Saturday, 8 August 2009

Beers from the Williams Bros. Brewing Company

That famous Scottish brewery, BrewDog, is certainly dominating beer discussions around north-western Europe at the moment, and more power to them with their interesting beers and clever use of the media. I had been wondering how other smaller breweries from that part of the world were taking this, and I was pleasantly surprised to be able to taste some beers from the Isle of Arran Brewery last weekend. A few weeks go I had also received a press release from the Williams Bros. Brewing Co., the people behind that famous Scottish speciality beer, Fraoch Heather Ale.

Starting life in 1988 in a homebrew shop owned by Bruce Williams, Fraoch is one of those beers that you probably either love or hate. Either way, it's interesting what heather can do to a beer, and I remember the first time I introduced my wife to it, some time in 2001, while on a business trip to Edinburgh. Well, I was on business, she was being a tourist. She loved it, and we just now bemoaned the fact that the Fraoch glass we -- well, I -- appropriated on that occasion got broke by my brother-in-law-to-be last year. Anyway, mention of Fraoch still has her licking her lips. I have fond memories of it too, but it's been a long time.

They created other beers based on old recipes or styles, including Alba, made with spruce tips, Kelpie, with bladderwrack seaweed and Grozet which includes bog myrtle, meadowsweet and gooseberries. Get the picture? Sounds great actually, but I haven't had the pleasure of any of them.

The press release, though, is not about these historic beers, but reports on the fact that, along with BrewDog, other small Scottish breweries are getting greater recognition due to a relative increase in ale sales (they quote a 6% fall in lager sales and a 4% increase in ale sales, but don't quote me on that) and also the fact that such ales are becoming more popular on supermarket shelves. A case in point being the recent Sainsbury’s Beer Competition, in which, out of 15 finalists -- from a starting pool of 115 -- seven came from Scotland, four of which came from the Williams Bros Brewery. That's a pretty good average! Incidentally, the other three from Scotland were all from BrewDog (Hardcore, Dogma and Chaos Theory), so certainly good kennel mates.

But what do they taste like? Well, I was offered a chance to sample the beers, and of course I accepted. A package arrived early this week containing samples of each of the four finalist beers. I was also very excited about the Fraoch 20th Anniversary bottle that they sent too, and I'm really torn between sitting on it for a while -- as it was only bottled last month as is good for another ten years or so -- or opening it as soon as I can. I expect it will be opened in the next few weeks and shared with some friends. It's a big beer, in both volume (75cl) and alcohol (11%), so it definitely made to share. I might have to buy one to lay it down and see how it ages. We'll come back to it so.

Williams Ceilidh, described as a Premium Scottish Lager, is a rich gold, with an obvious desire to turn to light amber. The aroma is actually quite remarkable, I was expecting a light, hoppy thing, perhaps being thin, but it's pretty rich, leaning towards a more malty side, and in fact has a striking resemblance to toasted sesame seeds! Or perhaps slightly overdone pastry on an apple pie. The flavour is similar. It's pleasently sweet, in that pie-like way, with slight salty and nutty notes. The hops feel a little muted under that layer of flavour, but do show as a lime-like citric twist, and a floral element comes out as the beer warms a little. I have to say I was a bit taken aback, as I -- completely unfairly -- expected a thin, boring lager. In reality, it bears more relation to some of the better lagerbiers from Franken than I could have hoped. Great mouthfeel, and really quite satisfying, it's not one for chugging down after cutting the grass. That sesame thing had me intrigued all the way down the glass, and I'm looking forward to sharing the second bottle of it with a native of Franken to get his opinion.

The Williams Birds & Bees lists elder flowers and lemon zest amongst its ingredients, along with a proportion of malted wheat. A luminous gold, as you might expect from a blonde ale, the aroma is a little muted, but is fruity, with apple, a touch of juicy-fruit and sweet malts. The flavour gives a good dollop of juicy maltiness and ever-so-slight banana in the finish. The elder flowers are barely detectable as a sweet, earthy tone in the fore-ground, but not as much as I thought there would be. The whole thing is solidly in the fruity/malty camp, and even the listed lemon zest barely makes a show. It got a bit flat half way through, but it didn't spoil anything, as it has a fullish mouthfeel that sat ok with that. Overall, this was my least favourite of the four, as I expected more of the elder and lemon flavours to lift it up. Still, it's a sturdy golden ale for considered drinking, not quaffing, a bit like its lager sibling.

Being a hop fan, I looked forward to popping the Williams IPA. Ahh, Amarillo. You definitely get that grapefruit lick on the nose, sitting on top of a subtle, caramelly maltiness. It's not as bitter as I expected (considering trends in other breweries) but there's an assertive, clean/cut, floral, grapefruit hop blast from the get-go. The underling graininess combines with the grapefruit suggestions to leave a dryness which counterpoints a sweet, almost floral sorbet finish. Not an IPA in the US mould (or other Scottish breweries), a very refreshing, well-balanced hoppy ale that should please man palates. I should say that the flavour is just like sticking your nose into a bag of hops. Lots of wonderful hop flavours, and just the right balance of bitterness and maltiness. There's also something about it that reminds me of Galway Hooker in the sheer süffig drinkability. This you could drink lots of (well, I could!).

