Beer Tracking: A Better Way

In my non-professional life (which is not to overlook my bartending career, of course), I’m a pretty massive beer nerd. I am that person who will fly across town at a moment’s notice to find the just-tapped rare keg of some bourbon barrel-aged whatever, who always takes a second suitcase on vacations for purposes of bringing back beer from my destination city, whose supposedly-networking-based Twitter feed is over 50% nerdy discussions about this ale or that. We’ve all got our vices (I prefer “hobbies”), this is mine.

Over the past few years, a number of mobile apps and websites have emerged to make beer consumption a little easier. Through a combination of Twitter, Foursquare, BeerMenus (mobile website, but no app) and Untappd, beer nerds are more connected than ever.

We put in an awful lot of work for it, though, and I tend to skip most of the options out there because they simply take me away from the people I went to the bar with. I typically check in to a location on Foursquare before I actually arrive so that I’m not even messing around with that. It’s why I don’t use Untappd much – I just don’t want to be constantly ignoring the people I’m with.

Before we go any further here, let’s define the basic tools beer nerds have at their disposal. (Note: I realize there are other tools on the market; this is my personal system and the one I know most of my friends are using as well. I also realize there are beer tracking apps other than Untappd, however, it seems to be the most popular cross-hardware option out there and is therefore what I focus on.)

  • Twitter – Certainly not beer-specific, but very important in the San Francisco beer community. Most of the key beer bars in the city are using it to announce new arrivals, and even if they aren’t, our community is so obsessive that we instantly share whatever we’re excited about on their behalf. It’s not uncommon for me to see four or five people post what they were drinking at Toronado/City Beer/Beer Revolution, etc. Events are also announced ahead of time and constantly re-tweeted, so for those of us with desk jobs, it’s pretty easy to drop in around 4:00 and see where we should be drinking that night. I credit Twitter with at least 80% of the people I know and the cool events I’ve been privileged to attend.
  • Foursquare – also not beer-specific, but it sure is for me. I use Foursquare almost exclusively for the app itself (i.e. I very rarely have it cross-post to Facebook or Twitter) and am pretty private about who I add as a contact, as well as where and when I check in. If I’m checking in on foursquare, that’s a sign that I’m happy to meet up with my authorized friends if they’re in the area. If one of my friends checks in at a bar around the corner from me, I’ll probably drop by and see them. Likewise, I don’t mind if they stop by and see me. And since the pool of places we go to is ultimately pretty small, even in a big city, this often results in fun social outings that I might not have had otherwise.
  • BeerMenus – A great concept that no one uses. Harsh, probably, but it’s among my biggest pet peeves. What BeerMenus is set up to do is be an open source collection of every beer list at a bar. Anyone can update it – in fact, when I’m bartending, I try to update it that day so that just in case someone looks at it, it’s up to date. It’s a big job, though, and often takes me at least 20 minutes of searching and double-checking our list. I’ll do it even when I’m not bartending, and if I’m somewhere that has a beer I really appreciate, I’ll add it – but you can never trust its accuracy unless someplace specifically advertises that they update there. (Healthy Spirits keeps theirs shockingly up-to-date and I find this immensely useful.) The tool is set up, but let’s face it – no one is using it.
  • Untappd – Originally a mobile web app and now native on both iPhone and Android, Untappd is my beer-tracking tool of choice. The idea is simple: You’re drinking a beer that you either want to remember (my method) or you want to let your friends know about (less my method, but many people use it this way). In the same way that you check in to a location with Foursquare, you “check in” to a beer. There’s a searchable database that you can add to from your phone, as well as an option to rate the beer, leave comments, and add your location if you so choose. There’s a social aspect here as well, where you can look through your list of friends and see what they’ve been drinking and what their thoughts are on what they’ve had lately.

Four great tools at our disposal with somewhat overlapping information. The problem? No one plays nice, and everyone suffers. Let’s talk about how the user experience of these tools.

