Social drinkers

Anthony Gladman looks at the personalities behind some of the most successful brewery Twitter accounts, and asks whether there’s a recipe for success


People have been talking about beer for as long as other people have been brewing it. That’s just human nature: we love to share our thoughts on what’s good, what’s bad, what’s new and interesting. But with social media, that talk is amplified and shared much more widely and instantaneously than ever before.

This phenomenon has been a major factor behind craft beer’s remarkable growth over the last decade. In the UK, craft beer and social media grew up together. They both caught the imagination of a younger crowd looking for something different and gained momentum side-by-side, each feeding off the other’s growing gravitational pull. Craft beer and social media are thus deeply intertwined in a way that most traditional and macro breweries struggle to replicate.

Twitter and Instagram are particularly well-suited to the fast-moving nature of craft beer. Individual beers come and go like sticks dropped from a bridge into a fast-flowing stream. A few hang around, caught up in an eddy of popularity, but most pass on downstream never to be seen again.

Launching into strong currents

So, how does a new brewery cope when it’s launching into these choppy waters for the first time? Until late last year, Duration Brewing had only released collaboration beers, all brewed at other breweries. Since September, the brewery has added three beers under its own name to the team-sheet, all contract brewed by Amundsen in Norway because it doesn’t yet have its own brewhouse. That is still rising stone by stone from the Norfolk mud as construction workers transform the ruins of the 900-year-old West Acre priory into a modern destination brewery.

Despite this, the Duration brand already has the sheen of an established, even a mature company. “We’re two people with a small child working from home, with no sites and no brewery,” says Miranda Hudson, who runs Duration Brewing with her husband Derek Bates, the former Brew by Numbers head brewer. “I think social media has allowed us to look quite composed and professional while we’ve been frantically paddling away under the water.”

Thanks to Bates’s reputation within the brewing industry, Duration was able to snag collaborations with breweries like Cloudwater, DEYA and Verdant. “We were really lucky,” says Miranda of working with Cloudwater. “When Paul announced that we had made a collaboration together, a lot of Cloudwater’s followers started looking at us.”

Duration also filmed interviews with each host brewer, capturing moments such as Verdant’s Adam Robertson admitting to stalking Bates and Miranda on social media to find out what they were up to, or Theo Freyne from DEYA praising the dream of having a destination brewery rather than one in a railway arch. “Those kind of videos really help because they’re a testimonial,” says Miranda.

Duration was selling a dream, and each collaboration provided something tangible to put into drinkers’ hands, a little part of making that dream real. But without social media to spread their message it is doubtful Duration would have found enough people to buy in to their vision of what the brewery would become. “When we put our collabs out, we really wanted to build a presence. We felt like if there was some following and some traction behind the company, it would help with the fundraising.”

So, for Duration the company’s very existence is tied up in using social media to capture people’s imaginations. But what about companies further down the path? What is it like running a company’s social media accounts when your brewery’s reputation precedes you?

Up into the clouds

Doreen Joy Barber is one of two community engagement leads at Cloudwater. Until she joined the company last summer, its social media was still in the hands of just one person: Paul Jones, Cloudwater’s co-founder and managing director. To put this into perspective, Cloudwater has over 44,000 followers on Instagram, nearly 30,000 on Twitter, and around 21,000 on Facebook. Keeping on top of all that is not an easy undertaking, especially when you have to balance it with running a brewery.

“Cloudwater is under a lot of scrutiny from the beer community,” says Doreen. “The words ‘tall poppy syndrome’ come up often. There have been a few comments that feel very much like the brewery is an easy target for whatever is on that person’s mind.” Little wonder Jones took the decision to hand over the reins to Doreen and her colleague Connor Murphy. “I think he had a narrow escape there and he probably should have done it a bit sooner,” says Duration’s Miranda, a close friend of Jones.

Cloudwater encourages Doreen to monitor the company’s accounts only during business hours, but of course that’s not when most people go to the pub. “It can be tricky when you have people tweeting or messaging on the weekends or out of office hours. A lot of our customers are used to instant responses, particularly on Twitter.”

While the majority of comments are positive, and while the majority of problems can be resolved with a reply or a blog post to explain things, there remains a minority of customers who don’t want to listen. “They’ve formed an opinion and believe theirs is the only right way of thinking,” says Doreen. “Sometimes the best thing to do with those folks is to just make sure their comments don’t ruin your day, because even though they aren’t directed at Connor or myself personally, it can still feel a little disconcerting.”

