Almost exactly a month ago, the co-founder and MD of Brewmeister, Lewis Shand, admitted to me, in front of witnesses, that their beer Armageddon was not 65%abv as claimed. Commenting on the post I wrote following that conversation, he accused me of writing ‘lies’ – yet it now seems they were actually nothing of the sort. In another series of astonishing admissions, on Tuesday Lewis wrote this blog post, revealing the results of their own long-awaited analysis of Armageddon, which they had seemingly been pressured into commissioning. Here are those results, text copied directly from that post:-
The results are back however. It turned out as follows. The first 4 batches were at the correct ABV (within 1% is allowed, so they were all between 64-66%). We did not have any bottles from the next batch but two consecutive batches after this were not the desired ABV – they were nearer the pre-freezing strength, the lowest one was at 15.25%.
15.25% abv. This is even lower than the results of another independent test I have recently seen the results of, commissioned by a friend within the beer industry. Analysed at an HMRC-trusted laboratory attached to a brewery with experience of spirit distillation, the results of alcohol by volume testing for Armageddon came back last week:-
Armageddon – abv 22.86% (PG 1020.28)
This, in turn, tallies with the unofficial test I had conducted on a previous bottle of Armageddon, performed for me last year as a favour in another highly respected testing centre, which gave the result as 15.9% abv, and an earlier test performed in Sweden that placed the beer under 25%. These results should remove all doubt, if any were remaining, that Brewmeister Armageddon is not – indeed may never have been, the strongest beer in the world (or second-strongest, as it would claim to be now).
That 62-word paragraph that Lewis wrote raises so many questions. Firstly, if it is only just now that they have had the first four batches analysed, how on earth could they have got them all within 2%abv with no way of measuring it? It beggars belief: all of the publicity received in late 2012 was arrived at without the strength of Armageddon having ever been ascertained, by anyone. It certainly doesn’t appear to have been verified independently by the World Record Academy (who do not appear to be the same body as the Guinness World Records agency). This is astonishing, particularly when viewed in a legal context; Section 12.5 of the HMRC Beer Duty regulations, states – “You must continuously monitor and record your ABV results”, and section 12.2 states – “The results of the independent analyses must be held in your business records.”
The next thing that jumps out about the Brewmeister blog post is that having apparently managed to get the hugely difficult procedure of freeze-distillation right, straight from the off, four times in a row, something then happened with the two most recent batches. The process continually removes any formed ice, concentrating the solution by retaining alcohol (which will not freeze at that temperature). So goodness only knows what they were removing instead. Surely you would notice the remaining liquid was not darkening, or thickening – particularly if you’d successfully done it before? Apparently not, as Lewis goes on, in his blog post:-
We do not know where the mistake happened or how, but we know when they happened so we are in the process of contacting customers we believe may have had this batch to offer Snake Venom as a replacement. I would like to apologise deeply to anyone who got one of these bottles and you should expect to hear from me via email if you purchased direct. I really am truly sorry. At the time we were just 3 naïve guys in a barn with some stainless steel pots and a lot of ambition. Now we are a bit bigger (and dare I say it, more professional) I want to put things right.
Admirable, wanting to put things right. But given what he goes on to say about Snake Venom I’m not sure why anyone would be happy with that as a replacement. I have no idea what this means for the many people – myself included – that bought Armageddon through a third party. Presumably we are not entitled to refunds. Given there are no batch details on the bottles, it’s actually impossible for Brewmeister customers to know which batches were which; whether we bought one that was allegedly 64-66%, or actually 15% – although the moment of tasting removed all doubt on that front.
One fact that looks to torpedo Lewis’s claims to producing the first four batches to strength is the Swedish test (which came back at 25% abv). According to Johan Lenner’s blog post on Portersteken, it looks to have been performed in January 2013 (although it’s in Swedish; the post was published on the 3rd of February). This is a mere three months after the beer was first released. So, presumably, this must have been the fifth batch of Armageddon that went to Sweden, if the first four were definitely between 64 and 66% abv. Either that, or something happened to knock two-thirds of the abv off, on the crossing of the Baltic.*
*Thanks to Kristoffer Boesen for pointing out, on Twitter, that I actually meant the North Sea…
The next paragraph of the blog post relates to Snake Venom (listed abv, 67.5%)
Snake Venom is the current high ABV beer we are focussing on. We are changing the hops we use to give it more of a grapefruit taste, we get the ABV of this checked randomly now and the equipment we use is far better. If it falls short or too high, we can correct this with pure alcohol or normal ABV beer (or as we call it, raw snake venom which is pre-frozen snake venom). If we correct the ABV we have to add alcohol as an ingredient. We are also ageing some in whisky casks now and plan to sell at some point down the line.
