier this month that a subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch/InBev bought a minority stake in seminal beer review website, the beer world raised its collective eyebrows.

Since May 2000, Rate Beer has been a haven for enthusiasts to discuss, rate and debate the many aspects of all things beer. The site focuses on reviews posted by the general public, rather than experts. Beers are rated in five categories: Aroma, Appearance, Taste, Palate and Overall. The scores are weighted, then tallied for a final score. Reviewers are also allowed to comment. Reviews range from barebones accounts to in-depth dissertations on esoteric influences the beer may have undergone.

Because the public creates reviews, results are generally accepted as unbiased. Now that AB/InBev holds some of the pursestrings, some in the beer community question the site’s integrity.

AB/InBev acquired a stake in Rate Beer through ZX Ventures, a research firm it owns. ZX’s mission, according to its website, is to mine consumer data from various sources to “better anticipate their future needs.”

In a June 2 statement, Rate Beer founder and majority owner Joe Tucker said, “ZX Ventures has the utmost respect for the integrity of the data and the unbiased service we offer to the entire community and industry.”

Conspiracy theorists in the craft beer world call BS on that. They see the move as a blatant attempt by AB/InBev to gather information much the same way a Cold War spy gathered intelligence. Further, with the treasure trove of data in millions of beer reviews, AB/InBev has access to information it could use to select craft breweries for acquisition.

Sam Calagione, outspoken owner of Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewing Company, is among those calling Rate Beer out on the sale.

“We believe,” Calagione wrote on Dogfish’s blog, “this is a direct violation of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics and a blatant conflict of interest.”

Calagione isn’t alone. Black Project, Harpoon, Cantillon—the darling of many beer enthusiasts—and others have spoken up and asked for all reviews and mentions of their beers be removed from Rate Beer.

To many, the sale’s most galling aspect was the length of time between the closing and Tucker informing membership. The sale finalized in October 2016–eight months before the announcement.

Rate Beer user StefanSD summed it up in a post on the site:

“I have concerns about AB, but also concerns regarding the cover-up and non-disclosure…. I feel that a certain line has been crossed regarding honesty to the community.

“I always looked at RB as a Consumer Reports for beer; now that has changed. Industry ownership changes everything.”

Whether Rate Beer can prove the naysayers wrong and provide unbiased, crowdsourced reviews has yet to be seen. One thing is certain: Big Beer is slowly chipping away at craft beer in its bid to remain at the top of the hops heap.