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.

  11. Inter­est­ing stuff for this for­eign­er. And I’ve just fol­lowed Stringers.

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