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Friday, August 20, 2010

The Beer Sherpa (Aspirational)

NPR carries a show out of Chicago called Sound Opinions, which bills itself as "the world's only rock 'n roll talk show." (A claim I find hard to believe.) It's a fairly entertaining show that I download via podcast and which keeps me somewhat in the loop about popular music. (Very cool, cutting-edge stuff takes too much time to follow for old men like me.) Anyway, the point of this is that they have a regular feature called "Rock Doctors," wherein they invite some hapless schmo to discuss how he's become mired in old music and needs something new to which to listen. They probe about what music he currently likes, then offer two recommendations of (usually) recent albums. And they're terrible at it.

Generally the poor schmo praises at least one of the records and everyone appears happy, but I've been listening to the show for a couple years now, and I know that they almost always just offer a selection they've recently raved about in a review. (What they should do is recommend that the poor schmo download the Pandora app, though that makes for less interesting radio.) Recommending things is hard. It requires the recommender to abandon her own biases and listen to the actual preferences of the other person. Amelie is a great movie, but if the guy likes slasher picks and hates rom coms, it's a bad recommendation.

Beer is much the same. People tend not to have a vast sweet spot--they like certain types of beers and stick with them. For someone who loves hop bombs, recommending a bock may be risky business. But it goes deeper than that. People tend to have specific tastes, but slightly idiosyncratic ones. They like hop bombs, but they also like stouts and witbiers. If you probe a bit, you may discover that they don't actually like especially bitter hop bombs, that the stouts they prefer are lighter and sweeter, and that they don't really like most witbiers, but absolutely love Hoegaarden. Pretty soon, a map begins to emerge.

I'm thinking of this because I love to make recommendations. I was slotted to take some friends-of-friends from North Carolina out on a pub crawl last night, but they had to cancel. Too bad: I was really looking forward to guiding them along so that they walked away thinking--as they should--that Portland has the best beer on the planet. I was to be the beer sherpa.

I see that this name has occurred to someone else; a pity. I wouldn't mind donning the parka and snowshoes and leading people up the mountain of good beer. If only I could figure out a way to monetize that. If only!


  1. There's a website called Beer Chooser ( that is similar to Pandora but for beer. You tell it what you like and they tell you what you might like.

    I haven't used it enough yet to know how well it works, but it's worth a look

  2. Did you read the NY Times story about "The Song Decoders" at Pandora?

    A lot more complicated that basic collaborative filtering, which really isn't basic at all.

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  4. I'd be curious to try the Beer Sherpa site.

    I wonder what it would recommend if I put Hair of the Dog Adam, Russian River Pliny the Elder, and Cascade Apricot as my three favorite beers.

  5. Matthew, it would say: "You are a beer polymath and will enjoy most good beers. Insufficient information to suggest European lager-type beers."

    The beer sherpa is only useful for those who haven't been to the mountaintop.

  6. I love being a beer sherpa for people who don't know craft beer very well - I have convinced many a friend to drink craft beers instead of ordering some macro junk, and they end up liking craft beers in the end.

  7. Last weekend I took a selection of pilsners to a colleague and his 30-something son in Denver: Shiner-101; Full Sail-LTD02; Lagunitas-Pils; Left Hand-Polestar; Oskar Blues-Mama's Little Yella Pils; Victory-Prima Pils.

    The beers were a big hit; it gave me pleasure to broaden their horizon beyond the standard European variants.