Back in the autumn of 2012 I put together a blog post about the latest Scottish brewery I’d heard of at the time, a new operation from the tiny Deeside village of Kincardine O’Neil. That year was when the floodgates well and truly opened for brewing north of the border – fifteen new producers mashed in for the first time during 2012, a number far above anything in recent memory of the time (a number subsequently beaten only two years later, when seventeen breweries opened). The 2012 alumni stretched from Alechemy to Windswept, but that particular blog post was about Brewmeister, a two-man concern with one eye on German beers and the other on breaking a record guaranteed to get people talking – the BrewDog/Schorschbräu spat over the strongest beer in the world. Armageddon was to be Brewmeister’s entrant, and 65% the abv. The introductory post I wrote ended with the following casually flippant sentence…
They may not have the PR-power of the duo from Fraserburgh, but you’ll certainly be hearing their name mentioned very soon, it seems…
All these years later, their brewery name is still mentioned – so I guess the tactic worked, for what it’s worth. From coverage in the Sun and Huffington Post to the articles I wrote still sitting at or near the top of my page views, even now. But towards the end of last year, Brewmeister quietly changed hands, as the original co-founders were replaced by a group of venture capitalists from Tayside, the Discovery Investment Fund (who count amongst their investment members the former chairman of Dundee United and the current owner of Heart of Midlothian FC). Very quickly after that, the brewery was re-branded as Keith Brewery, and relaunched back into the Scottish market. I was cordially offered a meeting with their COO Andrew Chapman, and after telling as many people as possible where I was going in case it was an elaborate trap, I spent a couple of hours chatting to the affable Andrew about how Keith are planning to be different.
And they are – at least on one side of the coin. After a swiftly decisive and – I’ve got to say – very neat change of look, the Keith Brewery not only have moved down a very different path to the previous incarnation, but their beers certainly stand out on the shelves as well. Created by Leith’s Threebrand agency, the labels are up for a packaging design award at the Drum Roses Creative Awards (to be decided upon next week). It’s a far cry from Brewmeister Neon Blonde, that’s for sure. All Keith Brewery’s eggs are in this well-received basket, as they pulled keg beer from the lineup soon after taking over – although it might well appear back on the roster at some point in the future. Until then, it’s bottles all the way.
So how do they taste? Well, even during the depths of the Brewmeister goings-on, I thought the beers were improving (albeit from a very, very low baseline). Head Brewer Tony Kotronis was retained and the Pale Keith has long left behind any similarity to Supersonic IPA – with a rising lemony bitterness and pale malt backbone it is very good indeed. The other beers also bring flavour, but maybe not quite as successfully; the hefeweizen Herr Keith has a Germanic hum and a floral edge, whereas the Coffee Keith has gone in the other direction with a harsh coffee burn, and Sir Keith has a touch of the phenols about it. But there is nothing here that can’t be addressed – and these beers are a lifetime removed from what has gone before, no question. With a bit of finesse, the Keith beers could definitely make a go of it in the UK craft market (something never thinkable about Brewmeister).
Whereas the upcoming future is on recapturing the domestic market, for Keith Brewery the current focus is somewhere else indeed – and this is the other side of that coin of their move away from Brewmeister. The content on the old Brewmeister web page no longer exists, but the url re-directs to the homepage for the Craft Beer Clan of Scotland, a strategic distribution supergroup with a prime goal of gathering Scottish breweries and distilleries under one umbrella to facilitate the export of their wares to the far east. Keith Brewery are part of this – along with an impressive stable of their peers – but it is the bottles of Brewmeister that adorn the website, not the newly-branded Keith beer. And this is because the old beers are now the export lines for Keith – including Snake Venom.
It seems the previous ownership of the brewery did such a good job securing publicity and contracts in China that the new management were loath to change it. And who can blame them when you read articles like this where a bar in Hong Kong sells their entire stock of Armageddon in a week for the equivalent of £88 a bottle, and were apparently going to sell Snake Venom for over £100? As DIF’s website says, ‘all invested money is smart money’. People know the brand there, it’s as simple as that. And in mainland China, it’s even more astonishing; the New York Times reports that a bar in Beijing sold a bottle of Snake Venom for over £280. And you think your local craft beer bar is expensive…
The management buyout clearly saw the only nugget in the murky water of the business, and are understandably making the most of it. The export funds have paid for a re-brand and a reset of the company, and the potential for future growth and employment of more people at HQ. That’s what happens when business brains take over a brewery (or any other company), they pare away what is not working and concentrate on what is. Brewmeister needed someone who knew what they were doing to step in – but has this maybe gone too far in the other direction? The new owners wisely removed all trace of the failing brand where it was recognised – but by the same token have stood by it where it has proved useful.
I had my run-ins with the previous ownership as anyone with a search engine can appreciate, but I like to think we have all moved on (aside from the Brewmeister Wikipedia page with its carefully scripted wording on the ‘controversy’). You’ve got to feel positive for the people who worked at the old brewery whose jobs were likely saved by the intervention of the new investors – and the beers themselves are definitely getting better. But the new owners are after a return, pure and simple – and the name built by Brewmeister thousands of miles away – however it was built and regardless of whether it is warranted – was too good an opportunity to pass up.
I wish everyone at Keith Brewery well, but I also wish it was the newly-branded beer forging ahead in China, rather than the legacy of previous mistakes.