A Disruptive Influence?

Detail from a label for Stringers Stout.

One of the most critical and questioning voices in the world of British beer is not a writer but a brewer: Jon Kyme of Stringers.

When he blogs, it is usually because someone has provoked him by, for example, making a claim in marketing material that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and he often adopts indirectly the persona of ‘The Professor‘ to deliver lectures laced with economics, science and philosophy.

On Twitter, he often posts acidic sub-Tweets picking up on factual errors, grandiose claims, or even just typos. In comments on various blogs, he is similarly sharp, in both senses of the word.

What got us thinking most recently, however, was a series of Tweets from earlier in the week:

While it’s not unusual for brewers to complain about beer they’ve bought, it’s usually expressed in cryptic terms, or off the record, in emails, Twitter DMs or face to face. A brewer reviewing other breweries’ beers feels like a deliberate act of provocation.

Intrigued, we decided to drop him an email with a few questions and find out what drives him to be, in the best possible sense, a disruptive influence in the world of beer. His response opened with the following typically impassioned paragraph:

It’s funny isn’t it. Like @seethelizards said ‘Ssshhh. You’re not supposed to mention that‘. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that Camden lager — but that was never the question was it? And after all, they’re the ones who made it not about the beer. About the London-ness of it, rather. Which turned out to be a bit of a ‘stretch’. And now they’ve asked for (and got) free money, just so that they can deliver what they’ve always been promising. I can’t believe I’m the only person who’s turned off by this. The elephant in the room has done a huge dump in the corner.

What drives you to question and criticise your peers? Why do you think others don’t?

Many of them are not our peers. We’re just in the business of making more-or-less nice beer on a small scale. They’re (some of them) in the business of brand-building. They’ve got the capital and the beer is a means to an end. Brands are about the commodification of relationships. Building a customer base that can be sold on.

Why would I criticise my peers? I was raised to give and take criticism… And I’ve had my nose broken for it before now. Why don’t people criticize the cool brands? Herd behaviour — a consensus gets formed and people move to it. People want to be seen to be on track, on message. Hanging out with the cool kids.

I’ve never been one of the cool kids. Always one of the weirdos.

Do you think bloggers and writers do enough to ‘call out’ dodgy practices and/or bad beer? How much patience do you have for writers and/or raters in general?

The writers (blogs or wherever) who tell us new stuff or dig up history or interesting ideas? Great stuff. Let’s have more of that. The ones who channel the herd mind? Feck ’em. Raters who know nothing about beer, or who hold forth based on a sip from a panda pops bottle shared with half a dozen others on a train to a ticking session. Feck them too. People on an honest personal exploration of the wonderful world of beer? Good luck to them.

I don’t think it would be a bad thing if there was more confrontation. Getting the tone right would probably be the challenge. It’s hard to do without coming over peevish. But it would make things more entertaining.

Do you ever say something about or to another brewer(y) and then regret it? (We think we’ve noticed posts disappearing from your blog in the past.)

No regrets. I don’t think I’ve pulled a post. Might be wrong. Can’t remember. I usually run things past Becky so she can stop me making an utter arse of myself.

Are you as challenging face-to-face as you can be online?

I’m a nice bloke really, but I can be a bit gnarly. But I’ve moved in circles where I’d be considered a complete pussy-cat.

Are we reading too much into this? Are you surprised to be characterised as ‘challenging’?

It’s context isn’t it? If we’re all supposed to be patting each other on the back all the time, then anyone who comes out as merely ‘unconvinced’ stands out rather.

26 thoughts on “A Disruptive Influence?”

  1. I must have always drunk that beavertown pretty fast 😉 or got lucky. Camden on other hand have been acting like a bunch of knobs and are producing some pretty basic beers.

