I don’t know about you, but I use Pandora Internet Radio a lot.
I mean, like a LOT. I believe I’ve referred to it at some point as “the best use anybody has come up with so far for applying the internet,” which is pretty damn high praise. ‘Cause there’s a lot of stuff on them there internets.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, though, it’s quite simple: Pandora is powered by the Music Genome Project, which basically collects all the music that’s out there and breaks it into component factors. It then asks you to rate which sorts of songs and artists you like, and, using those previously mentioned component factors, determines what else you’re likely to enjoy. It’s safe to say that maybe half the music I listen to today is a direct result of fooling around with Pandora.
But think about it–doesn’t the application to craft beer seem incredibly obvious? What if you could rate beers that you find particularly interesting and receive suggestions of which brews you should try next? Especially for people who are new to craft beer, it could be an extremely useful tool. I know that I became a beer geek a short enough time ago to still be able to remember the almost paralyzing confusion that first assaulted me when I was confronted by a rack of 1,000 bombers. With so many to choose from, so many different styles, and so many different labels squawking their features at me, the 21-year-old Kid Carboy Jr. probably would have benefited greatly from such a website or application.
Thankfully, a few of them do exist, and have existed for a while. Among the best known are Pintley and Untappd, both of which have apps for mobile devices. Rather than attempting (and failing) an explanation on exactly what a site like Pintley does, I’ll just let them explain.
As I mentioned above, both of these sites are already fairly well established. Imagine my curiosity, then, when the top spot on Reddit’s beer community was occupied for most of Thursday with news of a new beer rating site called Barley Buddy that was seeking attention and feedback on what they were trying to do. Jumping on the opportunity to talk to someone who was trying to start a new site, I connected with co-founder Sean McCleary and was able to ask him some questions about the new venture.
Kid Carboy Jr.: How did you and your partner get into beer? How did the idea for the site come up?
McCleary: Steve and I are both from Oregon; he’s from Portland specifically, which as you probably know is a microbrew-lovin’ town. I’m from the opposite end of the state, but spent 8 years living in Germany where I, shall we say, “studied” the local beers, often and intently.
Carboy: Were you aware of other sites like Pintley when you came up with the idea? How did you want yours to be different?
McCleary: We were aware of a few other sites when we started, but not Pintley, which seems the most similar to us. We like Pintley, it’s a great site, but we want to go in a slightly different direction, building a community and shining the spotlight more on the members and the beers they like, instead of the beers first and the members who like them second. We’re not 100% there yet, but we’re on the way.
Carboy: What were other sites NOT doing that you wanted yours to do?
McCleary: There are a lot of ratings-and-review sites, but very few which are niche-targeted communities (such as beer!). Someone could rate his favorite beers over at Epinions or RateItAll, but your words are going to show up alongside reviews for dogfood and kitchen appliances. And that’s not as fun as when they show up next to reviews from other beer lovers with whom you can discuss.
Additionally, almost no other review sites turn their ratings back into suggestions, and those that do rarely have anything more complex than “Users who liked X also liked Y.” We identify trends and overlapping tastes between members to come up with personalized suggestions. The idea actually originated when we looked for a site that did just that, and couldn’t find it.
Carboy: How exactly does the “recommending engine,” as it were, work? If I say I like a beer, does it recommend others by style? Does it go deeper? Say, I like really piney or floral IPAs, but don’t care for tropical fruity ones. Is it capable of making that distinction or picking up on it? To do so it would have to have sort of statistical representations of a beer’s flavor, I would think.
McCleary: The recommendation system doesn’t try to group beers by type; that would be completely against the idea we’re going for. Maybe this porter is particularly beloved among the same people who also love this lager. What do they have in common? Something in the aftertaste? Something in the aroma? The label on the bottle? We don’t know, but we also don’t care — the overlap among our users is all we need to see to identify the trend, and recommend Lager X to all the people who haven’t tried it but love Porter Y, and vice versa. We’re only interested in common tastes among our users.
