A Close Encounter With The WilliamsWarn Personal Brewery

Technology is a great thing. It has driven brewing practice through the modern era and in turn technology has been honed and perfected because of brewing. Refrigeration is the first thing to come to mind. Essential in brewing due to the fact that when fermenting, the yeast metabolism produces heat and also for the cool conditioning or lagering stage, we take for granted the fact that we have access to refrigeration systems.

Did you know, however, that it was breweries that were the first commercial users of refrigeration in the 1860s and 1870s? No more harvesting ice from icebergs and dragging it from Arctic climes to aid in lagering. It was brewing supporting new technology and I’m sure their support helped lead to even more innovation.

The malting process is another fine example. The development of coke/anthracite-fired kilns for the drying of malt during the Industrial Revolution was instrumental for the applied control of heat during this important stage. Coal had the potential to release arsenic when burnt… not too good to have in your pint pot and wood-fired kilns generally led to brown, smokey malt. Another example of technology driving brewing – in this case allowing production of malts of varying colours and roasts, something that led to the development of lagers and ales that had a golden hue.

What do you mean, "No pale ale malt"?

The modern era has brought about the industrialisation of brewing. Many a beer advocate thinks this has been a negative thing with breweries being run by bean counters, ingredients scrimped on and beers generally tasting like soda water with a dash of alcohol that has had the chance to have a brief kiss with some grains and hops, their perfume still fresh on the insipid beverages lips. Often quality is forgotten about. The fact that industrialisation has driven consistency and beer quality, minimising infection and oxidation, perfecting brewing techniques, carbonation, fermentation control, yeast management… The list is long.

Sure, we would have all loved the Brettanomyces character of those slightly sour brown malt-rich Porters of London’s yestercentury as did the folk of the day, it’s what they knew, but the modern beer movement needs to be thankful for the role technology has played in brewing.

Yesterday, the Epic Duo (Luke and myself) went along to meet Ian Williams, the brewmaster behind the WilliamsWarn Personal Brewery. Ian has a fascinating history in brewing, starting out with DB Breweries at Tui in Mangatainoka as a Trainee Brewer (just like I did… we even lived in the same brewery house!), becoming New Zealand’s first ever Brew Master (completing the Institute of Guild and Brewing Diploma – now, the Institute of Brewing and Distilling), brewing in China, Japan and Denmark along the way and then spending seven years of his life working on the WilliamsWarn.

The Beer Thinkers

We went to his newly opened showroom in Penrose, Auckland to check out this revolutionary piece of technology. Ian talked us through his museum which included the machine’s prototypes and we tried the Blonde Ale which had been a can of hopped extract, some dried malt extract, water and dried yeast only a week earlier. Ian oozed the type of excitement and passion that was to be expected when 7 years of stress, torment and decision-making had culminated in such a sleek bit of kit and the beer was all the proof that I needed.

Ian chatting about the WilliamsWarn as Luke live streams it on UStream* video

It was clear, it was clean tasting and it was better than any extract kit beer brewed by a novice brewer that I had ever tried. If I had my beer judging hat on, I would say that there was a slight honey character (not indicative of oxidation), a hint of powdery astringency and maybe the tiniest side palate dusting of acidity (acetic just on the verge of my taste threshold), but that is nit-picking. This kit had brewed a decent, remarkable drinkable ale in one week. It had taken less than a couple of hours to go from a bunch of ingredients to wort dosed with yeast and it had not made any mess at all.

Ian was unashamed in his description of the WilliamsWarn Personal Brewery. He touted it as the world’s first brewing appliance and was openly hurt at the scathing comments made by home brewers (mostly) around the world. Comments by many a home brewer on many a forum, where they have boohooed the invention, ranging from people stating it’s just a mishmash of different technologies to the fact that it takes the fun out of building the brewkit after spending days and weeks scouring stores for the right pieces of equipment at the cheapest prices.

69 litres of beer...

