It was announced yesterday that Joe Tucker, owner of beer ratings website and mobile app Rate Beer, has sold a stake in his company to ZX Ventures, an investment arm of AB InBev. The actual transaction took place in October of last year, the same month that ZX Ventures acquired Minnesota-based homebrew supplier Northern Brewer. Tucker got involved with RateBeer in 2001 and eventually became full owner.
“ZX Ventures has purchased a minority investment in RateBeer,” said Tucker in a post in a RateBeer forum. He added, “The focus of the agreement was on maintaining RateBeer’s value as an unbiased beer authority, retaining our operational independence, informing a whole new group of global consumers and keeping them excited about the beer.”
What does this move mean for a company like RateBeer? Well, RateBeer is platform where beer drinkers can create a profile and give reviews on the beers, breweries, beer stores and bars they have visited. Users can also search to see how beers are being received by drinkers, to find quantitative details about breweries and to locate breweries, bars and shops by state or region. Wikipedia says that the website has over 4.5 million ratings of almost 200,000 beers from nearly 16,000 breweries — that’s a lot of data to maintain and present.
Tucker briefly addressed motivations in the announcement on his site by saying, “Most everyone who is close to the site and involved our community knows that we’ve tried to address our resource issues in a number of creative ways over the years.”
Others speculated about the sale in RateBeer forums.
“I know most of us don’t have much respect for ABinBev. However I do have plenty of respect for Joe and trust that he is doing this to make the site better and future proof,” said user SarkyNorhterner. “We have all criticized him, myself included with some of the updates and server upgrades that haven’t always gone to plan. Hopefully this will make Ratebeer a great site whilst keeping Joe at the helm to maintain the sites integrity and reputation.”
Maintaining integrity seems to be something in question among some, however.
Said RateBeer user muzzlehatch, “Amazon.com ruined IMDb, making what had been a nice forum and the greatest single source for film and TV information on the web into little more than a feeder for the parent site, and eventually shut down the forums which were the lifeblood of the site, leaving a hollowed-out husk. I would like to believe this will be different but my own experience – including a long-term job for a company that sold out, back in the 90s – doesn’t leave me with much hope. Let’s start by seeing how long this thread is allowed to live, and see if we’re still free to bash Big Beer. I know where I’d put my bet.”
This most recent AB InBev digital media excursion seems different from others that we previously knew about. Earlier this year, the world’s largest beer company forged into blogging with the launch of October (ZX Ventures and Condé Nast) and The Beer Necessities. Now, the Belgo-Brazilian mega brewer has invested in one of the most popular spaces where opinions from the beer consumer are voiced, where free speech for all had previously been an assumed fundamental.
Questions now lie in what kind of access to and how much control of RateBeer AB InBev will have. As InBev’s High End profile continues to grow, as more breweries like Wicked Weed come into the fold, can RateBeer users expect that InBev’s ‘craft beer’ brands will not see advantages on the site as a result of its investment? Will InBev’s High End brands receive aggregate reports on consumer ratings that they would otherwise be denied? What will be the treatment if a big Wicked Weed, 10 Barrel or Goose Island release tanks, or if consumers perceive that the quality of certain brews begin to lessen? What exactly will happen to users who “bash Big Beer?”
It all may depend on what “minority investment” means and if that eventually evolves into something larger. When InBev bought part of Craft Brew Alliance in 2013, the minority investment was nearly a third of that company. Perhaps this new investment is small enough, though, that InBev will only be allowed to data mine the site.
Or, is it possible that InBev has the intent to use their new partnership to quiet the backlash from legions of craft beer drinkers who are standing together in protest over what Big Beer is doing to the grassroots craft beer scene? Just two weeks ago, Brew Studs published a reference page detailing all of AB InBev’s big money ties to the craft beer industry and community called The Cut Off. I asked Brew Studs Founder Jeremy Fultz if RateBeer now belongs on that page as a site that could potentially mislead drinkers.
“It saddens me to have to say that RateBeer has earned a row on The Cut Off and will no longer be referenced by or receive links from wearebrewstuds.com,” said Fultz. “It was my personal favorite among the ratings systems, but Brew Studs is committed to shining a light on InBev’s attempts to influence discussions about the beer industry, whether that’s in professional publications or other spaces where brand equity is used to portray an affiliation with craft beer.”
How do you see this investment in RateBeer panning out? What do you think about AB InBev furthering its influence in beer media? Should a company as powerful as InBev be criticized for investing in native media? Let us know in the comments section.