'kill it with fire' Meet the Cork man chronicling his search for London's worst pint of stout
‘After Jamie Dornan mentioned it on The Graham Norton Show everything blew up’
But what is it, then, the perfect pint? Where does it happen, and how? They’re the questions Ian Ryan, the 26-year-old founder of the @shitlondonguinness Instagram account, asks his 192,000 followers every day.
“You could surf on those yokes,” a recent caption on his profile says, referencing a frothy overlay, common practice when pulling pints of Guinness anywhere other than Ireland. “Truly shit. Is that E coli growing on the pint on the right?” another commenter responds, showcasing the grand dictatorship Cork city-born Ryan holds over Ireland’s most patriotic pint-suppers.
If your drink’s a Jameson and red, you may not have heard of Ryan. Aged just 23 and keen to work in video games PR, he undertook the Irish rite of passage and set sail for London. It was after emigrating that he realised the rumours to be true — that Guinness was just not as good outside of Ireland. Galling, headless cavities and thick, roaring clotted iterations of his beloved pint replaced the creamier fields back home. Soon Ryan started sending photographs back to friends, causing so much disgust that a decision was made to time-capsule such entities, like a terrible memory vault.
In late 2019, Ryan founded the caustic @shitlondonguinness, an Instagram account solely dedicated to documenting the terrible pints served in England’s capital. Almost instantly, the page attracted thousands of supporters, bolstered by word of mouth and a few celebrity fans (Niall Horan and Jamie Dornan among them — with the latter attracting “30,000 or 40,000 new followers in one weekend”) all eager to flip the narrative on terrible international heads. At present, the account gets “about 100 submissions a week”, mainly at the weekend, unsurprisingly.
In London today, Ryan’s natural accent shines and his words are judicious. One must be when discussing international relations. But his laughter freewheels when speaking about his busy schedule in the run-up to Paddy’s Day. “This week has been pretty hectic,” he says.
And so it has. He’s just finished his first photo shoot of the week, the second being for this publication. The former’s details are under wraps, but pouring perfectly is a given. Did he ever imagine his content would make him a sort of Guinness celebrity?
“No, not at all. There’s no real precedent set for being ‘Guinness Man’ or whatever,” he laughs. “I thought it would be something that would kind of tip away and then peter off, to be honest. When I first started it, I was also running @humansofthesesh (a sardonic overview of ‘sesh’ culture popularised by young Irish and British youths who push against government norms), so I promoted one with the other and gained something like 10,000 followers in one weekend. Then Jamie Dornan mentioned it on The Graham Norton Show and everything blew up.”
The page’s rolling (and growing) profile speaks to the gallant underbelly of Irish society. Comments near superseded the photographs submitted by fans, with remarks such as “this will give me nightmares tonight” and “kill it with fire” peppered through the images of middling pints and horrific cartons of black. Celebrities drinking Guinness also get the @shitlondonguinness treatment, most notably British politician Matt Hancock and BBC presenter Jeremy Vine.
The pint of plain’s intrinsic links to Irish culture and identity are both sprawling and boundless. It’s hard to belittle the achievements of the world’s best-selling and most recognisable stout, the company acting as an octopus, brilliant and moving, with its roots embedded in the architecture of Ireland’s capital. The Black Stuff’s best-kept marketing secret, however, is its insistence on treating Ireland as a full, untapped country and not just tending to the needs of the capital’s establishments.
With this, Ryan agrees. He credits its consistency and failsafe solidity in Irish towns and villages, locations often forgotten about infrastructurally by governing officials. “It’s something that’s always there,” he says. “Not that I’m saying that people run to the pub as soon as they’re home, but it is a constant. I think people are also really proud to be Irish, especially given our history. There’s steadfastness and a victory feel to staying in Ireland when others leave during times of recession or whatever, so I think people in Ireland love to laugh at the bad pints others get abroad because it feels especially triumphant and Irish to have a great one in your local.”
To be Irish is to court begrudgery many will say, but for Ryan, commentating upon the bad side of pouring wasn’t enough. He set up @shitlondonguinness’ sister account, @beautifulpints, back in December 2020, deep in the middle of lockdown, to provide solace and joy in equal measure, proving that better days were coming.
Most of the account’s followers (77,600 at the time of writing) and submissions hail from Ireland, with comments commending the “cracking pints of stout” that can be found here. Ryan says his accounts tap into a very Irish desire to celebrate a good pint and condemn a bad one.
“You would never get a lager drinker commenting on the standard of the bartender’s pour,” he says. “Like, when would that ever happen? But, it’s also worth noting that Ireland has a certain draw to those who no longer live in it. We’re proud that we get to be Irish, and that only becomes important to a lot of people when you leave. And that’s where little things like pints really feel like they mean so much more.”
Talk soon shifts to the non-combative nature of the Irish. Does Ryan ever send bad pints back?
“I actually haven’t,” he says, “and I’ve often gotten comments on the page saying I should maybe speak to the bartender, but the most I’ve done is leave a pint half-drunk or just left. I’d like to say that I would [speak to the person behind the bar], but I honestly just don’t think I have it in me. A few weeks ago, I got the courage to ask at a pub if they had Guinness glasses as I saw they were about to pour into a different one, and they said no. So that’s me done asking for a while.”
A group who don’t eschew confrontation, however, are the self-assured publicans of London establishments, who fairly consistently ask Ryan to review them.
“I do get the odd invite from confident owners,” he smiles. “And, in fairness, I’ve very rarely been let down. Only once did I give a bad review and the owner didn’t like it, but I have a good relationship with a number of pubs around where I live, and when friends of theirs ask me to come in for a pint, I’m often pleasantly surprised.”
What wasn’t pleasantly received, however, was the array of receptacles pubs used to shift product in lockdown. Submissions during the pandemic were plenty, some showcasing Guinness in milk cartons, food containers and curved glass bottles, known to all who survived them as gobblers. “Ah man, the gobblers,” Ryan sighs. “Pure desperation sent us to those. I remember a pub near me messaged to say they had Guinness and I picked two up for myself and my flatmate, and then went to Sainsbury’s to pick up dinner. I can still remember the security guard laughing at me when he saw what I was carrying. I only recently spotted them in the back of the press, which reminded me how good things are at the minute and how I can never go back there again.” I’m not entirely sure, but I think I see him shiver.
Regarding the future, @shitlondonguinness, @beautifulpints and Ryan along with them are going with the flow, picking up and putting down the best and worst of pours from here to Timbuktu (past submissions have come as far as Vancouver, Sydney and New Zealand). “There’s no real plan. I do have a day job, too,” he laughs. “I don’t wake up at 8am and start looking at pictures of pints. But I’m happy with where it is currently and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next.”
Until then, he’ll lie in wait, stroking Irish culture with his fingertips, and just hoping that pubs commit to the double pour and he doesn’t accidentally upload a good pint picture to the wrong account again. What a life.
Ian’s five favourite London pubs
Off the top of my head, you can’t go wrong with these. Although it always changes, and I am leaving out some solid hitters. As for the best in Ireland? The Gravediggers, without question...
The Guinea Grill, Mayfair. instagram.com/p/CUiabLuM_Ev
The Twelve Pins, Finsbury Park. instagram.com/p/CUft8CosMMF
The Sheephaven Bay, Camden. instagram.com/p/CaA0Mj0Mw58
The Auld Shillelagh, Stoke Newington. instagram.com/p/CTC-1GHsbEU
Coach & Horses, Wellington Street. instagram.com/p/CWQqvhsMSnp
You can find Ian Ryan and his work at @shitlondonguinness on Instagram or @shitlondonguinn on Twitter
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