Tuesday, 27 September 2011

A visit to Williams Bros

I forgot to take a photo of the exterior so
nicked this picture from Eric from Focus on the Beer
I’m a member of Scottish Craft Brewers, a homebrew club with a fancy name. Occasionally we get invited to tour a brewery, and at the weekend we were the guests of Williams Brothers, a brewery which has been quietly innovating for twenty years and has only in the last few years started getting the recognition it deserves.

We are greeted by one of the Brothers, Scott Williams and get a glass of beer in the brewing hall. Now, Williams Bros is quite a big place as Scottish microbreweries go — normally you’re squeezing past fermenting tanks to get through the door. After the early years of Heather Ale saw the company brewing as far afield as Taynuilt and Strathaven, it’s now based in the former Forth Brewery in Alloa, on the Kelliebank industrial estate. On the way there I pass the massive facility of the world’s biggest glass container manufacturer O-I, and Crisp’s maltings. Ironically, neither of these plants supply the brewery: O-I doesn’t manufacture beer bottles in Alloa, and Crisp’s malt all goes for whisky.

Inside, the mash tun and copper look a little lost in a corner of a hall given over mostly to huge conditioning tanks. The mash tun is attached to an ingenious device comprising a screw within a pipe, sort of like a Steel’s masher in reverse, which (I assume) propels the draff up the pipe and out of the window into the waiting bin.

Look at all those whisky casks!
Through a doorway into the hall next door which is mostly storage space for various goods in transit. Some of it is for the brewery, empty and full kegs, pallets of bottles for the company’s contract-bottling customers, sacks of malt, boxes of fresh ginger for the ginger beer.

In one corner the new, modestly sized keg filler; next to it, three tanks full of an Auchentoshan-cask aged 12% version of Fraoch heather ale. Scott fills a jug from the tank and we all get a taste. It’s lovely, the whisky not overpowering but nicely aromatic, backed with a marvellously fresh fruitiness which slowly gives way to the familiar dry woodiness of heather. If all whisky-aged beers were done this well, I wouldn’t get the foreboding that overcomes me every time I encounter one.

This is Scott Williams’ famous “food processor” in which aromatics
are blitzed to a pulp before being added to beer
We move into the bottling hall where we get an overview of the bottling process. Most of the space is actually taken up by the pasteuriser; it needs to be big because the gentle pasteurisation takes longer than flash pasteurisation at higher temperatures.

Lots of lemons and ginger in there waiting to be added to a brew
Unlike most breweries which start off producing cask beer and then move into bottling, Williams Bros have done the reverse, having established themselves first as a producer of bottled beer. Scott says this is basically for historical reasons: when they took over the Forth Brewery there were existing staff employed on the bottling line who had to be kept busy, so they launched a range of bottled products. There are now around 20 separate products under the Historic Ales and Williams Bros brands. 

When they say cold conditioning, they mean it. I wonder what
they do if they ever need to open this valve?
All the homebrewers’ nerdy questions are answered. Ales and stouts use dry Nottingham yeast; with the large number of aromatised beers they want the flavour of the ingredients rather than a distinctive yeast character. The lager yeast is derived from the Hürlimann strain. Water is charcoal-filtered and used very soft with no back-addition of minerals.

For all the people who have been raving about Profanity Stout, fill your boots while you can: according to Scott there is currently no Simcoe, Cascade or Amarillo left in the UK, so they can’t brew any more of it. The other Williams beer in the Sainsbury’s competition, Caesar Augustus, is a blend of Ceilidh lager and Joker IPA with additional dry hops.

Then it’s back into the brewing hall where Scott fills our glasses with Williams Red straight from the conditioning tank. It’s a straightforward, quaffable beer that gets an extra bounce from being super fresh and lively. We sup jug after jug of it while Scott explains his use of the Golden Ratio to devise malt bills (working out exact recipes for all the Williams beers on the basis of this knowledge is left as an exercise for the reader).

We are sad when the time comes to leave, but wander out into the sunshine and back into the town centre, where sadly the present of Alloa brewing is as under-represented as its past.



9 comments:

  1. Nice report. WB are one of exceedingly few Brit micro's I can get by post down here, and while I've genuinely enjoyed them, I've thought how great they'd be if bottle-conditioned instead of dead pasteurised. Such a pity, and now to learn that it's my dear beloved Miss Notters that they're murdering in the name of supposed shelf life...pity.

    Still, I'll order a bottle or two every time something new shows up at the online outfit down here.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "...his use of the Golden Ratio to devise malt bills..."

    Please elaborate?

    ReplyDelete
  3. The Golden Ratio is 1:161 or thereabouts as Ed says. Scott likes to mix malts in these proportions. How it works with more than two malts is not something I want to think about.

    ReplyDelete
  4. There should be a strict policy or law to enforce alcohol retailers or manufactures and its employees to take training and certification exams. The advocacy to lessen and prevent underage access to alcohol should start from alcohol retailing companies such as wholesalers, manufacturers, and distributors. This is also a big help to prevent alcohol-related accidents and crime.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Johnseomaven, do you really think people will want to do business with slimy spammers like you?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Can you please remove my photos. Just kidding. Hey, I want that profanity stout still! Probably won't happen, I suppose.

    ReplyDelete
  7. We did our best, but Geof couldn't get any. I've only sampled one bottle so far but that was not as good as the original.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Nice report! I like the 'food processor'. I think WB do 'flavours' in beers really really well - like the use of Elderflower in the 7n Giraffes. Joker IPA is wonderful, wonderful stuff.

    ReplyDelete