Why Beer Experts (Don’t) Matter

beer expert-apple

We are a fickle species, us humans.

From the dawn of time, we’ve been wired to look outward and find connections among others, but one of the greatest challenges we face is often looking beyond our own point of view. Communities make us feel whole and relationships empower us, but in truth, this same wiring that creates bonds with others can also strengthen our internal bias.

Which puts us in a precarious position in these days of democratic Internet expertise, when everyone is an expert and all the knowledge we need is just a few finger taps away. While our technology entitles us with information from across our digital communities, it can also reinforce the idea that “experts” – real, live human beings oozing knowledge – aren’t as necessary.

So when I read “Why Beer Experts Matter” by brilliant beer writer Jeff Alworth, I got to thinking … do we really need beer experts?

To be clear, I admire all of Jeff’s work greatly and this is not a takedown or rebuttal against his post. Rather, I simply believe we see an issue of education and knowledge through different sides of the same prism.

At the core of this issue is the value of experts and what they provide to the beer community, most notably when pitted against “knowledge gathering” beer rating websites like Beer Advocate or Rate Beer.

Do we even want experts?

The biggest problem we face when trying to expand our knowledge is often looking past our own noses. While economic rationality proposes this is a common step, it’s more difficult than it seems:

… decisions should be based on beliefs about possible outcomes, their associated values or utilities, and their probabilities of occurrence. Yet research on judgment and decision making has demonstrated numerous violations of this principle, such as preference reversals, framing effects, and the inappropriate weighting of extreme probabilities…

Most notably, when creating our opinions, we tend to use available information both inconsistently and incompletely, which detracts from accuracy and why we may seek out help in the first place.

no expertsBut all this is compounded by the empowerment of the online beer community, where you don’t need labels or titles to be considered an expert, just a strong, well-worked liver, a keyboard and an account on Beer Advocate or Rate Beer. As Jeff points out, today “we hold experts in contempt and valorize the global hive mind.”

If we believe we are experts – perhaps guided by our own bias and knowledge of personal preferences – then it is easier to shun “traditional” experts who may offer educated insight from outside. The burden of proof then unfairly falls on the those experts to nudge us in an appropriate direction.

The idea of economic rationality fails when our strong opinions force us to not think critically. So if we believe in our own bias, especially for something as “easy” as beer, it doesn’t matter if experts intervene. We have to want them to intervene.

The value of websites

The purpose and worth of websites like Beer Advocate or Rate Beer is wholly subjective when it comes to education and influence, but what if we take them at face value? What if we look at them as not as a potentially misinformed hive mind, but as the sum of its parts – an averaged source of opinions from preferences and palates across the beery spectrum?

In truth, it may not be so bad.

ratebeer_beer_bottlecapJeff uses a great anecdote of colleague Bill Schneller, who points out an experience where users of Beer Advocate and Rate Beer were misinformed about the historical style of a beer and therefore misinterpreted what it was supposed to appear and taste like. However, brushing with broad strokes may throw all users into the same group when the collective opinion is not only what matters, but what these sites are based on.

Let’s take Beer Advocate and Rate Beer at what they exist for (and what Jeff points out in his piece) – they offer us an ease of education and choice through “little computers in our pockets.” But these websites and their users are simply available as a means to reinforce what we’re looking for, since “one of the most robust findings in the advicetaking literature is that people underweight advice from another and overweight their own opinion.”

Which is why the crowdsourcing aspect of beer rating sites is useful, even if there are some stinkers:

First, when judges are similar in ability, it allows their errors to cancel. Second, when judges differ in ability but differences are hard to detect, an averaging strategy is sure to give at least some weight to the best performers; by contrast, trying to pick a single expert based on available cues could put all the weight on a less accurate judge. Finally, an averaging strategy can be implemented even in the absence of evidence about relative expertise.

The quick takeaway here? People generally misinterpret the positives of combining judgments on a large scale, believing that averaging leads to mediocrity. But what if the averaging accomplished through these websites can be as useful as consulting an expert?

What if it matters less about where the information is coming from and more about the process of simply getting information itself?

A need for experts? Maybe. Maybe not. Sometimes.

Even if we want to seek out help or insight, we still hold our own opinions in high regard: “One’s judgments are part of oneself and, like possessions, letting go of them is painful.”

That’s why the use of rating websites isn’t just easy, but comfortable. We seek out information or opinions that mirror our own, allowing us to feel stronger in our final choice. So if our intrinsic motivation is to lean toward whatever opinion most aligns with our own, does it matter if it comes from an expert or a multitude of novices?

The important thing to consider, against our natural habits, is that accepting diversity of thought is important. “Tightly knit groups create redundant thought processes, creating the need to go outside that community to gauge other points of view.”

So while Beer Advocate or Rate Beer may be great at serving their purpose for guiding people toward a beer they’ll like, it’s still valuable to acknowledge the insight of experts.

However, that also goes vice versa.

Because when push comes to shove and beer meets glass, we need to remember the one expert who’s (hopefully) always right: ourselves.


+Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

Editor’s note: To potentially nip it in the bud, let me make it clear that I value the role and insight of experts. They are more than just protectors of style when it comes to beer, but historians that give our passion context. I have the utmost respect (and awe) for the women and men who achieve Cicerone statuses and act as BJCP judges.

Not only that, but I greatly admire the insight and education writers like Jeff Alworth provide people like me. I constantly learn new things from him and others – including my peers.

Which is why I also believe that “experts” from anywhere in the beer community can be valuable. We all bring our own unique prospectives and backgrounds to discussions, which can provide a learning experience no matter what our level of true expertise happens to be.

The impetus for this piece, as I point out early on, is simply to provide another viewpoint that still ends at what I consider the same finish line.


7 thoughts on “Why Beer Experts (Don’t) Matter

  1. With the ability for anyone to most information online, from RateBeer to Wikipedia, we all need to be better judges about the sources of information. We need to judge the experts and not just go off what any idiot with a smartphone says. If someone just leaves a number rating or a short sentence I say ignore them and move on to a more verbose review. Basically what I said back here http://queencitydrinks.com/opinion/beer-reviews-new-years-resolutions/

    1. Part of what I scratching at is that if we get enough idiots with smartphones, maybe the outcome won’t be so bad.

      A problem that arises from all of this, though, is simply the variable of it all. Between the seeker and “educator” there is a lot going on.

      But most important, I agree with your take on the review. If we’re going to do it, do it to serve the greater purpose, not just as a habitual action to please yourself.

  2. You are too kind with your praise. The issue here isn’t either/or, actually (though I’ve found that framing your point in hyperbole tends to get people to pay more attention). We are better off with the addition of ratings sites–which I consult regularly. Rather, it’s a baby-in-the-bathwater thing. If we allow our reliance on mass opinion to wholly supplant opinion from those who have deeper knowledge. My post was mainly a reminder.

    1. Ah, yes. Then it seems we are very much of the same mind! In terms of education – or simply picking what beer to drink – I assume many visitors are relative newbies. They serve a purpose for enthusiasts, for sure, but in that case it may often wind up as reinforcement for what we’re seeking.

      Perhaps then, the biggest issue facing isn’t just having experts, but having people who want experts to help/guide them. At that point, it gets a bit stickier.

      Thanks for the inspiration and chiming in!

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