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The Quiet Kingmaker 

Joseph Tucker's can make or break a craft brewer, keystroke by keystroke

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The annual RateBeer Best awards, published every January, are both widely publicized and recurrent sources of controversy. The list of the top-rated beers on the site tends to be significantly skewed toward higher-alcohol, higher-impact styles like imperial stouts and double IPAs, resulting in many questioning the utility and value of RateBeer's user-based review system. Whereas the wine world is arguably subject to the influence of "Parkerization" (the notion that some winemakers tailor their products to Robert Parker's particular tastes), RateBeer's Top 50 list is perhaps the beer world's closest equivalent in this regard. Much of the criticism stems from the degree of emphasis placed on the list.

The most immediate flip side of the RateBeer Best awards (and the site's ratings in general) is the exposure and acclaim they provide to up-and-coming craft breweries, which rarely have marketing budgets anywhere near those of conglomerated breweries like Anheuser-Busch or MillerCoors.

For lesser known breweries, high scores online can open doors that would otherwise remain shut. In 2010, a Scientific American article regarding online rating sites singled out RateBeer as its lone example of what's working well in distinguishing the good from the bad, while gently disparaging the built-in biases of websites like Amazon and Yelp.

Yet despite any misgivings Tucker might have about his public role in the website's future, beer is generally better enjoyed as a shared experience. Along with local beer writer Mario Rubio, the two have teamed up on a number of small-scale, casual events under the banner of RateBeer Events. Recent happenings included an intimate "meet the brewer" event with Shaun Hill of Vermont's Hill Farmstead Brewery at the Tucker household, as well as a beer dinner at Hopmonk Sonoma during San Francisco Beer Week to celebrate local and further-flung breweries earning 2012 RateBeer Best awards.

Even here, Tucker often defers to Rubio as the main public presence.

Part of it goes back to personal preference. (Disclosure #4: As someone also not particularly fond of public attention, I sympathize.) But it also touches on the underlying ethos of RateBeer. As Tucker asks, rhetorically, "Do you listen to the one guy, or do you listen to the people?"

Ken Weaver is the author of 'The Northern California Craft Beer Guide,' with photographer Anneliese Schmidt, due out this spring from Cameron + Company. He lives in Santa Rosa, and was just kidding about trying to sell you cutlery.

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