Flowers of Scotland

Williams Bros are one of the most exciting breweries in Britain. Here we speak to co-founder Scott Williams about how the beer scene has changed since 1988 and using traditional ingredients

Williams Bros started in 1988 - was there a feeling that the beer scene in the UK was changing even then?
To be honest the opportunity in the beer scene never really occurred to us in a general sense. Prior to brewing heather ale our involvement in brewing was essentially at the homebrew level – through a couple of shops of our own in Glasgow and Aberdeen as well as supplying other homebrew retailers from our wholesale business covering the UK and Ireland. We had contact with a few small brewers at this time by supplying them with malted barley, hops and often yeast but none were doing particularly well and ultimately gave up the ghost. In those days even homebrewers were mainly interested in brewing very traditional ales – no crazy hop varieties for the most part and the art was in making smooth session-able fairly low ABV beers with perhaps the odd barley wine thrown in for good measure. Getting retailers to stock the products seemed to be the big issue for new brewers and they had to pay the same level of duty as the mega-brewers.

What was the ethos the brewery started out with?
Given that we knew in starting brewing commercially that there were challenges in gaining listings and making a profit, we knew the beer would have to be special and sell for a premium. Luckily the reason we had decided to brew commercially is because Bruce had been working on a recipe to recreate ‘heather ale’ since he first heard of the tradition from one of our homebrew customers. Brewing of heather ale in Scotland goes back over 4000 years, has lots of historical and literary references (see our web site) and was for us an opportunity to approach the beer market from a different perspective. We were selling Scotland, both as a product since the ingredients used (water, barley, heather, bogmyrtle) were indigenous, and the romantic history of which there was a great deal to utilise. Our target markets were tourists and export, we had little luck in most traditional bars but were welcomed with open arms by restaurants and shops catering to tourists. Very quickly the tourists found importers for us in several overseas markets.

How has the brewery adapted to the current burgeoning scene?
As I have often said Williams Bros were a bit of a sleeper cell of brewing. We have been doing our own thing, brewing with weird and wonderful ingredients for so long and slowly building up our consumer base that we were in a great position when the buffalo came over the hill – we jumped on their back and are enjoying the ride. It’s very exciting to see so many new breweries out there especially as most of them are producing great beers and pushing at the boundaries of style and ingredients. There are so many folk out there yet to experience the world of ‘craft’ beer that it looks like there is plenty of scope for the herd to continue growing.

One key aspect of Williams Bros is resurrecting traditional beers – why is this so important?
Well that was our business plan. After heather ale we increased our range using the same ethos – beers brewed using indigenous ingredients with interesting historical precedent. We only started brewing our range of Williams Bros beers once we had taken over the brewery in Alloa and realised we needed some more mainstream (obviously with a twist) beers to fill the brewery and bottling line and so avoid going bust. Keep in mind that things were very tough for a lot of years, prior to SIBA (god bless their cotton socks) pushing for and through progressive beer duty in 2002 small brewers were not doing too great, the whole growth in craft beer in the UK was enabled by this one act.

We’ve included Joker IPA in our Scottish Beers Mixed Case, what can you tell us about this beer and how it came about?
Funnily enough Joker was the 4th beer we created under the Willams Bros brand. The first three were Williams Black (current and 2nd year running champion mild of Britain – just saying), Williams Gold and Williams Red. We were happily brewing and selling these beers on cask and in bottle and were often asked for a special. I came up with the idea that we could create a ‘Joker’ like in a pack of cards which could be any other card/beer. So one time it might be a dark – then an IPA – then a lemon infused lager. Turned out to be a bad idea and caused no end of confusion though we loved the imagery so we brewed what was at the time a pretty ‘out there’ IPA using lots of US hops.