Technology has driven brewing, brewing has driven technology. I’m sure these same home brewers don’t bemoan their state of the art smack-packs using advanced laminated foil, the most modern of yeast cultivation techniques, hours of time spent in laboratories isolating colonies and cultures and calculating the optimum nutrient rates to allow the yeast to give the minimum of lag time when placed into the home-brewers wort. They don’t harumph the fact that the hydrometers that they use have been expertly blown and weighted using balance scales capable of measuring to numerous significant figures to ensure they get the most accurate reading of their wort or fermenting beer’s gravity. They don’t boohoo the latest iPhone app that enables you to figure out wort colour or the amount of grain needed and the various hop additions to brew the ultimate IPA in their nice shiny stainless steel 304 brewing saucepan, heated using natural gas sourced using the best technology has to offer… seismic surveying, computerised valve systems, the lot.

I don’t think this system has been developed with the advanced home brewer in mind. It has been developed for all of those home brewers and interested beer suppers out there that have had a go at extract, now have a small plastic fermenter sitting up in the rafters of their garage and still remember the headache they got from the out-of-control fermentation that got up to thirty degrees celsius and half stewed the brew. Saying that… as a brewer and as someone who loves to experiment, I see HUGE potential in this piece of kit. The more WilliamsWarn kits that are sold will mean a more affordable (well, to some) price due to the economies of scale. It will also mean that there is the chance that they will advance this idea even further. Who knows… there may be an option to incorporate something like the Speidels Braumeister (an automated all-in-one version that allows mashing, lautering and wort boiling) with the WilliamsWarn. At the end of the day, this is a fascinating invention made right here in New Zealand and thought up, developed and realised by a couple of Kiwis who not only absolutely love beer but see how an appliance such as this can help with the education of the beer-drinking public.

When I first posted about this on my Facebook page, one of the first comments was along the lines of being amazed at how many beer styles there were. Straight away someone learns something about beer. That’s freakin’ awesome.

On that note, I may have to go… I need to prep my water-wheel to run the millstone to grind the wheat that I have just reaped from a nearby field so as to make flour to add water to to allow it to slowly begin fermenting and acidifying so as to develop it’s own natural wild yeast microflora and then wait 7 or so days for the culture to be at a high enough level for me to add more flour to so I can knead it and then proof it and then place it in my wood-fired oven so I can get some bread. Hang on… they developed machinery for that!

*You can check out the UStream footage here

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21 thoughts on “A Close Encounter With The WilliamsWarn Personal Brewery

  1. I stayed out of the debate on this on RealBeer. I was quite disappointed in the outbreak of “internet syndrome” which broke out as soon as it was announced, and the opinions expressed on there made me sad. So did the grammar and spelling errors, but that’s just me…

    It seems to be common to slag off anything new and radical. In this case, I think I can see some underlying reasoning for the slagging-off though.

    I suspect passionate homebrewers may feel this “dumbs down” their beloved hobby rather than make it more accessible. Perhaps akin to someone spending years restoring an old ’59 Les Paul guitar, only to find Gibson re-releasing an exact duplicate a week later. Or maybe a better (but equally musical) example, the die hard music collector/concert-goer/passionate fan annoyed by the proliferation of kids wandering around wearing reproduction concert T shirts of bands they don’t really know because the shirts look cool. The fan feels that this takes something away from their passion. Now “anyone” can just wear it/buy it/brew it without needing skill.

    I’m not saying I agree with this line of thinking. I’m not even sure I have an opinion on it beyond “very cool piece of engineering”, but I’m just theorising at the possible psychology behind the hating.

    Back to the beer Kelly – the question I’d ask (because you’re always so diplomatic, I can never tell if you like the beer) is “would you drink four pints of it?” ;)

  2. Nice comments, Greig. I think this is something that can possibly add to home-brewing, especially if you want to brew your wort as you always have and then use the fermentation control that the WW has to take the worry out of it. I understand the theory behind why the haters hate though…

    Would I drink 4 pints of it? Short answer, yes.

    Long answer… I’m one of those beer snobs that doesn’t necessarily want the inconvenience of a hangover after drinking something that tastes like a standard mainstream beer. The ale we tried yesterday was clean and refreshing and tasted like a well made standard beer. Not something I’d choose to drink, but if in a pub/at a barbecue etc where that’s all I could get or afford, absolutely I would drink 4 pints of it. I think this comes back to the beer experience… hot summer day, been at the beach, only 330 mL cans in the bach fridge. Magic.

