Tag Archives: Brewmeister

Keith Brewery – moving on from Brewmeister

KeithBeers_1

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).

TwoBeers

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.

Breweries to watch out for in 2015

As last year began, I posted the now traditional list of breweries to watch out for in 2014. Looking back, picking Williams Bros to have a big year based on their plans was a fairly safe bet – but the opening of Drygate has gone better than they could have hoped for (at least in my experience, and of others I’ve spoken to who have been there). Pretty much all of the other choices also produced fantastic beer.

The British brewing scene continues to be in good health – and for that, we have to thank the men and women making our beer; for their skill, commitment and imagination. Here, then, is a list of Scottish and English breweries who I think will move to that next level over the course of 2015, or who have interesting stories to watch (with apologies to producers in other parts of the UK, who’s scenes I know less well)…



SCOTLAND

Tempest_Logo

Tempest – When it comes to my overall pick to take the next step in 2015, there’s simply no competition. Tempest finally – finally – have all the pieces in place to move on and really become players in the UK beer scene. That most important piece; the long-awaited new brewery, is in place giving them ten-times the capacity of the old. Added to this is Tempest’s re-brand that took place in August, giving them a cleaner look. When you factor in the beers (particularly their new and growing saison line) there are few producers making a more solid range, across every style. The upcoming Borders Rail Link is even set to terminate a hundred metres from their Tweedbank facility. 2015 is going to be Tempest’s year.

 

 

ForthBridge

Forth Bridge Brewery – It’s almost two years since I first wrote about Dave Robertson’s plans for a brewery in the shadow of the Forth Bridge, and still no sign of the facility appearing in South Queensferry. Well, apart from a couple of photos on Twitter and then the a release of a sprawling proposal that wouldn’t look out of place amidst the wharves of San Francisco. Last year’s main FBB news was the addition of a distilling arm, set to produce whisky, gin and vodka; as well as beer – 110,000 litres a week. Another funding campaign is set for February, before the site is slated to open in September 2015. Dave’s faced plenty of battles so far – but if his facility doesn’t open this year, you have to wonder if it ever will.

 

 

Eden Mill

Eden Mill – The Eden Brewery, St Andrews always felt to me as if they had something of a crisis of identity. Sometimes confused with the Eden Brewery in Cumbria; and othertimes with the St Andrews Brewing Company. But a subtle move towards embracing the pull of spirits has given Eden a new individuality. The Eden Mill Brewery and Distillery are now clear of purpose and image, and I think they are set for big things over the next twelve months. With Paul Miller behind them, it was always a matter of time before they moved to producing hardier stuff than beer, and this dual-wield approach is becoming one of the trends within the industry. Eden Mill, as they are now, are positioned right at the front.

 

 

LerwickBrewery

Lerwick Brewery – Brewing on Shetland has to be one of the most challenging propositions in the industry; there isn’t really a market like it in the UK. Sonny Priest’s Valhalla Brewery on Unst gained competition in mid-2013 with the arrival of the Lerwick Brewery, and with a flurry of announcements at the close of last year, 2015 could be the time when people in a much larger catchment area get to hear their name. Within a short space of time, Lerwick signed distribution deals that, like a game of Risk, moved their beers Scotland-wide, then UK-wide, and then into Tesco. Bold stuff for a brewery with three core beers located on an island as logistically challenging as Shetland. Will it pay off?

 

 

Brewmeister

Brewmeister – Yes, Brewmeister. Everyone’s favourite ‘is it or isn’t it’ brewery have got an important twelve months ahead. Forgetting all the controversy of last year; as they have clearly knuckled down and gone straight, there’s nothing to hide behind but the beer. Employing a head brewer, going through a management shuffle, and systematically changing recipes – it looks as if Brewmeister are now hoping to win out purely based on the product of their brewing vessels. It’s going to be interesting to see how they’ll get on – can they win back people who may have been put off previously? Will the new-taste combine with the new-look to mean new markets? Time will tell…

 

 

CarbonSmith

Carbon Smith – Picobrewing is where it’s at; bedroom breweries are seemingly springing up all over Scotland. And why not? It gets your beers to market without rolling the dice on contracting, and your name is out there instantly. For those who’s primary goal isn’t to make a colossal profit at the end of year one, it’s now a viable proposition. Carbon Smith are the first bedroom brewer to scale up to their own facility (albeit one that measures 16ft x 8ft). But the beers emanating from it so far have been incredible. As the pico- model becomes more prominent, everyone thinking of taking the plunge will be keeping an eye on Carbon Smith’s progression.





