Portman Group wields the axe
the beginning of the end for strong beers?
What is the point of the Portman Group? It's a marketing watchdog that oversees a brewing industry code of practice on the naming, packaging and promoting of alcohol -- and its main aim at the moment appears to be to close down a successful Scottish beer on the grounds that it could encourage violence.
The beer in question is Skull Splitter, a 8.5% beer produced by the Orkney Brewery. According to a report by management consultants PIPC, commissioned by the Portman Group, the name of the beer "implies violence". The report was also concerned about the impact the strength may have on the drinker.
You might draw the conclusion from this that Skull Splitter is a "park bench" canned beer aimed at people with drinking problems. On the contrary, it's been produced for more than 20 years, has won CAMRA's Champion Winter Beer of Britain competition, is not sold in cans and, most importantly, is not available in supermarkets.
I know the Orkney Brewery well and have twice visited its remote and beautiful l0cation overlooking the sea. It was founded by Roger White, who is that rarity in the brewing industry -- a teetotal brewer. It seems unlikely he would produce a beer that might cause damage to those who drink it.
Roger has retired and Orkney is now part of Sinclair Breweries, which also owns Atlas, another small craft brewery in Scotland. Sinclair is enraged by the Portman Group's investigation and has mounted a vigorous defence of the name Skull Splitter.
Norman Sinclair, the group's managing director, says the beer is named after after an historic figure, Thorfinn Hausakluif. He was the seventh Viking Earl of Orkney and his nickname was Skull Splitter. Mr Sinclair adds: "We are completely stunned by the hard line the Portman Group has taken with Skull Splitter. When it first raised its concerns with us on the back of the PIPC report, we fully explained the historical background to the name and, as responsible brewers, we were happy to try and work with them to find a solution.
"Indeed, we've cooperated with them every step of the way, but it's apparently got us nowhere. Again and again, we have stressed to the Portman Group that Skull Splitter, like all our beers, is a high quality, hand-crafted product designed to be savoured by adults who enjoy the real ale experience. We never target any of our beers at a young market, nor do we allow them to be sold cut price. In addition, Skull Splitter is not sold in supermarkets."
Mr Sinclair said he had reminded the Portman Group that Sinclair Breweries was the first small independent brewer to incorporate new government alcohol consumption guidelines on all labelling. "Wev'e always promoted a responsible attitude towards our products and while we recognise that the Portman Group is trying to address a very real problem with under-age drinking in this country, real ales are not the cause of these issues."
I feel a sense of despair when I read the Portman Group's reasoning. Skull Splitter has been on sale for two decades. Did the PIPC carry out any research to discover whether the beer has ever been named by the police as having a direct link to violence? Have any drinkers appeared in court claiming they got hammered on Skull Splitter the night before?
You might think the Portman Group should be concerned about more high-profile drinks, easily available in supermarkets, that can be bought and passed on to under-age drinkers. But it has used its considerable clout to attempt to remove from pubs and the off-trade a beer that has been around for some time, has never been known to cause trouble and has picked up many awards, including the CAMRA accolade, from the industry.
The Portman decision has wider implications. Does this spell the end for strong beer in Britain? The PIPC menacingly says it is concerned not only with the name Skull Splitter but "also the impact the strength may have on the drinker". Britain has a long and rich heritage of producing strong ales, such as barley wines and winter warmers. Are they now to be axed on the grounds that, despite being brewed for centuries, they damage consumers? If so, would it be goodbye to Fuller's ESB and Young's Winter Warmer as well as the "wee heavies" produced in Scotland.
That wonderful beer, Greene King's Strong Suffolk, would have to go for fear it might lead to an outbreak of mayhem on the streets of Bury St Edmunds, What on earth is Greene King doing, using the word "strong" on its labels?
There is another drink named after a Viking chieftain that shows arrows thwacking into targets and could be considered to encourage violence. It's called Strongbow, a Bulmers cider now owned by Britain's biggest brewer, Scottish & Newcastle. I wonder if the Portman Group has the balls to tell S&N to remove Strongbow from supermarket shelves?
Don't hold your breath.