A pair of Raleigh developers wants to make sure beer lovers always know where to find the closest brewery, and they're using open-source technology to help.
By tapping into an open database of craft breweries and their suds selections, Web developers Jason Austin and Garrison Locke created an application called BreweryMap that allows users to chart and explore nearby sources of local beer.
Austin and Locke launched the Web and mobile versions of the site over a weekend in February after a frustrating attempt to find breweries in the Denver area online. They're hoping that by harnessing the power of collaborative development and the passion of the craft beer community, they can meet a need that Google Maps and social media cannot.
"We provide an avenue to find that information, which may be a little harder to find if you're just going to Twitter and typing in 'North Carolina breweries,' " Austin said.
Under the hood
Brewers in Raleigh say they aren't surprised at this latest blend of technology and word-of-mouth advertising. For them, it's just another example of the marketing their small businesses couldn't survive without.
Knowing the ins and outs of good beer often means dealing in data. Each of the more than 1,600 breweries in the United States has a collection of beers, both seasonal and year-round, each with its own style and flavor characteristics. Aside from that, there's a percentage that specifies a beer's alcohol, a measurement of its bitterness, and even a standard color value.
Passionate or not, that's a lot of information for two developers to handle. So Locke and Austin decided to get it elsewhere.
"I'm not going to redo this if somebody knows how to do it better than me and is willing to share," Locke said.
They found that willingness in Shaun Farrell, a Washington developer who created BreweryDB. By allowing any user to submit breweries, beers and all their associated information, Farrell has been able to amass a library of more than 1,500 breweries and 8,000 beers from around the world in about four months. He also opted to release an application programming interface, which allows other developers to access the database and use the information for their own purposes.
"The best way to get people to contribute to the library is to give data away," Farrell said. "You need an API because you're not going to think of everything people want."
About 70 different developers are accessing BreweryDB's data so far, including Austin and Locke.
When a user enters an address into BreweryMap, the system converts it to a latitude and longitude. After gathering data from BreweryDB on every brewery within a given distance, the site uses the Google Maps API to plot the locations, and then lists them along with their beers.
By combining three different sets of software this way, Austin said, users get something more valuable than any of the individual pieces.
"By itself, [one piece of software] may not be the most useful thing to the average user," Austin said. "But add in some technology behind it, add in a collaborative approach from a couple of other people, and you've got a really interesting product."
Locke points out that the efficiency of this collaboration makes it possible to create services like this in hours or days. Outside of the beer world, applications like Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare have all released APIs, prompting other developers to innovate in totally different directions.
"The old way of having a giant silo of everything is definitely going away. You see that with all these mash-ups," Locke said. "Everybody and their brother has an API."
That also means that services like BreweryMap can change quickly with demands and suggestions from its users.
"At one point in time in software development, you had to finish a product because you sent it out to someone on CD and they installed it. Somebody could open up an API tomorrow that had more information that we wanted to pull in," Austin said. "We're never going to be done with this thing. We're constantly going to be evolving it."
The power of suggestion
Regardless of how it changes, the application won't be the last that craft beer lovers use to find, discuss and share great brews. The last few years have seen an explosion in the Triangle's craft beer industry, and many companies wasted no time using Web tools to connect with potential consumers.
And without that word-of-mouth, small companies like Roth Brewing Co. in Raleigh say, they'd likely wither on the hop vine. CEO Ryan Roth estimates about one-third of his bar accounts contact him after hearing about his products from customers.
"We like to talk to people and be in communication with our consumers," Roth said of his 9-month-old brewery. "If we didn't have social media, we wouldn't be able to do what we did."
Even LoneRider Brewing Co., a 2-year-old brewery that paid to air a more traditional TV ad, puts a heavy emphasis on interacting with customers online and in person. They're active on social media sites such as Facebook and Foursquare, and they use Twitter to organize informal gatherings at the brewery called "tweetups."
"The ability to reach the masses is important, but it's more important for the masses to reach you," LoneRider CEO Sumit Vohra said.
Local products rule
And if brewers do it right, Vohra said, those interactions strengthen the craft beer community as a whole.
"They are very passionate, very vocal," he said. "When passionate people come together, they're going to promote a community."
For their part, Austin and Locke hope BreweryMap will educate more people about the beers made right down the street. And Austin says supporting those breweries just makes sense.
"I'm a big fan of anything local. Whenever you can patronize someplace local, it helps the economy around here, it helps people I know," Austin said. "I'm drinking a beer where I know the guy who made the recipe. That's important to me."
Tyler Dukes is a freelance science and technology reporter and journalism adviser at N.C. State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.