Brewmeister censured by ASA over Snake Venom

Posted by on Sep 24, 2014 in Scottish Beer | 9 Comments

Brewmeister Brochure Inner

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.


  1. Jon K (out of Stringers)
    September 24, 2014

    Oh go on, do a FOI request.

  2. Phil Morton
    September 24, 2014

    Well, I for one am getting mightily sick of these cheap publicity stunts from certain elements in the ‘craft beer’ scene, whether or not their claims are true. Brewdog started the ball rolling in this execrable direction and it seems others are keen to pick up their bullshit-stained mantle.

    Yes, I know you can argue that it works, that may be true but it makes me even less inclined to buy any of their beer. There’s plenty of people making great beer without this sort of nonsense.

    Calling a beer ‘Neon Blonde’ and having a label featuring a ‘punky’ looking blond woman is just so incredibly lame and tacky.

  3. Owen
    September 24, 2014

    Agreed that an FOI request is in order.

    I’ve long thought that selling freeze-distilled as beer is misleading (ever since it came to prominence in the UK through Brewdog’s efforts) — it’s a whisky really, and pays (should pay) spirits duty.

  4. A. Complainant
    September 24, 2014

    I’m a bit unsure about the ASA’s quote here:

    “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…”

    Where it says: “…we also noted it stated…” it obviously seems to refer to the test certificate, but I wonder if it’s just clumsy wording and actually refers to Brewmeister, who did in fact state those things.

    Either way it would be easily solved by FoI-ing the council, but like you say, I suspect BM will just put those beers to bed now and move on, it’s certainly what I’d do in their position.

  5. Lewis Shand
    September 24, 2014

    I like to think we focus on different things these days – our new head brewer is not at all motivated to make these gimmick beers and instead prefers to focus on quality tasting beer.

    The owner of another Scottish brewery said to me yesterday that every company makes mistakes in their early days, his were when he brewed in a 90lt kit and the problems were very locally known. As he said to me, Brewmeister’s were somewhat more public!

    Now we are simply focusing on making good beer and we are very lucky to have Scott (new MD) and Tony (new HB). Tony is a great brewer and we are very lucky to have him. As an example of his focus on quality, he has changed the coffee we use in the Black Hawk (which is now a chocolate stout) to Indonesian espresso coffee.

    So that customers know his beers from the old ones, new bottles have paper labels as opposed to the old PVC ones.

  6. Richard
    September 24, 2014

    Thanks for the comment Lewis, I appreciate the honesty. It’s a two-way street, isn’t it? Even though the problems experienced by that other brewer were only known locally (and I assume his reputation wasn’t too diminished), presumably his business didn’t grow to the scale of Brewmeister as a result. ‘Public problems’ can work for you, sometimes.

    Serious question, if you have time – do you think ‘craft’ beer drinkers in Scotland will come back to Brewmeister, with time?

  7. Lewis Shand
    September 24, 2014

    Thanks Richard. If you would like the Environmental Health report I don’t mind emailing it to you?

    Being honest, after the bad PR earlier this year (along with the underwhelming beers at the time) we did suffer here in the UK, mainly in the south of Scotland. But in the last couple of months we have seen the dust settle a little – although by no means completely!

    The serious crafty people probably won’t look at us until we win an award, which the HB is aiming for within a year – some won’t ever come back I don’t think.

    The whole model has changed now and we’re really taking quality and the whole ‘craft’ thing very seriously now. Tony has changed all of the recipes and they are tasting great, but we’re gradually tweaking them each time we brew until they are perfect. Perhaps once people try Tony’s recipes they will start to gradually come back. We’re hoping to win people back with taste, not mad PR stunts like we have done before.

    Tony is working on a spiced pumpkin ale at the moment, made with crown prince pumpkins. They are actually pretty ugly (grey on the outside but with a rich orange flesh). We are using them because despite appearance, they deliver more flavour to the beer whereas the big orange ones from Tesco are really only good for cutting faces in.

    I’d like to send you some of the beers to try, maybe you can then tell us when people might come back to us..?

  8. A. Complainant
    September 25, 2014

    I have to say I like this new Lewis Shand much more than the old one, I hope Brewmeister have genuinely turned over a new leaf and if so, I wish them all the best. The fact that Lewis has taken a step back and appointed an MD and a Head Brewer with some significant experience does give me faith that they recognise things weren’t working as they were which can only be a good thing.

    It will take a while before I’m convinced but it all definitely seems like a step in the right direction so here’s hoping!

  9. A. Complainant
    September 25, 2014

    Having just seen their press release in your update I take it all back, they’re still a bunch of children.

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