Celebrate Summer and Raise Your App…Um…Glass!

It’s summertime and your holiday weekend is approaching. Time to sit back, relax and crack a cold one. Do you fall back on your old reliable everyday brew or is it time to branch out? Perhaps you are in a part of the country that doesn’t stock your favorite. Now what?

Rob Nowak and Kevin Jamieson testing the app.
Rob Nowak and Kevin Jamieson testing the app.

Enter the BeerMapper app! As reported in 2013, Discovery Fellow, Rob Nowak and (then) graduate student Kevin Jamieson with support from the National Science Foundation and Air Force Office of Scientific Research explored an active learning model algorithm to determine human preferences within a set number of questions.

According to Nowak, this theoretical research is very important in understanding how humans reason and learning human preferences. He cited all sorts of applications for helping people sort through large datasets and customize searches, such as an Air Force analyst trying to search through remote sensing data or a health expert trying to sort through electronic health records. “All these things involve human–computer interaction and a really important direction of research these days is how to optimize and personalize that interaction,” he said.

But what does that have to do with beer? After Nowak and Jamieson published their paper on the algorithms, they wanted to further test their finding with a thought experiment. “We were really thinking that this was a general problem that comes up all over the place, but for our purposes we wanted to pick an application that we were fairly expert in and that was beer,” said Nowak. They bought an app developer kit and Jamieson whipped something up pretty quickly on the iPhone.

“It’s really exciting for anyone from big data nerds to beer nerds.”
-Joe Sheahan, Savvo Digital Sommelier Solutions

Enter Joe Sheahan ’04 (BS, Econ), co-founder and CEO of Savvo Digital Sommelier Solutions. Sheahan’s company creates and installs kiosks in Chicagoland upscale liquor departments to aid consumers in choosing wines. Sheahan read about Nowak and Jamieson’s beer app in the Fall 2013 edition of On Wisconsin magazine and was intrigued with what he felt could be the next logical step in his business plan. The three of them met at an entrepreneurial convention and started working together to take the app to the next level.

Originally conceived as an application for people browsing craft beer ideas at home, an iPad version was developed. The group was surprised by feedback they received after the iPad launch. A vast majority of their followers wanted to be able to consult the app on their cell phones while at a bar, restaurant or retail establishment. The iPhone app is now available and an Android version is in the works.

The BeerMapper app sets itself apart from most recommendation tools by using Jamieson and Nowak’s robust data mining techniques on ratebeer.com‘s expansive database and their powerful yet sensitive recommendation engine to analyze an individual’s unique preferences.  It not only recommends beers more accurately than other apps but also maps craft beer in its own complete universe. As Sheahan noted, “being able to visualize the entire beer universe into one screen is pretty powerful.”

Beer App Screens
Mapping the Beer Universe. Each point represents a single beer. The closer the points, the more similar the taste.

So, back to the all-important question. You are out with friends and your beer of choice is not available. What do you do? Jamieson, who is now doing post doc research at UC Berkley with former UW Faculty member Ben Recht, ran into this exact problem. In Wisconsin, his craft beer of choice was Bell’s Expedition Stout, which is not available in California. Even while still in Wisconsin, his search on Bell’s Expedition Stout consistently recommended Alesmith Speedway Stout. “AleSmith Speedway Stout is a beer out of California that I had never had before and never really heard much about being in Wisconsin. But when I moved out to California I saw it in a store one time and I said ‘Oh this is the beer that the app keeps recommending to me’ and so I tried it and of course it was amazing,” Jamieson said. It also helped Nowak expand his selection closer to home. For this amber ale-loving researcher, it was Bridge Burner from Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery.

Whether you are traveling or seeking a new craft beer adventure close to home, check out the BeerMapper app. As Sheahan so aptly pointed out, “it’s really exciting for anyone from big data nerds to beer nerds.”


Patricia Pointer