It’s easy to forget that, for all Cloudwater’s clout online, it is still a relatively small company, and its social media is in the hands of just two people. Doreen can’t make everyone remember there are human beings behind the brands that they love, or maybe love to hate. So, what can she do? “We can take a moment to close the laptop and have a tea break. And we can turn off social media alerts on our phones!”

A voice amplified

If you think this disconnect sounds difficult to deal with, spare a thought for the man behind one of the mainstays of British beer Twitter. “People think we’re a lot bigger than we are because they’ve heard of us,” says Patrick Jones, Director of Pilot Beer. “When people came to see the old brewery they were astonished by how small it was.” Until August of last year Pilot, which supplies keg and cask beer to pubs around Edinburgh, had just a tiny five-barrel kit and three FVs. “I think our name is probably much more widely known than it should be for a brewery of that size.”

Patrick started Pilot in 2014, a time when most breweries’ social media was pretty tedious, he says. “Videos of brewers mashing in... It’s not interesting to do and it’s not interesting to read about either. I think breweries were just doing it ‘cause, well, you’ve got to have a Twitter account.”

Pilot’s success online was partly down to good timing. The brewery caught social media’s tide and has been buoyed up by it. “I think we started at the right time definitely. It was a different world five years ago. There was also a lot less cynicism. If a new brewery started, people were excited about it, whereas I think now it’s a bit more like ‘all right, show us what you’ve got’.”

But more than just timing, the growth of the brewery’s online profile was down to them carving out a difference. Patrick was not afraid to use humour and display some real personality. Indeed, he took to setting out the brewery’s stall online with relish. “Back in my uni days I was into internet message boards and whatnot. I was always quite good at doing jokes in that format. And yeah, I was excited about it, ‘cause as a small business with no budget that’s your opportunity to interact with people who are buying the products. It’s the opportunity you’ve got to get your personality across and hope that people like it.”

People did like it. Pilot’s account is often cited as an example of a brewery doing social media well. “I think we’ve done Twitter well,” says Patrick. “But we’ve probably not done the others so well. Instagram I struggle with. It seems a bit more phony than the other channels to me, but that’s possibly just ‘cause I’m a bit old and cynical.”

Some drinkers treat breweries on social media as a free service, there simply to enable them to live their best beer nerd life. They fire off a question or complaint but don’t stop to think about the time and effort needed to run a company account. “It’s difficult balancing that with my family life, because you can’t just be sat at home on your phone all the time,” Patrick says. “I’ve got a toddler running around who needs his tea and a bath. But equally, it is an important part of the business, and people tweeting Pilot Beer want a response. They’re tweeting Pilot Beer. They’re not tweeting Pat who’s sat at home cleaning soup off the floor.”

And it gets darker. Once you’ve made a mask there will come a time when it pains you to wear it no matter how closely it resembles your own face. For Patrick this came three years ago following his father’s death. “At the time I did a blog about it and said, ‘Some sad news from Pilot,’ but then the months after that, that’s really hard ‘cause there’s times when you want to just curl up in a ball and cry, and you’re still having to try to think of jokes to put out on the company account. That’s really hard.”

The people behind the accounts

Miranda Hudson @DurationBeer

Miranda describes her upbringing in London as a bit of an anomaly. She was raised in a community centre by her literary family, who taught her to strive to be herself: ‘You do you’ in the 1980s, before the internet made the phrase famous. Her introduction to beer came when she met Bates at a wedding in South Carolina. Throughout her life — studying theatre, working in interior design and running a charity — she has chased down ideas and made them real. Now she’s betting the farm on a shared dream with Bates. “I like to make dreams concrete,” she says.

Doreen Joy Barber @cloudwaterbrew

When Doreen, originally from the USA, came to the UK almost 10 years ago she had only one friend in the entire country — a regular from a hip-hop newsgroup she frequented during high school. Since then she has become deeply enmeshed in our beer industry and the wider community around it. Doreen is warm and funny, and creates genuine engagements that feel natural and organic. She cultivates a positive attitude that stems from a true and deep love of her adopted beer culture. Look out for her #LetsBeerPositive hashtag every Monday, and ask about her creamed corn story some time.

Patrick Jones @pilotbeeruk

Patrick is a sharp and witty cynic whose humour can cut through the bullshit we all encounter online, but he is also empathetic and self-deprecating. He grew up in Salford, and studied Mathematical Physics at Edinburgh. After that we almost lost him to GCHQ but thankfully beer drew him back and he soon completed his Masters in Brewing at Heriot-Watt before founding Pilot. Like any new dad, he kids himself that he has time for hobbies like sports and music but says if he’s brutally honest, any time without the two-year-old is best spent on a good quiet sit down.

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