The only 80/- beer I can remember having is Caledonian 80/-. I think I had it first in 2001, and liked it, and was schocked to find it on tap in a bar in Muenster a few months ago. Let's just say that it's not quite as satisfying as the Williams 80/-. The colour is dark, ruddy brown. The aroma is a touch fruity and roasty, the smell of a light touch of black malt, perhaps, adding an ever so slightly smoky quality. So far, so appetising. This is quite a light beer, at 4.2% compared to the generally 5% range of the others, but the richness that they seem to have achieved in the other beers is also present here. The flavours are distinctly toffee-like, and that ever-so-slightly smoky roasted note sits gently on top, giving a quick blast at the front, and lingering alongside an apple-like fruitiness, and a touch of digestive biscuits. The finish is a little bitter, in a roasty way, and gives an impression of dark toffee with a layer of chocolate. A moreish, juicy beer that'll satisfy malt lovers.

I have a bottle of each of these left, and I hope to test them on a few of my German colleagues next week. I always enjoy getting their opinions on beers that are outside of the normal range available here. But, although I have my favourites (can you guess which?), they're all pretty solid brews that I'd happily drink regularly.

16 comments:

Bionic Laura said...

These sound great. I had a few Williams Bros beers while in Scotland but didn't get any of these. They seem to be in the middle of a rebrand or upgrade.
I loved Grozet, Kelpie and Ebelum. They seem to be a brewery with a really interesting range of beers using different ingredients.
You have to add Orkney brewery to your list of Scottish brewers to try. Their Red MacGregor is fantastic.

Barm said...

Williams Bros don't get the recognition they deserve. They have a load of good solid beers and were brewing innovative ales back in the early 90s when it was neither profitable nor popular.

Barry (Adeptus) said...

Laura, my wife has been at me to visit the Orkneys for years. You've just made that possible :)

Barm, after tasting these beers I definitely agree, especially since they've been doing it for so long. Hopefully a wider availability through the likes of Sainsbury's will help that. I get the impression they do a lot of export trade though, as all the new bottles have the US measurements and stuff. I know of the 7500 Fraoch 20th Anniversary bottles, it looks like 5000 are going to the US.

Russ said...

I somehow missed Williams while in Scotland earlier this year, though I've had a couple of their offerings that make it Stateside (specifically the heather ale and spruce ale). I found the Williams heather ale take-it-or-leave-it, but I did have one awesome heather-ish ale during my visit. Black Isle's Heather Honey Beer has a base that's almost a cross between a Hefeweizen and a Belgian strong ale (if that makes any sense) and it's made with heather honey rather than heather itself so there's just a hint of that floral heather character. If you're in Scotland any time soon I would recommend seeking it out.

Russ said...

Oh, and I'll second Laura's comment about Orkney. Dark Island on cask may have been my favorite beer of our vacation.

Barry (Adeptus) said...

Thanks Russ, I'll add those to the list :D

Ed said...

I'm glad they're doing well now, they're a very interesting brewery. I just had the Heather Ale on cask, and to be honest it's much better from the bottle. Their pine beer is very good but the kelp beer is just wrong. I'm all for trying unusual ingredients but seaweed is a step too far!

Barry (Adeptus) said...

These four are definitely regular, for want of a better word. I can't even call them mainstream though, as they're pretty tasty.

I use a little bit of seaweed in every beer I make. Just a teaspoon, mind! :D

Ally Shaw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
impymalting said...

Wow-- what a great assortment. I've been meaning to order the "historic beers" array-- dying to try Kelpie as I love Froach--was going to get some for my birthday but then that came and went. I need another excuse now! Orkney's Dark Island is amazing-- and you know Orkney was spectacular when I visited-- you guys should go!

I add a little seaweed to my beers, too! heh.

Barry (Adeptus) said...

I reckon I should order those myself too. I'm bloody curious about them.

And you're right, we should really. But I know I'll be dragged from archaeological site to archaeological site (like when we were in Spain years ago, and I decided I wanted one day off to drink that gallon container of wine, but we still managed "just one more"). She's an archaeologist, and although I worked in archaeology for seven years, it was more a job than a calling :D

Actually, that's completely untrue. I loved it...

Velky Al said...

I am very definitely in the "Fraoch is great" camp, a fantastic beer for sure. It is however a pity that I didn't appreciate Scottish brewing before I left for the wider world.

Having said that I chuckled to myself at seeing Tennents on sale in Florida as a "premium" lager. I sometimes wonder if "premium" is a synonym for "foreign".

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

I had the lager last night and found it thoroughly enjoyable, if anything I felt it owed more to Bohemia than anywhere else with its luscious body, but having been disappointed by Brit lagers (apart from Meantime, Cotswold and Morvakia) time and time again, this was good. Bit disappointed by the IPA, I expected more. Looking forward to the 80 bob tonight. Fresh Fraoch on draft is a cracker as well.

Barry (Adeptus) said...

Definitely a luscious lager! I was fascinated by it all the way through.

I was wondering about the IPA, as to be honest, it felt more like a hoppy pale ale. However, most of my IPA experience has been of the American sort (which I quite like!), so I couldn't judge it against IPAs from this side of the pond. I'm not fussy about the naming conventions, so as a beer in its own right, I really enjoyed the almost raw hop flavours, and the gentle bitterness on it.

Leigh said...

Yeah, i concur. I thikn WIlliams Bros are a great brewing co - i really enjoyed thier '7 Giraffes', flavoured with Elderflower, and thats not usally my thing at all. The Grozet has stared appearing in the odd bar in Leeds, too. Bravo.

Anonymous said...

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