But don’t get the idea that it’s as simple as “People who liked X also liked Y.” We also take dislikes into account, and in fact the entire 0-through-5 star rating, to try and actually predict how many stars someone would give a new beer. (If you noticed that, on your Barley Buddy recommendations page, it actually shows you how many stars it thinks you’ll give a new beer.)
We couldn’t find a recommendation engine out there that could do this for us, and definitely not in real-time like we wanted, so we developed it ourselves and are really pleased. We’re gonna improve it as much as we can, of course, but this is our “secret sauce.”
A bit of background: The idea originally came when I was living in Germany. It actually came from wine. I figured there’d never be a better (or cheaper) time to learn about wine than while living in Europe, but I didn’t know where to begin. I wasn’t interested in the blog of some “expert” because that is only one person’s opinions. I looked for a website where I could say “I liked this wine, not this wine, and this one was so-so” and have it compare my ratings against everyone else’s and find the other wines people with similar tastes to my own enjoyed, so I could try them too. At the time, I couldn’t find that site.
So we made it and decided to start with beer. Because we love beer 🙂
Carboy: How the heck is the total library of beers put together here? Did you guys put it together or do users add them? If you go to the “styles” section it’s very weird, there are a few random beers among the styles, and it’s broken into some misleading categories, like “ales,” when there are plenty of other beers on there like porters and stouts that are also “ales” but fall into a different category.
McCleary: All the beers have been added by users. We could pre-populate the system from a public list or database, but feel that having users add them is better than a site with thousands of beers where 99% of them are unrated, like some kind of beer ghost town.* It does require frequent clean-up and re-categorization, though.
We really struggled with the categorization. You’re right, Porters and Stouts SHOULD be filed under the “Ale” category, if we went by the BJCP standards. But even those break down. Is an Altbier an Ale or a lager? It’s top-fermented like an ale, but these days usually lagered (like a lager). The definitions are often pretty loose. We tried to arrange things based on popularity, and where we thought people would expect to find them. Stouts are popular these days, so it wouldn’t be very nice to the non-experts if we buried them under Ales -> Porters -> Stouts.
*I have to concede that this is a pretty good point. People would get pissed off by all those unrated beers.
Carboy: When did it launch? What are you going to do with all those redditors ideas for improvements/changes?
McCleary: The site went live back in January. I set my wife, parents and sister around the table, cracked open about 10 bottles of randomly-chosen beers from the supermarket, plunked down some laptops and hovered annoyingly over their shoulders as they drank and rated.*
The redditors gave us some great ideas. I’m especially impressed that my complaining about not knowing the best way to guide new members through rating a handful of initial beers yielded such good suggestions, which we’ll definitely be implementing.
*This is how I feel whenever I give beer to my parents.
Carboy: Will there be an app? When? WHEN.
McCleary: An app is definitely on our agenda. Imagine scanning the UPC code on a bottle down at the bar, or pulling up your shopping list at the supermarket! It’ll be along just as soon as we have the time and money.*
*That sounds like the kind of thing that internet startups sometimes have just a wee bit of difficulty with.
Carboy: Can you search by brewery somewhere on the site? I’m not seeing that.
McCleary: When a beer is added to the system, there’s an optional field the user can fill out to enter the brewery. If he does, then it’ll show up in the search results when someone looks for it. But a lot of our beers now are missing the brewery information. At some point, we will need to start keeping that information clean, just like the categorization.
Carboy: Buy me a beer sometime?
McCleary: Anytime you’re in Austin!*
*It’s as if he knows that I’m in the Midwest and not Austin.
So there you have it. It’s probably not the sort of service that many Aleheads would really have a deep-seated need for, but I can imagine it being helpful for people who are just getting into beer as a hobby. What do you think? I can guarantee that the Barley Buddy founders are reading these comments below, so any suggestions that you may have after visiting the website, feel free to share them.