User Experience, or “Things you do on your phone while you should be socializing and drinking with your friends”

Let’s walk through my walkthrough when I go into a bar. I probably won’t be using Twitter, and I won’t be using BeerMenus once I’m in the door, so we’ll focus on just Foursquare and Untappd.

I’d like to note that I’ll be doing some criticizing here, and it should be noted that criticism comes from a place of respect. Having the ability to whine about the existing system means there IS an existing system that has so many good ideas, it’s been forcing me to sit down and very seriously consider what isn’t working. I’m so impressed by the teams that have put the existing tools out there, but now that we’ve got those tools, we’re overlooking a lot of important links.

The first thing I usually do is check in via Foursquare. I’m either on my way or just walked in the door, don’t have my menu yet, and so I have a few free seconds to play with my phone without it interrupting my experience. I’m skipping the first two screens for purposes of not putting my friends’ personal Foursquare data all over the internet, but this is a five screen process.

  1. If you’re opening your app for the first time in awhile, you’ll see your Friends screen, which lists all your friends’ checkins in backward chronological order.
  2. On my Android phone, I hit the Search key to open a dialogue that says “Find places” at the top, followed by a dropdown menu of everywhere I’ve searched for recently. Since I’m not a huge Foursquare user and I’m a regular at a number of places, I often can just scroll the list down a few entries to find where I want to check in, otherwise, I can start typing. As you enter keys, it narrows down your list, so by typing in “pi”, I usually find Pi Bar pretty quickly.
  3. This brings up a screen confirming my location, its address, people currently checked in and tips that other happy boozers have left.

  4. Hitting “Check in here” takes you to a page with additional options – leaving a comment, sharing or not sharing (if you choose to not share, it checks you in to the location but shows you as “Off the Grid”, which I suppose comes in useful for those moments where you want to remember where you’ve been but don’t necessarily want to make your location public), as well as exporting your checkin to Facebook or Twitter. Note: This doesn’t connect to Facebook Places for a second checkin, simply posts to your Facebook wall with a link to Foursquare.

  5. Once you’re confirmed, it lets you know that your checkin has been successful, and in my case, confirms that you are a drunk. (If I mentioned that they also have food and are 500 feet from my door, does that make my 95 checkins better? And that those 30 weeks probably all involve trips to Pi Bar because slices are like $3? Let’s just pretend this isn’t from my real phone and move on.)

Five screens to navigate through in order to check yourself in. Provided you’ve got a fast phone and a fast service provider, not necessarily the worst thing in the world. The Android OS does allow customization in the form of adding Foursquare locations to your home screen, meaning if you go someplace regularly (as your resident drunk clearly does), you can make a little shortcut straight to your favorite places and tuck them on a side home screen somewhere, saving you two steps. I presume iPhone users are probably stuck going through the whole process, but I’m happy to be corrected by someone on this.

If you’ve ordered a drink that you’re excited about – and if you’re me, you probably have – it’s nice to have that recorded somewhere so you can tell someone about it, remember to buy it at your local store, or just remember that you’ve had it before if you go somewhere new and are examining their list. This is where Untappd comes in.

  1. Again, to protect my friends, where they are, what they’re drinking – I’ve skipped this first screen. You’ll find yourself on the “Friends” tab when you first launch, which lets you know what your friends have been drinking, in reverse chronological order.
  2. Navigating to “Drink Up” shows me things I’ve had recently, as well as beers that are popular at this time.

  3. Let’s imagine I’m drinking an Anchor Liberty, a fine beer made right here in San Francisco, and a staple on the Pi Bar menu. When I search for “Liberty”, it happens to be the first one on the list.

  4. Clicking it gives me the style of beer, its ABV, the average rating, my rating (if I had entered one in the past, which I haven’t for this beer), as well as checkin options and additional information down below.

  5. Hitting “Check-in to this brew” brings you here. You can call it quits and check in, add a comment, add a photo, or attach your location, which is often important to me.

  6. Attaching your location brings up your favorites in the area as well as additional places that are close to you. For some reason mine is a little skewed here and believes I’m a few miles from where I was when the screenshot is taken. Since my location isn’t on this list, I’ll have to search for it.