So this is the solution. Anytime the freeze distillation fails, they’ll just top up the difference with ethanol to make it to 67.5%. That’s the grand scheme. Declare it on the labels and all is fine. This is almost beyond comprehension. Firstly, as soon as any raw alcohol touches that conditioning tank, what’s inside is no longer classified as ‘beer’. So they can remove the tagline for Snake Venom being the ‘world’s strongest beer’ right away. It isn’t. It’s been grogged; it’s not a beer.
Secondly, this is morally repugnant; pouring raw alcohol into a beer to reach an alcohol level that was missed through technical failure. Is that ‘craft’, as they claim their beers are? From a company with a mission statement on the front page of their website, stating that they don’t add any chemicals to their beers. This is disgraceful; it’s not Snake Venom, it’s Snake Oil. And they have the balls to say this is craft beer? Craft? Covering mistakes with ethanol? It’s the equivalent of butchers adding sawdust to sausages to make up the meat content.
The final – and for Brewmeister, potentially the most significant – thing about tipping raw spirit into a beer is that it immediately affects the amount of duty payable. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs clearly state this; “…If you mix beer with spirits that produces a recognisable increase in the alcoholic strength, even if the majority of the final product is beer, you will have to pay duty on the final product at the Spirits Duty rate.” And later; “If you mix spirits with anything apart from water, you must have a compounder’s licence.”
The team at Brewmeister could apply for these licenses (if they don’t possess them already), pay spirit duty, and amend the labelling for Snake Venom – and all would be fine. Well, except the industry friend who had Armageddon analysed also acquired a bottle of Snake Venom (67.5%), and had that tested as well:-
Snake Venom – abv 41.16% (PG 1002.88)
So, Snake Venom isn’t the stated strength either; it is two-thirds as alcoholic as it should be. However, of even more interest, having consulted two industry specialists; both were hugely surprised at the resultant Present Gravity level (a measure of remaining sugars). A PG of 1002.88 is apparently extremely low for a 41% beer, giving a likely indication that a method other than freeze-distillation has been deployed (in comparison, Armageddon had a PG of 1020.28, and that had half the alcohol content of Snake Venom). Early RateBeer reviews of Snake Venom state a ‘harsh alcohol burn’ on the flavour; and now Lewis Shand reveals ‘future’ batches can be made up to 67.5%abv as needed, by adding neat alcohol. Co-incidence?
Why is this a problem, you might ask? Brewmeister were new to the industry back then, naïve by their own admission, and not really sure of what the regulations were. They made a series of mistakes and have now apologised. Isn’t that the end of it?
No. Admission of guilt is simply not enough. Contrition has finally been shown, but the test results speak for themselves. Brewmeister sit there and write a blog that states their respect for the American brewing industry*, whilst simultaneously sticking two fingers up at the British equivalent, on a daily basis. They apologise for releasing batches of alcohol that are labelled illegally, yet still allow them to be on sale to anyone unaware they aren’t 65%, but 15%.** They say sorry for a simple mistake, one paragraph before stating they are going to resolve it by adding untested, unquantified chemicals to their products in future. They top up a beer with ethanol and seemingly STILL can’t get within 20% of the declared abv.
* “over the pond they just get on with it, it’s all about making great beer and none of the politics.”
** Armageddon is still, as of today, available to buy online (such as here, at Beers of Europe, priced at £45). Isn’t this the batch that the owner of the company has admitted is actually 15% abv? It should be removed from the shelves immediately.
Brewmeister are the brewing equivalent of those involved in the horsemeat scandal. Every beer producer, beer retailer, and beer drinker should be horrified by what Brewmeister have done, and by what they have stated they are willing to do, to further their interests. As such, anyone who buys Brewmeister beer at a festival, visits a bar they become involved with, or gives them an award should ask themselves if this is a business they want to support. The only way to get the message across that they have no place in this industry they are disrespecting is to take action; challenge them publicly, talk to retailers who stock their products, and report them to Trading Standards. If you drink a Brewmeister beer, you simply have no idea what you’re getting. Enough is enough.
UPDATE May 2016
To close this story off, in late 2015 the original owners were bought out by a consortium of venture capitalists from Dundee, and re-branded as the Keith Brewery.