If you cast your minds back to the spring, you may vaguely remember that in May I wrote a blog post about a certain Scottish brewery. I’d been passed the results of laboratory analysis of two beers from Brewmeister, the (at the time) ‘supersonic scientists delivering you to drunksville’. The abv of their two most prominent high-strength beers – Armageddon and Snake Venom – had been tested by an HMRC-accredited lab from within the beer industry, with experience of distillation, and found them to come up very short indeed. Armageddon, purportedly 65%abv, came back at 22.8%; and the 67.5% Snake Venom reached 41.1%. As you can imagine, this raised a fair few pertinent questions.
Adding to those, at the same time a blog post appeared on Brewmeister’s website from then-MD Lewis Shand stating the company were willing to top up the strength of Snake Venom with pure alcohol, if it had failed to reach the freeze distilled target of 67.5%abv. Again, this was met with widespread incredulity within the industry. Trading Standards investigated the company – as clearly, selling a product that was far short of the advertised alcoholic strength is extremely serious. After the Public Analyst contracted by Moray Council Environmental Health tested a sample of Snake Venom, the council contacted me with their finding:-
‘The Public Analysts report on the current high ABV product, “Snake Venom” beer, was satisfactory, and there was no indication that alcohol had been added to adjust the strength. The alcohol content was within the 1% tolerance allowed by the Food labelling regulations 1996 for a product of this type.’
I asked for a copy of this report, to determine if the analyses conducted were the same as the ones performed in the test that gave Snake Venom as 41% – but the Council, as is their right, declined to send it to me, stating they did not feel releasing the report to be ‘appropriate’. With no way of reconciling these two very different answers in terms of the alcohol by volume of Snake Venom (Armageddon was not mentioned, and doesn’t seem to be produced or referred to by Brewmeister any more, either), that was the end of that. Snake Venom again made the papers as the World’s Strongest Beer.
As I’ve said previously, as a company Brewmeister have turned the corner, and with their re-brand and new team, are getting on with making beer. They have a different head brewer in place, and according to their website, a new MD has since come onboard; Mr Shand is listed as Director of Sales and Marketing. They are engaging their drinkers, putting out plenty of press releases about what’s going on (the most recent of which, about a Yes/No referendum beer that was produced; although in that vote, Yes won handsomely).
And, we all move on. Today though, a footnote to the story. Brewmeister have been censured by the Advertising Standards Agency for how they referred to Snake Venom online. A complainant (who was not me) challenged the claim that the beer was 67.5%abv, and questioned whether Brewmeister could substantiate this. In response, the brewery provided the Public Analyst report that I had not been privy to, and the ASA considered whether this was enough to satisfy the points that had been raised. Evidently they did not, as their verdict reads:-
While we noted the certificate of analysis provided by Brewmeister showed that the product had an alcohol volume of 67.5%, we also noted it stated that the product had its fermented alcohol content concentrated by a process of freeze distillation and that it was possible that ethyl alcohol had been added to increase its ABV, which we understood, in both cases, was different to the process used for standard beer. Because that was not made clear, we concluded that the ad was misleading.
There’s one very interesting word in that paragraph – the certificate of analysis stated it was ‘possible’ that ethyl alcohol had been added to Snake Venom; this is very different to ‘no indication’ that it had been used. Also, by ruling that a product which has been freeze-distilled is different to a standard beer (which everyone would agree it is), the ASA have ruled Brewmeister to be in breach of the advertising code by referring to it as a beer. This raises further questions on the provenance of these drinks, and whether anyone making them can purport to calling them ‘beer’, whether the world’s strongest, or not.
The ASA have told Brewmeister to ‘not place undue emphasis on the alcoholic strength of their products’ in the future; a move which pretty much rules out more Snake Venom, I would have thought. The entire reason for it existing was to get the brewery noticed, and nobody can argue this hasn’t been successful. As a product in their range, Snake Venom has disappeared from Brewmeister’s website – it was presumably removed whilst the ASA were considering their verdict. Now the verdict has been delivered, will it ever re-appear? Brewmeister have no need for Snake Venom anymore, however it was made, advertised, or labelled. Other breweries have fallen foul of the ASA in the past, and moved on. Look for Brewmeister to simply do the same.
As per the Publican’s Morning Advertiser, Brewmeister released a statement, which reads in part “…we believe it’s time to challenge these regulatory bodies which we feel act as a ball and chain weighing down businesses. We declare freedom from its red tape and pointless bureaucracy. While these bodies spend their days investigating hard working businesses over anonymous complaints from one bored individual, we will continue to make great craft beer our way.
One complaint. One Brewmeister.”
The full statement can be read here.