  7. Searching for “Pi” hits the Foursquare API and returns a list of locations. It occasionally bothers me that I get things in this list that are clearly not drinking locations, but there’s a good reason for that – are you drinking at a concert? In a park? At home? It typically doesn’t force me to do much searching, which makes me wonder if it does in fact prioritize restaurants and locations that are clearly beer-friendly. Still an additional screen to search through.

  8. Finally, we’ve arrived at a confirmation screen. My beer, my bar, my additional information if I had chosen to enter it. One last option to correct or delete.

  9. You’re checked in to both the beer and the location, and here are some suggestions of other beers you might like. (This is rarely helpful for me, but if the algorithm was improved, I can see how it would be a useful tool to people newly getting in to beer.

This is a lot of steps. We’ve gone through fourteen separate screens, ultimately duplicated information, and depending on how much searching and crawling through information you need to do along the way, that amounts to a significant time investment. Two minutes might not be much in the grand scheme of things but it may very well make you feel like a great big jerk if you’re out with your friends and compelled to screw around with your phone for that long instead of enjoying their company.

And ultimately, this is the problem. I love having these tools at my disposal to help me remember where I’ve been and what I’ve been drinking – I’m a homebrewer, and I love to learn about new styles and flavors via tasting whatever strange beer I can find out in the world. I’m convinced there’s a better way.

The problem with BeerMenus

The problem with BeerMenus is almost exclusively that no one uses it. THAT happens for two reasons.

  1. Customers are not updating BeerMenus – it’s not their job.
  2. Bartenders and bar owners are busy as hell, and keeping up an online list is an extra job to pile on top of the already growing list of tasks. Sure, it’s an extra 10-20 minutes a day if you’re a place that regularly rotates your selection, but at places that have 50 taps and are rotating new kegs in and out all night, asking a bartender to stop in the middle of a shift to update a website is simply not going to happen.

The BeerMenus people have actually done a fine job with their product. I don’t have many complaints when I’m sitting down at my home computer updating the bar’s list. There are places in the world that do, in fact, keep their list 100% up-to-date.

We’ll get to some solutions for the BeerMenus folks in a moment, but let’s look at a few screenshots first. In the interest of consistency, I’m including mobile shots here, but their website is a great resource.

BeerMenus has a mobile site. I love me some apps, but realize that there’s serious value in a mobile website as well. Theirs is a great translation of their also-great website.

The “find places nearby” feature is a good one, and not a bad solution if your ultimate goal is to find a beer bar nearby. My GPS is off again on this one, which is why Pi isn’t included on this list.

If your location isn’t found in the first list, you’ll need to go back and then search for a location. Adding a search field to the list of locations instead of requiring the user to go back would be a nice touch, but at this point, I’m mostly splitting hairs.

Here we arrive at the actual beer menu, which would be unbelievably helpful in the event that it was ever updated. See how Pi’s menu was last touched 03/08/2010? This is one of the most popular beer bars in an unbelievably tech-nerdy city and not a single person has touched it in a year and a half. Note that I’m to blame for this one as well, but with locations like Pi, it honestly doesn’t make a ton of sense for customers to update it. The list changes every single day, and despite earlier Foursquare evidence, I am not, in fact, at the bar every day. If I updated it, it’d be completely different a week later.

Clicking on a beer takes you to its page, which gives you a description as well as other locations that carry it. The locations might not be all that useful coming from a location page, but remember that you can search for a beer from that home screen as well. The outcome is the same for both. And I’d like to note that there are only two options here for Anchor Liberty, one of the most common beers in San Francisco. I’ll stop whining about the lack of accurate lists soon, I promise.

Here’s what happens when you search for a new beer – if there were additional options, they’d be listed, but I’ve chosen a pretty specific search term and a pretty rare beer on this one.

One of the most helpful things here is that “updated” date. Since updates are rare to BeerMenus, it’s nice to know that something was updated just a couple of days ago. If Healthy Spirits had it on October 14th, there’s a chance it’s still there today – and at least worth calling and asking about.