    I’m not saying I’d only drink it out of necessity. I believe that the WW is capable of producing great beer. I’d love to have a go at doing an Epic Pale Ale clone on it and see how it comes out to be honest. Ian had his Summer Ale fermenting away at the showroom, he’d made a hop tea for it and we could get wisps of citrus from the hop (it’d only been fermenting a day). This thing has potential. People can shout out about it being for lazy people etc. etc. I’m sure at some stage in their life those same people probably used a car to get somewhere or used an espresso machine to make their coffee.

    Beer needs positivity to help guide people towards it as something to quench their thirst or to help people develop their own ‘beer experience’. This has the potential to do that. It has the potential to get people with a disposable income into brewing, into experimentation and it will educate in the process.

    If I had something like this in my laboratory as a brewer, it would be awesome. One day…

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  4. This is nice and all, but to try to sell it as the next evolutionary process in home brewing is just insulting. Which is perfectly displayed by the ignorant comment at the end about how one would have baked bread in the old days. Which demonstrates the entire point of this machine, just like buying the frozen dough of bread and popping it in the oven, someone had to go through the process of making that bread dough, and now you just bake it. Same with this brewing machine, someone has already brewed the beer (or wort to be more accurate), you just need to add the yeast and water to their already made concoction. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t insult and try to goad the brewers by suggesting that they’re behind the times.

    • It’s a shame I can’t show the sarcasm I attended by that last comment. Not trying to insult home brewers at all, just a shame that so many of the haters happen to be home brewers. I happen to be a brewer who has worked on both traditional ale systems and highly advanced systems and seen the benefit of both. Brewer’s aren’t behind the times. What I was trying to show was that technology has always driven brewing. Now it has the potential to even drive home brewing. Without home brewers, many of the craft beers we love wouldn’t be here at all.

      No goading. Sorry if it came across that way. This is a beer appliance.

  5. But hang on, that’s just the same argument often applied to extract brewers. Also known as all-grain snobbery. I’ve had some great extract brews, never underestimate just how important fermentation is. Making wort? Easy! Fermenting perfectly? Hard, and fraught with peril as well as opportunities for tweaking.

    I see what you’re saying, but think there’s every bit as much (in fact, more) opportunity for artistry in the fermentation process as there is in formulating a recipe and producing wort.

  6. “All grain snobbery” – that’s precisely the basis for all the hating. That shouldn’t surprise you one bit Greig, that’s why we choose to do it no? For the glamour and street cred?

    How long since you brewed an extract beer? I haven’t touched a can of goo since I went all grain.

    I don’t buy the idea that making wort is “easy”. Sure, anyone _could_ do it. But you say that knowing what you know now. You belittle all of the passion, dedication, effort, equipment, time, creativity and knowledge that we all had to invest in to be able to do it with a modicum of success.

    But I also I know there’s no reason good beer can’t be made from condensed wort. Fermentation is everything, of course. This looks like a spectacular piece of kit to get fantastic, replicable fermentation results consistently. That is a beautiful thing.

    I love the idea of this system, that it’s a rich boys toy. What better way to make your kit and kilo homebrew? It’s shiny!

    It’s just not for the dedicated serious all grain brewer. It’s those people (me) who will whinge that it’s *only* kit and kilo, that it’s expensive when I spent far less on my “real” brewing system, that I could get a full stainless HERMS for the similar dollars!
    And in the process completely miss the point that it’s not aimed at us!

    • Good call Barry. It would be great for someone to do an all grain wort and ferment half of it in the WW and half in their own fermenters, then blind taste test. Would there be any difference? An interesting experiment perhaps…

      Saying that, a certain James Kemp/Kempicus/JK made a bunch of extract beers when I was in the UK (albeit partial) that blew my mind. A great brewer, great beers and shocked me that you could get something fantastic from extract.

      For me this machine holds fascination due to its fermentation control. A hugely essential part of any good brew.

    • But you say that knowing what you know now. You belittle all of the passion, dedication, effort, equipment, time, creativity and knowledge that we all had to invest in to be able to do it with a modicum of success.

      Nope, what I’m saying is that you and I care about all grain brewing. For us, “making wort” is most of the fun! It’s where we play with our shiny toys. For others though, maybe it’s all about playing with different yeasts, and fermentation regimes.

      I still stand by my opinion that perfect fermentation (assuming there’s any kind of objective standard – which is a whole other debate) is harder than wort production.