ENGLAND

Burning Sky

Burning Sky – I’m not sure if there was an English brewery (aside from maybe Buxton) who generated more of a steadily-rising buzz amongst the beer community last year than Burning Sky. Mark Tranter’s project in East Sussex produced some astonishing beers in 2014, particularly their barnstorming saisons. With their weighty foudres still being left to quietly do their thing, Mark’s website states “…it is not envisaged that the full extent of Burning Sky will be apparent for another 2 or 3 years.” But the secret is already out, and beer drinkers up and down the country will know their name long, long before then. There’s not an English producer I look forward to enjoying more this coming year, than Burning Sky.

 

 

Siren

Siren Craft Brew – Well, maybe it’s a tie with Siren, at least. Finchampstead’s finest are one of those rare breweries, in that they have never, ever let me down. As with Burning Sky, all of their new releases are must-purchases, irrespective of format. This coming year should be a big one for Siren Craft Brew; they celebrate their second birthday in March with a festival of barrel-aged beers (featuring their 2015 Maiden), and anyone who possesses more than a passing interest in collaborations will have marked the new Rainbow Project, as the pairings fully go transatlantic. Siren also just announced the addition of a dry-hopped Berliner Weisse to their core range. I haven’t written a more exciting paragraph than that for some time…

 

 

Roosters

Roosters – Why aren’t Roosters better known? This, to me, is one of the British beer questions I just can’t understand. They make phenomenal beer, both traditional and modern in style. Their pale ales are every bit as good as Oakhams, or those from Fyne Ales. Their branding is brilliant, classic whilst being eye-catching. And the Fozardii are the nicest couple of guys you could ever hope to meet. Maybe it’s the Yorkshire thing – the sheer number of nearby competitors, and the colossal amount of outlets in the region; I don’t know. Anyway, Roosters are a sensational brewery, and to me seem permanently on the verge of a breakout year. Let’s hope that 2015 is that for them. Maybe launching canned beer will make the difference?

 

 

Northern_Monk

Northern Monk – Staying in Yorkshire, we have a brewery that is surely set for that breakout year. After a prolonged period of contracting, Northern Monk finally were able to open their own brewery a few months ago, and in the short time since have built on that considerable wave of support. This is undoubtedly down to several reasons – not the least of which are the fantastic beers they have released, right out of the gate. But, also, it’s because they have embraced (and been embraced by) the city of Leeds; their twenty-tap NMBCo Refectory has quickly become a go-to addition to the scene in this beer-mad city. As they bed in to their new location, expect great things from Northern Monk this year.

 

 

Almasty

Almasty – Finally, we end this lightning-tour of premonitions in the North-East, and with yet another hugely exciting prospect. Mark McGarry, ex-Mordue and ex-Tyne Bank, is one seriously talented brewer, and the chance to head out into the wide world of brewing and produce his own recipes was too big to resist. The ‘Wild One’ (to which Almasty apparently refers) dialled up a stunning brown ale – what else – for his debut beer, and in year of wave after wave of saisons, his Sorachi-hopped version really stood out as well. Now he’s had a bit of time to take stock of the new challenge, 2015 is going to be the year Almasty become impossible to ignore.



So, what do you think? Any breweries out there who you think will have breakout years in 2015, or have stories that you really want to follow? Let me know in the comments. As ever, I’ll be checking back with these eleven breweries at the mid-way point of the year, to see how they have been getting on…

Brewmeister censured by ASA over Snake Venom

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.

UPDATE
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.

The lies behind the ‘strongest beers in the world’

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.

Brewmeister – the shame of British brewing

Where do you begin, with Brewmeister? The self-styled ‘Supersonic Scientists Delivering you to Drunksville?’ Where to start? With the recent re-brand, that was widely mistaken for a parody of BrewDog? With the flyer sent to bars, claiming an entitlement to widen the margins to customers due to Brewmeister being ‘craft’? Or with the more recent fact that founder Lewis Shand openly admitted to me that Armageddon – the beer that catapulted Brewmeister to the pages of national media – was not, in fact, 65%abv as claimed. The truth, seemingly, was that nobody at Brewmeister actually knew how strong it was, at all. Yet it was sent out as 65%, and their name was made. It’s all false. All of it.

That doesn’t even come as a surprise to me. I bought a bottle of Armageddon in June last year, and had it tested. It came back at 16%abv. You only have to look at the reviews on RateBeer to read page after page of people questioning the alcohol content. To my knowledge, none of the mainstream media confirmed the 65% claims, they just ran with it. The guys at Brewmeister defended their beer, as you’d expect; but by stating things related to the specifics of these independent tests, possible errors of calibration or interpretation. Maybe that’s true, and the brewing QA specialist who did me a favour by testing the beer used the wrong specification, but I doubt it.