The technology is there. It’s all set up and waiting for us. We’ve just got to find a way to make it more appealing to use.

Making Friends

There is absolutely no reason that all of this information doesn’t live and play in the same space. Consider the connections:

  1. Untappd is using the API from the app you originally used to check in to the location. Once you’ve selected a beer from the list, you search for a location with the exact same list you searched through to check in from the same device one minute ago.
  2. When you check in to a beer and then add your location, Untappd has a database that has the power to tell you where every instance of that beer is in the city.
  3. The exclusive purpose of the BeerMenus database is to know which beer lives in which bar.

My modest proposal? A unified system that connects the pieces together, emulating your actual, real-life process.

  1. Enter the bar.
  2. Survey the list.
  3. Select your beer.

The fourth step is drinking. And we’d like that to be our fourth step, too. So our process is this:

  1. Check in to the bar. Similar to what you’ve seen out there before, you can search for your location, or you can choose one from a GPS-based list. We’ll always prioritize your favorites, too.

    Wireframe created using the Teehan+Lax Android GUI PSD as starting point; because they are amazing and helpful and worthy of all your respect in the world.

  2. Survey the beer list on your phone.

  3. Select your beer, and you’re done.

But after all of that whining about how no one uses BeerMenus, haven’t we already proven that there isn’t an updated, actually-in-use list out there? Yeah, we have. Let’s try and fix that problem, too.

Queue, Kick, Crack

I love that BeerMenus is open to the public. I really, truly do. I love that any random person can go to a bar, have a beer, and add it to their menu online. But as much as I love that, it’s not an efficient system. For places that have fifty beers on tap – hell, for places that have twelve beers on tap – one customer is just not going to be able to keep that list updated. Relying on your patrons to keep that up to date for you is a system that just isn’t working. It has to come from within the bar.

But bartenders don’t have time for this nonsense. When a keg blows in the middle of my shift, I’m worried enough about getting the damn thing through the massive crowd, tapping it, lifting it into the cooler and doing all of that without a) covering myself in beer and b) angering a giant crowd. (I am a deeply nervous person and also not a great bartender.) Think about your experience at a bar: if you’re waiting on a beer, do you want your bartender to be ignoring you in favor of playing with his or her phone for five minutes, even if what they’re doing is updating the beer list online? If you’re every single customer I’ve ever had, the answer is that you don’t.

The power behind our system and the thing that sets us apart is a backend inventory management system for the bar. We’re making a little more work, but it comes in the form of replacing what the bar already has in favor of something that will be a better tool to start with and open up some basic frontend data for your customers. This isn’t entirely open: we’re not letting everyone know what you’ve got coming up, how many kegs you’ve got of it, any of that – just releasing your live selection.

I’m proposing a three step system: Queue, kick, crack.

  1. Queue – When the kegs roll off the delivery truck – you add them to your inventory. You’ve got Anchor Liberty on right now but when that runs out you’re going to switch to Speakeasy’s Big Daddy? Add that Big Daddy keg to your queue. Not sure what you’ll put on? If you’ve entered everything as it came in the building, you don’t have to worry about putting them in order; you’ve got a scrollable list there when you want it. Use this list as a backup or even a full substitution for your inventory list.
  2. Kick – When the keg blows, hit one button to say that it’s gone. It’s San Francisco Beer Week and you’ve got the only keg of Pliny the Younger in the whole city? When that keg blows, hit one button and confirm that it’s gone.
  3. Crack – Look through your queue, find the beer you’re replacing it with, and click to confirm that you’ve got it. Your list confirms that you’re out of it.

How you interact is up to you. Got a computer in the back office? A fancy iPad mounted somewhere? Notoriously nerdy bartenders with smartphones? Create accounts for your individual bartenders and give them access to update the list, or have everyone use the same account. Hell, let’s integrate it into the bar’s POS so that when you serve a new beer, it asks you what beer you just removed to make that happen.

