Milwaukee-based SpotHopper Wants to Be Pandora For Watering Holes

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retro than modern, all the way toward nice outdoor area, nearly the whole way toward “warm and cozy” (as opposed to “clean and cold”), more social than antisocial, not “fratty” at all, and put strong emphases on beer and “hipster.” (For the record, I can’t pull off skinny jeans and don’t care who discovered which obscure band first, but I share the hipster’s affinity for craft beer and indie music.)

I clicked the search button, and the app pulled up a list of 15 establishments within a 1-mile radius of my apartment, each one marked on the map and showing how closely they match my preferences. I widened the grid to include all of Milwaukee, and my new top choice was Café Centraal, a Bay View neighborhood restaurant that supposedly was a 90 percent match. I’d say the app was spot on. Outdoor patio seating? Check. Beer emphasis? Double check. Slight, but not overly potent, hipster vibe? I’d argue yes.

I decided to search for my drink order from home so I could take my time and write notes without a potentially awkward conversation with my waiter. But this raised my first question about the concept of the app: Once I got to the bar, why would I need the app to suggest a drink when I could just ask my server? It’s true that not every venue has staff with deep beer, wine, or cocktail knowledge, but given the current craft beer and cocktails-from-scratch crazes, bartenders and servers often pride themselves on helping patrons navigate their selection. To wit, our waiter at the Belgian-themed Café Centraal said he knows its 15-page “bier book” inside and out.

In a busy bar or restaurant with hundreds of beers and wines available, servers and bartenders don’t always have the time to explain what each brew or vintage tastes like and make a thoughtful recommendation, Ivanovic says. With SpotHopper, users can save their preferred drink criteria and run that search each time they go out, the idea being they’ll get a faster, more closely calculated result.

“You’re still having that conversation every time you walk into a place. You only have to have that conversation with a phone once,” Ivanovic says.

Whether one prefers an app or a live person’s recommendation, I was satisfied with SpotHopper’s long list of customizable criteria for specifying my perfect beer, and generally happy with the result. I wanted a beer that was more light than dark, more creamy than crisp, slightly malty and sweet, and with low bitterness and hops. (For the truly persnickety drinkers, a further set of options includes beverages made from corn or grain and specific flavors like citrus or grapefruit.) Of the beers on Café Centraal’s menu, SpotHopper said my best bet was the Belgian brew St. Bernardus Tripel—an 89 percent match. I can’t say with certainty that it was the best tripel I’ve ever tasted, but it was still an enjoyable beer and one that I’d consider ordering again.

Sugar MapleAs my friend and I sipped drinks and chowed down on our food, we played around with some of the app’s other features. To be fair, this is SpotHopper’s first version of the app, and the team is working on an update that will incorporate feedback from early users, Ivanovic says. Here are a couple takeaways from the current product:

—The user interface is simple, clean, and visually appealing, but some functions could be improved. Users aren’t required to specify a preference for each category, so if someone truly doesn’t care how loud a venue is or how malty a beer is, for example, he or she can leave categories untouched and it won’t influence the search results. That’s a great idea, but the problem is that once a slider has been tapped, now that category’s preference must be gauged; I couldn’t figure out a way to undo that without starting over.

—We got mixed results using the app’s option to recommend a specific beer, wine, or cocktail that’s similar to a person’s drink of choice. When I asked SpotHopper to suggest an alternative to one of my local staples, Lakefront Brewery’s Wisconsinite, it came back with Blanche de Chambly, made by Unibroue of Quebec, Canada. Both are wheat beers with similar characteristics. After sampling Blanche de Chambly at the next bar (Sugar Maple, next door to Café Centraal and pictured above), I’m adding it to my list of favorites. But SpotHopper also recommended an IPA and a raspberry tart beer a few spots below Blanche—two choices that seemed out of place in this lineup.

Ivanovic says SpotHopper compiles its drink data from … Next Page »

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