I’m done with Brewmeister, to be frank. Even as they are coming round to a better way of thinking; holding events, hiring sales staff (six of them, some of whom had never tasted any of their beers until Friday). You see a Brewmeister staffer handing out samples, explaining the beer to potential converts, and you think that’s the way it should be done. And then you speak to the guy in charge, and he tells you that some of their earlier beers were “absolutely shocking.” Why were they bad? Because they didn’t have conditioning tanks. Because they cleaned with a pressure washer and homebrew steriliser, not Peracetic, or caustic.

This was largely down to the struggle with money, in the early days – like practically every new brewery. Not everyone can do what Alaskan Brewing Company did; pouring away their first sixteen batches, before they got to a level they felt comfortable selling to the public. Not every brewery has the luxury of starting out that way, with bills piling up. That’s why I think you have to give new producers a grace period, as they work through teething problems with equipment, recipes, and learn on the job. It’s only fair. But new breweries have a responsibility to be fair to their customers, by the same token. Release a beer you might not be 100% happy with. Don’t release a beer you know is 100% awful.

Armageddon has been quietly dropped, the chest freezers that purport to freeze it down to 65% now produce Snake Venom instead. The new World’s Strongest Beer; another raft of headlines from the Metro to the Huffington Post. Brewmeister have said that each batch of Snake Venom is tested, although I’ve yet to see any of the results anywhere. Early reviews mention a significantly harsh alcohol burn on the taste. How do you make a beer 67.5% if a 65% beer never even got close? I can think of one, quick way, right off the bat. One that would yield a huge alcohol hit on the finish. Difficult to prove, however.

Regarding the re-brand, this was apparently down to the investors who came on board towards the end of last year – in Lewis’s words, surprising even him that they felt the look of the beers to take priority over how they tasted. When design agency CP and Co came back from a brief to be similar to Stone Brewing Co (yes, that was the intention), he admitted being almost angry at the resemblance to BrewDog – although the designs were then signed off and used. There was even initial concern that they might be sued by the Ellon brewery, such was the similarity.*

*For the record, I have actually asked James Watt his opinion of Brewmeister; he just smiled.

When you speak with someone from Brewmeister, one of many elephants in the room is how they are seen, and treated, on social media. To a wide section of the beer Twitterati, they have become something of a running joke. Lewis hopes that eventually, the beer community will get back on their side – although he acknowledges it will take some degree of time. As I understand it, they are now being advised by a PR Company (the Edinburgh Meet the Brewer was an event at their PR’s suggestion, in part to address the concerns of the beer fans in the city). I can only imagine they weren’t involved with this particular tweet, sent the other week in relation to ‘that’ flyer on costings.




You can almost sympathise when Lewis states, with remarkable candor, that he finds Brewmeister’s RateBeer reviews “embarrassing” (their highest-scoring beer yields an average of only 3.10 out of 5). Yet, you can’t really sympathise. They export 90% of their production abroad for two reasons – firstly, because there’s no duty payable on export – and secondly, because “the overseas markets aren’t aware of our bad publicity.” Well, lucky them. What happens to the rest of the beer industry when new markets take delivery of beers that are made in this way? Shifted out of the country to bypass the negative connotations of the producers? Where does ‘craft’ beer go, then?

You know what? The beers I tried on Friday (all on draught) were actually alright. Apart from the acrid barnyard of Neon Blonde, that is (Lewis described it as “a boring beer for CAMRA types”). Supersonic IPA was pretty decent; softly fruity. The Kaiser wheat beer was even better. But I can’t bring myself to actually like any of them – I certainly can’t bring myself to support them. The reason is very simple. If you cast yourself under the ‘craft’ umbrella, you have to abide by one of the major (unwritten) cornerstones – integrity. Brewmeister have none. I thought they were clueless, naïve – but now I know them to be even lower than that.

The turning point in my attitude goes back to the Armageddon. I paid £50 for my bottle. £50. For something that the brewery knew, all-along, was not as advertised. They released bad beer, to stay in production – but they also misled the public about the alcoholic content of a subsequent beer sold entirely on the premise that it was high-strength. And when I told Lewis that a lot of people spent a lot of money on Armageddon – that I spent a lot of money on Armageddon, you know what he said? What his response was? “Yeah, I know.”

That was it. No apology. No contrition as to how their big break came about. It’s disgusting. I always got the sense that they were making it up as they went along – and this seems to have been exactly the case. And now, they have £250,000 of backing, they are building a new brewery, and they have hugely expanded on staff. All of it built on a lie. When you’re openly blasé about new customers wasting their money on your products, what does that say about you? Brewmeister are cockroaches. They should be cast aside, and boycotted from every bar and bottle shop in the country.

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.

Brewmeister reveal a new look. But how ‘new’ is it?