The possibilities for this as an inventory management system are highly expandable. You usually carry bottles of Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA but the distributor didn’t have it this week and you’re out of it for just a couple of days? Take it off the list. Upon deletion, the app asks you if you want to fully remove it (if it’s no longer distributed in your area and you know you won’t be getting it again any time soon), show it as temporarily out, or keep it on your private list that’s not visible to the public. “Temporarily out” lets searchers know that you usually have it, so they should check back later – turning it private means people probably won’t hound you about it when they see it on the list.

The truth of the matter is that a lot of places manage to keep a constantly updated beer list, but don’t keep their BeerMenus list going. Someone’s already sitting down at a computer updating the daily PDF but that’s as far as it goes. Monk’s Kettle, another fine establishment in my neighborhood, has an updated PDF menu every day and a notoriously informative Twitter account. I love that. But if I’m walking down Valencia Street, going to their website, looking for the menu, downloading a PDF and scanning it isn’t nearly as helpful as having all of that information in one place.

Monk’s also has a beautifully designed print menu that I’d never want them to change. What’s the solution? Enter everything into the system that feeds our new tool, and let the database populate into a well-designed, customized PDF, Word Doc, Excel spreadsheet, Illustrator or InDesign file. When a new entry hits the list, have it auto-update your Twitter feed. Feed it into a WordPress script that creates a blog post at 3:00 every day based on the most current list, templated to your specifications. The information is there; what you do with it is up to you.

What if the bar doesn’t want to use this content management system? They’re still around. Let’s take all of those traditional-style beer checkins and do something with them. With or without the bar’s involvement, we’ve at least got people checking in to beers at bars. Let’s put all of that information on a page for the bar – Untappd, I’m seriously talking to you at this point – because you know it exists. If I say I’m having a beer at Pi Bar, you’ve got that information. You know what beers people have checked into at Pi Bar; while it’s not an entirely cohesive list, it sure is better than what we’ve got now. If half of the beers on that board get on a list somewhere, it’s better than a list updated 20 months ago. It’s a start. Let’s link it all back to the bar so that if a customer checks in to a beer, it pops up a message (noticeably but not disruptively, of course) on the bar’s POS suggesting that someone just checked in to a beer. Allow them to confirm that the beer’s on now, whether it’s bottle or draft, and give the option to say what it replaced. One database, everything connects.

Anything else, nerd?

Sure, all sorts of stuff. But I’ve got to keep a few things hidden.

It’s not a solution for every bar and restaurant. It’s organized and nerdy and compulsive and a lot to imagine and has a little bit of an initial time investment. I realize that there are thousands of bar owners that think this is a bunch of work for a bunch of bullshit. But there are also coffee shops where you pay for your latte on an iPad using Square. There are bars with digital tap lists. (Really, really awesome digital tap lists.) And we’re already doing all of this stuff now, it’s just cobbled together and we’re doing it poorly. If we’re going to do it anyway, we should probably just do it really well.

And now it’s time for me to hear from you. First of all, I probably should have announced ahead of time that this isn’t just blowing smoke up everyone’s ass; what you’re looking at is a casually worded business plan that’s been in the making for some time. My partner and I went back and forth a few times about putting these ideas out into the world, but ultimately decided that we want to get people excited and we’re therefore showing our hand pretty early. So, tell us: What bugs you about your current system? What do you love about your current system? What am I completely wrong about? You’ll be seeing a lot more from us over the next few weeks, and I’d love to know that we’re on the right track.

Patrons, bar owners, and yes – designers and developers, we’ll be looking for you soon, too. Feedback here is great, but if you’re interested in seriously becoming a part of this project, email me so we can sit down to chat. Probably over a beer, because that’s obviously how I do things.

Thanks for listening. Let’s make something awesome.

One thought on “Beer Tracking: A Better Way

  1. Stephanie

    One thing that drives me nuts – when I check into a beer, I would like to see recommendations based on the beer that I checked in with. Untappd has yet to implement this. Their recommendations are based on what your friends or other people on the site are drinking. They’re getting closer, but there have been many times when their recommendations have been way off the mark.


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