  2. There are two problems with being critical, especially online:

    1. Most Brits seem to hate it. “It’s just not cricket.” (But snide comments in private are peffectly standard.) So you automatically set yourself as an oddball by publicly criticizing aything unless it’s a publicly recognised evil. Good thing I’m a dirty immigrant – it’s a good excuse anyway 😉

    2. People jump to the most insane conclusions. Take Camden beers, they’re all well brewed I’d say and I agree with Jon’s statements. It’s decent beer squarely targeted in the direction of mass-market appeal. But the army of unpaid Camden brand ambassadors will go into defense overdrive as if we’ve just said the beer is bilgewater, the brewer is an ass, and then kicked their puppy. Happens time and time again – Camden just the relevant example here, it’ll be the same for all manner o breweries. I’ll talk to folk about one of my local breweries and say something like “they brew a couple of very decent but utterly normal bitters, doesn’t interest me, but they’re good at what they do” (pretty much an exact quote of myself) — and I’ll get an earful about how everyone wants to drink their beer, that I am wrong (how?!), and a week later it’s escalated to the point that the brewer isn’t talking to me any more. (Gawd knows what he’s been told I said!)

    Anyway… rant done. Jon is a grounding force for good in the online UK beer world. I’m glad folk like him and Ed Wray have the hide tough enough to actually say what they think – in their professional opinion as brewers.

    In response to some queries on Twitter: IMO Stringers beers are good & a notch above “normal” (London types can think Redemption). Consistent & reliable. They won’t knock your craft socks off perhaps – although I got very good feedback on Victoria IPA in keg. He does 2 Gluten Free beers in proper cask form too – solid cask ales – and surely was leading in the innovation curve on that one. Science, bitches!

    1. I’m glad folk like him and Ed Wray have the hide tough enough to actually say what they think

      Interestingly enough, they’re also the only two beer bloggers I know who know about the anarchist & left-libertarian scene. Apart from me, obviously. And Nev. There’s loads of us really – never mind.

  3. I have only encountered this angry chap online and I must admit I didn’t realise he owned a commercial brewery! I will look it for it in future

    It’s good to see people who react against this awful “craft beer movement” ethos. There’s lots to criticise in this industry yet those who do are seen as breaking some code of conduct.

  4. See, years ago I argued you could not call anything a “beer community” if there weren’t the full pantheon of the crooks, the lazy, the irritating, the dull and the snarky just as out there in the real world. Maybe this is a sign of one actually forming. I do agree with the sensitivity of Brits to criticism to a point but have wailed in the wilderness about the “passion herd” mentality and cults of personality big craft and even little craft rely on. That’s the bigger problem. After all these years how many beers that are not the best value for the consumer still get heaped with praise?

  5. Just read the thread on Hardknott Dave’s blog where Stringers ends up making Dave look seriously paranoid. Gripping stuff!

  6. PS. on the subject of the “there’s a beer for that” campaign discussed in said thread on Hardknott blog – the chap from the agency behind the campaign is a v good friend of mine (indeed he was with me at the Finborough watching Chels be defenstrated by the frogs last night). It was his project in fact. He’s also designed me a new website for the pub. So my small business’s website is from the same evil source as “there’s a beer for that!”

  7. It’s kind of refreshing to see someone actually name names rather than go in for the usual passive-aggressive stuff about “the flagship lager from a certain London ‘craft’ brewery”. To me it seems a lot more interesting and constructive this way, because people who think Camden Hells is the best thing since sliced bread can actually just say if they disagree without worrying about the original commenter weaseling out with a sneaky “hey, you’re the ones who brought Camden into it!”.

    1. Having said that, I think there’s a line between criticizing the quality of a beer and criticizing the character of the people who brew it or drink it. And the latter is something to be approached a lot more carefully than the former.

      1. Although even there, if you’re not willing to explicitly say who you’re talking about then you should probably keep quiet rather than resorting to snide insinuations.

        1. There is a perfectly good reason not to name every time you complain – realizing the risk to the person’s reputation exceeds the point being made. Shutting up serves no good.

          1. You’d have to work at not seeing the point of avoiding unwarranted slagging while making a valid observation. Right now Bells brewery in the US is suffering character assassination due to folk misunderstanding a legal matter and going apeshit over it. If folk focused on their own lack of understanding and improving their appreciation of brewing intellectual property right, Bells would never have been mentioned.

