Martyn Cornell over at the Zythophile blog makes an interesting observation of the RateBeer Top 100 list for 2011. But at the beginning of his diatribe on the subject, he states that “nobody in the real world cares what a bunch of loopy extremophiles drinks or thinks.”

While I agree with the general nature of his post, that extremophiles do represent a threat to the reputation of better beer at large, I don’t subscribe to the notion that sites like RateBeer and BeerAdvocate are completely irrelevant, or that no one pays attention to what the individuals on these sites have to say. In fact, I would argue that these websites have exponentially fueled the race for the most extreme beer, feeding into the desire of those that wish to taste the next level, whatever that may be. For better or for worse, these two sites in particular have altered the beer landscape.

RateBeer and BeerAdvocate have influenced many a beer drinker’s perception on what beer is and how it should be enjoyed. And therein, as Martyn points out, lies the problem. Despite the informative and engaging reviews by some members, they may not represent the majority of beer drinkers, and the final tally may be the work of a vocal minority. The rating system can ultimately have a damaging effect on the overall image of beer.

For instance, when I hear someone disparage all lagers, I get the feeling that they have been influenced in some way by these types of “best of” lists, that they are missing out on some of the finer, subtler points that beer has to offer. That’s not to mention the folks who are of the mind to try every possible beer imaginable; often times it seems they imbibe so many different kinds of beer that only the most extreme stick out.

While one would think that an open forum for posting thoughts would lead to a balanced and unbiased overall viewpoint, it actually inadvertently creates winners and losers in the real world. Though one bad review can be drowned out by the voice of the many, that same populist voice can overlook well-made beer that just so happens not to have been hopped 27 times. That echo chamber eventually gains an audience outside its own users. And trust me, industry types pay attention to these ratings, moreso than you’d think.

It’s the by-product of the squeaky wheel getting the grease. Extreme beers command attention, session beers fly under the radar. Two separate audiences, mind you, but I’m sure many drinkers straddle the line with no allegiance to one camp or another. It’s through the growth of the beer rating websites that the extreme camp has been allowed to flourish, and the louder voices will always be heard first.

Point is, if you don’t go into everything with a hint of skepticism, you’re likely to fall for anything. I should hope those looking to learn more about beer will proceed with caution and diligence. Though not everyone will, I have faith that there are enough people out there practicing discernment.

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