Anheuser-Busch InBev, the largest brewer in the world, is building itself a media empire. RateBeer, one of the largest user-generated beer rating websites, announced that it was purchased in part by ZX Ventures, AB InBev’s investment company. The partial sale actually happened nine months ago, but it wasn’t made clear to the public until June 1. Many beer writers were outraged, as expected, but so were craft beer brewers. So outraged were some brewers that they asked straight-up to be taken off RateBeer.
It started with Sam Calagione, the founder of Dogfish Head. On the brewery website, Calagione wrote that he was troubled by the news of the RateBeer buyout. He called it a “blatant conflict of interest” and a “direct violation of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics.” He even went so far as to cite the “Act Independently” section, which includes refusing gifts and favors, not paying for access to news, denying favor to advertisers and owners, and, most importantly in this case, making sure to “prominently label sponsored content.”
AB InBev’s part-ownership of RateBeer (as well as its ownership of publications like October and The Beer Necessities), is therefore unethical, says Calagione, and thus, Dogfish Head wants no part of it. As of Wednesday, Black Project Ale, Harpoon, and Cantillon also asked to be removed from RateBeer.
There are a couple of problems with this, though. Calagione isn’t exactly an angel of ethics. As he notes in the same blog post, he was the executive editor of a craft beer print magazine called Pallet. He maintains that neither he nor Dogfish Head held a stake in the company. But that’s like if the executive editor of a small town newspaper also just happened to be the mayor. The mayor might not profit directly from his position, but he sure does profit by ensuring positive coverage that brings people to his town and makes people think his town is a great place to live. I’m in no way suggesting that Calagione was acting unethically, but context is necessary if someone is going to level charges against a company.
His qualms with RateBeer, however, are in a different vein entirely. The website uses community- generated reviews, and journalism ethics don’t apply to user-generated reviews, because users aren’t journalists. Yelp reviews, for comparison’s sake, aren’t guided by the SPJ ethics. But the comparison is useful in figuring out exactly what the ethical problem is. It’s not a journalistic one — but it’s not great business ethics, either. If Yelp was owned by McDonalds, and every search pointed a person first and foremost to the nearest McDonalds, then that would be shady business.
AB InBev is the McDonalds of beer, and the company’s track record of abusing power and using its seemingly limitless budget to silence competition is concerning. So while it’s hard to get behind every part of Calagione’s blog post on why he wants to be taken off RateBeer, the general premise makes sense. It’s hard to trust a ratings website that’s owned by the same company that comes off as the Darth Sidious of the beer Empire.
RateBeer, for its part, said it’s not taking down any reviews.