The Good, The Bad, and The Comments: the Beer People Facebook Group
Updated: Jul 14, 2021
This article was commissioned by The Growler. When they recently ceased publication, they gracefully returned this piece to me. Many thanks, and you will be missed.
We have all disobeyed the first law of the internet, which is, indisputably, Never Read the Comments. And we have all been swiftly reminded of the consequences of our flippant decision. Whether polarizing political rants or inflammatory generalizations, The Comments can often turn from strong opinions to personal attacks, ruining all hope for civil discourse. But what about cases where the story is comprised entirely of The Comments? Such is the situation in forums like RateBeer, Beer Advocate, and in beer-related Facebook groups, where the discussion takes center stage.
One such Facebook group is simply called Beer People, and the very mention of its name, however benign, will draw contempt. The group is comprised of 17,818 members at the time of this writing and was founded by Matt Granmoe on June 18, 2011. Granmoe made his brother Luke and friend Timothy Kirchoff the second and third admins and the group was born. At this time, the ink had barely dried on the signed Surly Bill and there were a quaint 20 breweries in Minnesota.
The purpose of Beer People was primarily beer exploration, though there were no explicit goals. The small group of initial members was nearly all in Granmoe’s neighborhood—due North of Duluth in the Mesabi range—or otherwise personally connected to him. Many of the members were new to craft beer, and with few local options and limited regional brands in their area, Beer People was a window into the greater world of craft beer. Members could share their new and unique liquor store finds, and celebrate the germination of taprooms throughout the state.
the growth phase
As friends of friends joined Beer People, the group grew past the 1,000 member mark. One founding member, Andrew Karr, was promoted to become an admin in February 2013. Today he is the most active admin and the face of the moderators within the group. Beer People has always been a private Facebook group; All members must request membership and be approved by an admin, chiefly Karr. In the seven days leading up to our meeting, Karr had approved 67 new members. Individual posts do not require approval.
“Don’t be a dick” is the number one rule of Beer People, followed closely by “No Hate Speech or Bullying.” Further down the list puts the same principles in more Millennial terms: “No trolling.” These and seven other rules are available for reference to those in the group, and they also are displayed when a person requests membership. As Moderator Donovan Greubele points out, “It’s usually one or two shitheads that ruin a thread. I’d hardly say they’re the majority.”
There are more than 10 million groups on Facebook and 1.4 billion people use them. In 2018, the Facebook algorithm changed and gave posts from groups greater priority in members’ feeds, a trend that continued in 2019. For individual Facebook users, this means that a greater amount of content we interact with will be posts from groups.
In terms of scale, Beer People is smaller than several beer-related groups with national reach, but by far the most prominent craft-beer-focused group in the state. The League of Extraordinary Beer Drinkers, founded about a year after Beer People, has 35,500 members. Craft Beer Lovers is only three years old and has 22,517 members. Both have no specified geography.
Arguably more important than the raw numbers is the activity. In Beer People, “a surprising amount” of members are actually active, explains Karr. Three-quarters of the group have viewed the page or interacted in some way within the last 30 days. Anecdotally, reports Karr, the majority of original posts are made by members who have been involved for one year or less.
Members with more longevity tend to “like” or comment more often than generate new posts.
The average member looks to the group for general beer information and news. “It’s the place to look for new beers that are coming out,” reports Karr. Many members look for guidance on where to go and what taprooms or bars to try, especially whether pricey bottles are worth the money or distant breweries are worth the trouble. Still, Karr is skeptical on whether this free marketing is meaningful. “Because, you know, it’s almost 17,000 people [update: now greater than 17,000], but that’s nothing compared to the amount of beer drinkers.”
such is the internet
Shylina Gibson has been a member since October 2014. She sees her fellow members as fountains of craft beer knowledge who helped expand her narrow taste beyond porters and stouts. “I also find out about new breweries or bars with awesome tap lists from the group. For example, I likely never would have been to Ansari’s [Mediterranean in Eagan] if not for the group. Folks are really willing to answer questions and offer advice.” For people like Gibson whose group of friends IRL isn’t into beer chatter, Beer People is a fun outlet.
As is the case when a multitude of strangers interact in a digital sphere, things don’t always stay fun. Growth beyond the friends-of-friends level required moderators and admins to screen content ever more stringently to prevent nasty comments and spam. No amount of screening can effectively weed out all inappropriate content, and therein lies the problem: human beings running amok online. This is why we cannot have nice things.
Beer People is seen as controversial in the local craft beer community—almost infamous in some circles—due to several reasons, not the least of which is its emphasis on the new, the extreme, and the unconventional. While this isn’t different from the internet in general, traditional beer isn’t just ignored, it is shunned. Beers that don’t fly off shelves are dubbed “shelf turds” simply for being regular, rather than limited-release or loaded with adjuncts. Bent Paddle Brewing Company’s Cold Press Black Ale and Summit Brewing Company’s Extra Pale Ale, both acknowledged as phenomenal beers, have been so labeled. Other beers are photographed being poured down the drain for being undesirable in some way while other members comment, like craft beer reality TV.
