Jan Bolvig has drunk more than 30,000 different beers. That’s three with four zeros. And he didn’t just swig them back and move swiftly on to the next either. He carefully admired their colour, he held them up to the light, he caressed them, he swirled them, he savoured their aromas, he slurped and sipped them, he considered their malt, their hops, their subtleties and nuances; then, he expertly assessed them. And he wasn’t even done then. No, Jan took the time to score them, to type up his thoughts and musings and to share them with a few hundred thousand close friends online. As a beer fan, it makes me feel pretty part-time.
At the time of writing, the actual number of beers Jan has reviewed on the crowd-sourced beer review site RateBeer is actually 32,474. What is even more remarkable is that this figure only includes the beers Jan has reviewed on this site since 2006. It doesn’t take into account those he reviewed informally for several years before he joined RateBeer and it doesn’t include any the 53-year-old Dane drank throughout his adult life before becoming a reviewer (and it seems fair to assume that he has always enjoyed a beer). Simple arithmetic says this can’t have happened by accident. It required dedication, organisation and a very understanding wife, who also enjoys a beer.
RateBeer was founded in the United States in 2000 and is today one of the world’s largest and most influential online communities for beer lovers. More than 1.3 million users visit the site every month to post beer reviews (330,000 members have posted 4.84 million to date), discuss its merits in the site’s forums, and form friendships and partnerships which help spread the global beer gospel. Jan has posted more reviews than any other user and sits at number one in a top 10 dominated by Scandinavians (including seven Danes – Jan’s explanation for this is simply that they have a strong RateBeer community in an affluent country). All of them have reviewed more than 13,000 beers, ciders, meads and sakes.
Executive Director Joe Tucker says the RateBeer team has been stunned by the number of reviews some members have posted. “I remember when somebody on the site hit 1,000 ratings and we were all astounded. Most of us didn’t know that there were 1,000 beers in the world. But it makes sense to me. The person whose opinion meant the very most in wine, Robert Parker Jr, would sit down to taste 400 wines in a single sitting. So when people say the quality of what our raters are producing isn’t good, I think it probably is pretty good. Or as good as what counts as the best possible opinion in the wine world.”
You might assume that anyone in this top ten, and especially Jan Bolvig (who goes by the username Fonefan on RateBeer), would have to be driven, obsessive, ultra-competitive and perhaps permanently drunk. If Jan is any of these, he does a very good job of hiding it. Instead, he is soft-spoken with impeccable English, humble, measured and gives every impression of not being impressed or surprised at having clocked up so many beers.
“It’s more or less just happened,” he says. “I haven’t been tasting beers to get to number one on RateBeer, and if I could press a button and hide them all so the number didn’t appear on my profile, I would gladly do that. Generally I don’t think there is anybody sees it as a competition, it’s not a numbers game.”
Jan, who owns his own company and lives in Ulfborg in western Denmark, has chalked up his record haul of reviews by regularly attending and hosting tasting events, travelling the world to attend beer festivals and by using the community that RateBeer encourages, to share and swap rare beers from around the world. “My wife and I usually enjoy one or two beers a day and nowadays, as I am looking for new beers all the time, then it’s usually a new beer instead of drinking the normal house beer together.”
His beer odyssey started with a realisation that the amount of a beer you can drink, or how regularly you want to drink it, is not the best measure of how good a beer it is. “It’s like asking a person, ‘What is your favourite meal?’ and then thinking that every time he wants something to eat he will want his favourite meal, and that is not really how life is,” says Jan. So he decided he must keep seeking new beers.
When Jan tastes to review he usually drinks between five and 10 centilitres. “It depends on what kind of beer is on at the tasting and of course how many there are. If it’s one huge tasting then of course you need smaller sizes because otherwise you’ll get drunk before you get to the end. With the Danish Ølentusiaster (a national society for beer enthusiasts), if you go to a Danish festival then you normally get 10 centilitres of a beer. That is enough to judge and to taste a beer. A lot will depend on how focused you are on the tasting of course.”
RateBeer only requires 72 original characters on a beer’s qualities and a set of scores to register a review. But Jan’s reviews each follow a formula with between 100 and 200 words working through the beer’s colour, haze and how the head looks before moving onto aroma – noting the malts, the hops, the spiciness – and then finally evaluating the taste. “My experience with tasting beer is that it very much comes from the aroma,” he says. “If I block my nose the only thing I can taste is if it’s sweet or bitter, if it’s strong or sour. You can’t taste the cardamom or cloves or anything like that. So, I always try to fill out all the things that I think I get from the aroma before I start tasting. Once I have done my notes I have to transfer them to RateBeer and this is really my struggle. I always have a backlog of reviews that need to be typed up.”
“I’ve tasted 30,000 beers and on RateBeer there are 230,000, so there are still 200,000 beers out there that I haven’t tried”
Jan also has a backlog of beers waiting to be tasted. He estimates that at any one time there will be around 500 beers in his house filling a cellar, their own room and several of their own fridges. “Generally I’m struggling a bit to get the beers I buy drunk because every time I host a tasting I think I should put 70 beers on and we end up only getting rid of 20 because everybody else brings so many.”
He first used RateBeer as a way to keep track of what he had tried (instead of photographing beer clips and labels) and so that friends would know what beers to bring to tastings. You might think it would be hard to find a beer Jan hadn’t tried but he says he never has any problems sourcing new brews.
“I’ve just been in London for a week and I didn’t have any problem at all finding new beers there. I mean, I’ve tasted 30,000 beers and on RateBeer there are 230,000, so there are still 200,000 beers out there that I haven’t tried. Many of the shops do great work on getting new beers all the time and you trade with people that you have met or have just been writing to. That’s what the RateBeer community is about – you get this network.
“You get friends collecting the new beers they’re discovering in their home and putting them in a box and sending them for you. And you do the same for them. In that way you get beer that is very rare where you are but is very easy to get where they are.”
The organisation required and the amount of paperwork needed to keep up to date starts to make the whole business of drinking lots of good beer sound suspiciously like a chore and Jan concedes that there are days when he’d rather just sit down and sup a regular beer. So what keeps him going? “I’m just always excited when there’s a new beer around. Of course you want to drink the good beer but I like that you can be surprised by a beer.”
He speaks too of the pleasure he gets from being able to articulate what he is tasting, not just in beer but in food. “It’s made me much more aware of what I’m putting in my mouth. What I found is that when you start making notes and thinking about it, you start to put words to it, rather than just saying ‘I like this’ or ‘I don’t like that’.”
All empires fall though, and Jan hints that he must one day slip down the RateBeer rankings as younger, thirstier raters haul him down from his pinnacle. “I think maybe there will be a time when I will be fed up with making my notes and being that spooky guy sitting there at the bar with his paper filling out his formula and not being very talkative to his friends until he has finished doing his ratings. But I don’t think there will ever be a time when I don’t want to look for new beers.”
Notes from an elite RateBeerian
FIRST BEER Jan doesn’t remember the first beer he tried. Its identity is lost among the 32,473 subsequent beers.
BEST BEER The beer Jan returns to most often is the Schlenkerla Smokebeer from Bamberg, but he is also very partial to The Orval and Girardin Black Label Gueuze.
WORST BEER Without naming names his least favourites are over-spiced beers.
NOT BEER Jan used to enjoy an occasional whisky but tends to forego a dram now to try and keep healthy.
DIY BEER Despite knowing inside out what makes a good and a bad beer, Jan has never brewed his own but says home brewers have often helped him understand why certain flavours or aromas appear.