      Of course, my opinion is often wrong! ;)

      • I guess that was my point Greig, you didn’t say that fermentation was the harder of the two. You said that wort production was easy.
        Fermentation is definitely harder. Doesn’t mean wort production is the ying to it’s yang. They both require skill and the practical application of a body of knowledge.
        You also imply that people playing with different yeasts and fermentation regimes will find this thing adequate. They might, but what that fails to mention is whether you’ll get a good base beer to test those things on using a kit of condensed wort and a bag of enhancer. Depends on the style, sure. But what about stylistic variety over and above different yeasts?
        Kempicus is an excellent brewer. Now I don’t know this as fact, but I’d guess that all of his extract based recipes have considerable additions, would involve at least a partial wort boil (of course hoppier styles would _require_ this) and often extra steeping of specialty malts.
        Not to say you couldn’t add these extras into the WW system of course but it doesn’t do that or attempt to teach you that out of the box eh. Nor do they appear to sell you kits that include such things.

        Good discussion, I’m enjoying this. I’d love to see this system in action and more importantly taste the beer.

  7. Great post. There is a weird kind of primitivism, especially in the USA, among people who are into “craft beer”. They seem to think that beer made in small-scale, inefficient plants is per se better, like it improves the flavour if some poor bastard has to stir the mash by hand with a canoe paddle. It’s the same sort of attitude that pooh-poohs electronic music — for some people only music made by white men in vests with guitars is “authentic”.

    I have noticed that German home brewers don’t have this attitude. They are busy building automated systems with pumps and microcontrollers that I don’t begin to understand.

    I was going to ask why anyone would buy this when the Braumeister does all grain for half the price, but having examined the WilliamsWarn I see that they do different things. You are pretty much spot on with the idea of combining the two. (And people who can afford both probably have a kitchen big enough for both appliances too). It looks a great piece of kit.

  8. Working in the homebrewing industry myself I have been monitoring the The Williams Warn Personal Brewery since I heard it was to be launched. One thing is for sure that this product has caused more debate and discussion in the beer and homebrewing communities than anything I have ever seen before.

    That can only be a good thing for the industries in general. I think it’s done great things for raising the profile of homebrewing and beer appreciation to the general public. This will undoubtedly breed new homebrewers & beer drinkers, sparking appetite for learning about beer. All benefiting our businesses – the industry owes a lot to these guys for having the balls to experiament and try something new!

    I wish them the best of luck and look forward to the new products, debate, drinks & drinkers that this will bring to the industry.

  9. Good column.
    I followed the Realbeer comments with interest, thinking that they said a lot about what commenters have invested in- not just equipment, but experience and time spent learning about producing beer from the ground up. I also found myself thinking, however, that surely the proof is in the pudding. Whilst I can’t afford the WW personal brewery myself, I’d be happily pushing the boundaries of its use if I had one.
    The baking analogy is quite good. Peter Reinhart the US artisan bread guru is an enthusiastic defender of bread machines, not because they make stellar results when used as directed, but because they can do some processes (like kneading wet doughs) a lot better than their human counterparts.

  10. “Williams, Warn” The best thing since sliced bread!!!!!!!!!!!!! These two guys should be awarded the inventors of the year, WHY, because of the hard work & years of trying & then perfecting one of mans greatests enjoyments BEER, BEER & more BEER, & on tap, what more could a guy want? I don’t drink much beer, but the beer i had tonight from a nano brew kit , i must say was dame nice.I myself know what years of hardwork have come down too! how do i know well i build them, & are proud to be involved in this working invention.

    Kiwi’s should be proud to have something so kool, invented, made, & supplyed in New Zealand by New Zealanders, so these boyz need all the backing & support they can get. So many times guy’s like Williams & Warn, do something great & they have to ship it off over seas just to get all the backing they need to keep building & inproving there product. So lets get behind them physicaly try their beer for yourselves & then judge on how good it really is……. come on Kiwi’s taste & see how good it is then BUY BUY BUY.

    Good on you boyz keep up the good work & all the best the future i’m backing you 110%!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  11. I’m anxiously waiting to buy the Williams Warn personal brewery! I am a new home brewer and I’ve found a new passion. I too see why people are infuriated because now anyone can brew great beer, but grow up!
    I’m very excited because I still plan on making my own all grain wort and mashing the grains. What I love about this is being able to drink the new creation in only 7 days and see what needs to change for next time. Not to mention the temperature control and it looks awesome!

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