Brewmeister Brochure Inner

January isn’t even in the books yet, but already 2014 is shaping up to be a year when disputes, challenges, and general sniping become much more of an issue in the UK beer world. As the inexorable rise in the number of breweries continues, inevitably toes are stood on*, sabres are rattled, and the protagonists grumble at each other like so many elephant seals, all trying to occupy the same strip of froth-flecked beach. That’s a mighty generalisation, of course – the public’s increased appetite for beer, allied to the mantra ‘Beer People Are Good People’ means that trademark disputes make the news because they are still unusual. But for how long?

*Like Marti Pellow from Wet Wet Wet, who once stood on my foot in a bar in Stirling, and walked off without apologising (true, albeit boring, story)

At the end of last week, Scottish producer Brewmeister revealed their new branding and line-up of beers (pictured above), which is a fair step away from the look they had launched with, back in 2012. That’s not really surprising; breweries are no different to other businesses, evolving a brand over time as the focus changes tack, or as the protagonists develop as business-people. However, once the wraps had come off the new Brewmeister bottles, almost immediately people began pointing out how similar it was to a certain other Scottish brewery…

It’s not difficult to see why some people had made that connection…

Kaiserbrewdog

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is Brewmeister we’re talking about here, they of the ‘is it or isn’t it?’ Strongest Beer in the World, Armageddon (and now, an even mightier version; Snake Venom). Having gained considerable publicity from their high-abv escapades, Brew…meister have traded up in fairly spectacular style, from the beginnings of a £5,000 student loan to an investment of around £250,000. As a result, they have relocated recently from Kincardine O’Neil to a new facility on a station-side industrial estate in Keith, about thirty miles to the north. At the same time, new people have come on board, not least a new head brewer; David Beach, ex-of Purity and Batham’s. With all this going on, it makes sense to refresh the branding, and come up with some new recipes and soforth. Yet, did it have to be this similar to BrewDog? I emailed co-founder Lewis Shand, and asked him directly…

-1

“I was in the US a few months ago with John the other founder of BM on a bit of a beery pilgrimage and found that there are 100s of modern breweries with bright branding and edgy tasting beers. The problem in the UK is that we don’t have many of them, so the UK craft beer market just sees the style as belonging to Brewdog. The confusion does not derive from the whispers that Brewmeister style ourselves on Brewdog. The confusion lies in the fact that both Brewdog and Brewmeister style ourselves on the US craft beer revolution. We are trying to get the same excitement about good beer in the UK and persuade people to ditch crap lagers for something more exciting!”

 

-2

“There are a number of fundamental differences between us and Brewdog and when people get to know this they will realise we are not trying to copy them or anything like that. I LOVE Brewdog’s beers and think they have done a fantastic job, but they were luckier than us financially when they started. Other than financials, the nuts and bolts of the differences include 1) We bottle condition all of our beers because we think it allows the flavour characteristics to develop better 2) The malt we use is floor malt from Warminster Malting 3) We have staff of 13 people, they employ 100’s of staff 4) We can’t afford a sexy neon sign in our brewery!”

 

So, there you go. Not intended as a direct copy of BrewDog, merely reflecting the same influences that BrewDog had when they began, seven years ago. It should also be noted that Brewmeister didn’t sit round a flip chart themselves, they contracted out to branding agency CP and Co (although, of course, they then signed off on those designs). Whether you can see any similarities or not, I think it’s patently obvious that no one brewery owns the style that has become synonymous with ‘craft beer’. Comparing the likes of the Kernel, Magic Rock and Cromarty (to select three off the top of my head), brings you to three very different-looking conclusions.

It’s admirable that Brewmeister have decided to explore a change of image, ditching beers like Black Cock; “a big black bold one which goes well with a blonde…a Brewmeister blonde!”. Personally, I think there are fairly visible parallels between their new direction and the Ellon concern – but whether that’s merely through shared influences, who can say? At the end of the day, the two most important issues with regard to this are that firstly, as the numbers of breweries increases, crossover of this nature will inevitably occur (and for some, may end in a legal context). Secondly, and most importantly, what’s in the bottle is what really counts. And that, more than anything else, will determine how breweries like Brewmeister do when everything shakes out.



EDIT 27/01/14
One thing I overlooked in all of this, and that has subsequently been pointed out to me via Twitter, is the marketing release that accompanied Brewmeister’s re-brand. It suggested (see screen-grab below), that as their beers are ‘craft’, prospective stockists should consider them, as they would then be able to charge a premium for them.

This flows down the line of what many people already believe/know; that calling your product ‘craft’ entitles you to pitch it at a premium. I’m not an on- or off-trade buyer, I really don’t know if other producers are as full-frontal when it comes to stating the ‘benefits’ of being in the craft bracket. But Brewmeister are clearly, and looking at that release, blatantly, courting that market.



EDIT 28/01/14
Brewmeister issued an official response to the branding issue, and the pricing challenged by Chris from the Hanging Bat – read it here