          2. I haven’t really looked at that case in detail. But would the situation be any better if people were going just as apeshit but were mostly referring to Bells as “a certain Michigan craft brewer”? Surely the way to avoid unwarranted slagging is to wind in the unwarranted slagging, not to keep it going but avoid explicitly mentioning who you’re talking about?

            I guess I would make an exception for potentially libellous stuff that we’d have to take your word for (“I’ve seen myself that some smaller London brewers trim their toenails into the fermenter”). What I had in mind in particular, though, is when people are basically just saying that the beer’s bad.

      2. Dave5 is right when saying ‘…there’s a line between criticizing the quality of a beer and criticizing the character of the people who brew it…’

        In Camden’s case the line is between well brewed but derivative ales/samey lager and the nobs who market it. The episode where they threatened Weird Beard bears this out:

        http://weirdbeardbrewing.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/camden-beard.html

        I defy anyone to read that without coming to the conclusion that Camden are the type of ex-city-boy dickwads the world of brewing could usefully do without.

        What nobs.

        1. Bit aggro, Liam — we’ve approved this comment but try to avoid the nobs/dickwads stuff if you comment here again. Ta.

          And FWIW, we didn’t draw any conclusion from reading one side of the story.

  8. To be fair, Camden isn’t getting “money for free”, it’s offering equity in return for investment. Now, giving away just 2% of yourself for £1.5m – implying the whole concern is worth £75m – may seem to some to be cheeky. But the last time I looked they were overfunded by almost £300,000, with not quite 1,600 people having put up dosh to buy in – an almost BrewDog level of commitment. So somebody loves them. But I would agree that they have been arses trying to protect “Hells” as a brand name …

    1. Interesting that Redwell only managed to raise about £1600 out of the £30000 they said they needed to defend themselves.

      I found the Camden fund raising slightly infuriating (even more so than the Brewdog one) and I’m not that sure why. The valuation is absurd for this sort of investment but I don’t have to chip in. I just found it annoying that there are that many people happy to waste their money, and even more that they view it as a good investment. It is a shockingly bad investment, and even if things go incredibly well for the company you may just about get back what you put. I don’t think I’d be as fussed if it was portrayed as just helping a brewery out and getting some freebies/discounts in return (which is more what the Brewdog one felt like).

      1. Aye, but if they’ve the money to burn & it makes them happy… best leave them to it. Never know, they might win the investment lottery…

        Then again Goose Island sold for just US$38.8 mil … so the £75 mil valuation is… intriguing. Bit hard to predict and pick equivalents of course. Hey, Boston Beer Co has a mkt cap of US$3.5b … sky’s the limit? 🙂

  9. I’m cool with honest criticism. More, please! But the gadfly does have to be careful. I’m uncomfortable when I read blanket dismissal of raters, for example. There’s a serious limitation to what edification the general population can offer with their reviews, but “feck ’em?” You get in a far worse place when you start closing the door to opinion. Most people rate to keep beers straight or as a part of their evolving education. There’s something a bit too hipsterish about dismissing people’s opinion. Only the cool kids get to rate beer?

    1. If you read on to the end of the paragraph Jon does go on to write:

      “People on an honest personal exploration of the wonderful world of beer? Good luck to them.”

      There’s no blanket dismissal in Jon’s words. Just a rather blunt expression of the fact that the value of individual ratings from unknown folk is about zero… probably a healthy position for a brewer to have on the topic. (And one shared by many brewers I know, including reluctant craft-beer “rock stars.) I’ve seen single-sip “ratings” in progress and personally think them hilarious… fine for tickers, but not a useful source of feedback.

      As always when someone expresses an opinion folk take various black & white readings of it. I saw one tweet describing Jon as a “hater” (in the “gonna hate” sense)… which even if you only know him fairly vaguely, as I do, seems somewhat hilarious.

  10. Lots of time for Jon. He often comments on my blog and I like the cut of his jib.

    I find him very astute and fair in his comments.

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