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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