On any given day, out of about 100 posts on average, there isn’t much bickering. But the spats that do arise (in the comments, of course) can be uncomfortable, ugly, or entertaining, depending on who you ask. Many of the distasteful comments come in themes—craft beer novices who are made to feel foolish, disagreements over whether something is worth drinking versus poured down the drain, and, as Karr describes, “people who are more traditional in the beers they like” being bombarded with what’s trendy. “The group tends to focus more on the latest trends and I think some people feel that the other, more traditional things get passed over or slighted.” Karr recalls former members who have left over this very issue.
Alliances form among the more “experienced” drinkers who look down their noses at the noobs, over their glasses of barrel-aged German chocolate stouts, creating a self-caricature seen annually in Superbowl Ads. Industry professionals monitor posts for inaccurate information, and then decide between polite correction, damage control, or tacet frustration, as the situation requires. When asked about her participation in Beer People, Kelsi Moffit, former sales and distribution manager for Sociable Cider Werks explained, “Legitimately, the only reason I’m here is to make sure that there isn’t any misinformation being passed around about the brands I represent.”
Karr explains that there is no recourse when someone doesn’t follow the rules except to delete their post or, more often, their comment. He will remove members who are repeat offenders, especially if they haven’t contributed positively to the group. “If someone is straight up trolling the group, I’ll kick ‘em out. But if someone just has opinions that are different, I’ll keep an eye on things.” Beyond initial membership approvals, policing content is the bulk of his role as an admin. Determining the line between a difference of opinion and bullying isn’t always a natural task. “I’ve been accused of censorship more than once already. It’s not really something that you want to do,” says Karr. One ex-member called Karr a Fascist after being booted.
The tone of the group presents a more challenging environment for women than men, like most corners of the World Wide Web. “There have been posts that I found odd or problematic, but I just rolled my eyes and kept scrolling,” explains Gibson. “The atmosphere can feel a little bro-y and I don’t always feel it’s worth the energy to get into some internet-fight.” Other women are far more vocal about misogynistic content.
Posts about controversial naming or branding that slights women often divide members into snowflakes and those who accuse others of being snowflakes. More troubling are targeted trolling efforts aimed at women, which Karr takes very seriously. Last year, one female member was targeted by two male members that she did not know who encouraged her, in short, to complete suicide.
controlling the chaos
There’s no recourse for this kind of behavior, except to remove the comment and the member. To combat complete chaos, Karr will turn on personal notifications when a post has a decent chance of going Lord of the Flies. It’s uncommon for him to receive member-reported content, in part because he deletes offensive comments quickly.
The reports of misconduct at Founders Brewing Company was one such example. Karr monitored the thread, recognizing it as a good discussion while dreading racist remarks that inevitably followed. Karr removed the original post, and instead took another approach by posting the Washington Post article, ‘I didn’t know his DNA’: Craft brewery manager says he can’t confirm black employee’s race in discrimination lawsuit, with his own words: “Founders is a big brewery and has been a player in the craft been industry for a long time, so something like this is obviously going to be discussed here. All I ask is everyone please keep it civil. Read the posted rules if you haven’t yet […] We want to keep things from spiraling out of control. We’re just trying to run a stupid Facebook group and keep it mostly not a dumpster fire.”
Since the Murder of George Floyd on May 25 and the uprising that followed, there has been a national spotlight focused not only on diversity and inclusion in craft beer, but meaningful acts to reduce discrimination. To that end, hundreds of breweries throughout the US have brewed Black is Beautiful in partnership with Weathered Souls Brewing Co. of San Antonio, TX. More than just a feel-good moment, Weathered Souls asks that participating breweries do the following three things: Donate 100% of the beer’s proceeds to local foundations that support police brutality reform and legal defenses for those who have been wronged, Choose their own entity to donate to local organizations that support equality and inclusion, Commit to the long-term work of equality.
While Karr doesn’t think that the average member would see a big difference in the group dynamic or overall content from May 24 to now, these Black is Beautiful releases have been garnering a lot of attention among members. One member even created a map of all of these releases in the state. The moments of negativity regarding inclusion are not gone, but the positivity about bringing more voices to the table and actively working against police violence feels powerful, especially on the heels of racist behavior at 56 Brewing Company and the injustice of a minority black partner being tokenized at ONE Fermentary and Taproom.
Given the workload — which amounts to incremental minutes throughout his day, everyday — I asked Karr why he does this and if he will do it indefinitely. He recalled a visit to Bad Habit Brewing in St. Joseph. Owner Eric Geier told Karr that he recently asked the taproom for a show of hands — “Who here is a member of Beer People?” Half of the room raised their hands. “And when he told me that story, I was kind of blown away. And those are the kinds of things that make it worth it. I’ve been told that there have been some real life friendships that have come out of the group. I enjoy it– I mean, it’s a lot. When I heard that, it made me feel good.” He has no plans to give it up.
“I’d like to think we’ve maintained the spirit [of the original group] a little bit. I don’t know how true that is,” Karr points out. “Has the community changed? That’s sort of hard to say from my perspective…Beer People is such a microcosm. I think members promote inclusivity. There are people that are mostly negative, but they are very much in the minority.” When Miller High Life was recently glorified by one member, the traditionalists came out of the woodwork to cheer and not a single put-down was uttered, save one vote in favor of Coors Banquet. Some beers are above reproach, even in Beer People.