The quintessentially Scottish brewery Williams Bros began its life in 1988 when an elderly woman walked into a home-brewing supply shop in Glasgow and approached the young man behind the counter with the recipe for a long lost style of beer with a legendary status – heather ale.
A famous poem by Robert Louis Stevenson tells the story of how the Picts, defeated by a Scottish king, took to their graves ‘the secret of the drink’ – a brew ‘sweeter far than honey… stronger far than wine’, with semi-magical properties. It concludes:
But now in vain is the torture,
Fire shall never avail:
Here dies in my bosom
The secret of Heather Ale.
In a 1903 book The Heather in Lyric, Lore and Lay, Alexander Wallace considered various stories and tales of heather ale – ‘a liquour greatly superior to our common ale’ – dating back to 1526. If it had not died out, he concluded, then it had become hard-to-find, with only a handful of doubtful reports from people who claimed to have tasted it in the latter half of the 19th century, as brewed by ‘shepherds on the moor’. He also cited, for balance, the view of one authority that heather ale might never have existed at all.
And yet, there she was, the wise old woman, with the secret in her hand, and Bruce Williams, the young man behind the shop counter, was intrigued.
This fairy tale-tale origin story sounded, to us, too good to be true – almost like something from a Dan Brown novel – but in a telephone conversation, Bruce’s softly-spoken younger brother, Scott, insisted on its veracity, and put it into context:
We used to get a lot of customers from all parts of Scotland and they’d give you bottles of nettle beer, beer with bogmyrtle, and tell you about these recipes their families had been using for years. The recipe she gave Bruce didn’t have much detail so he spent a lot of time at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow researching recipes, looking at old sources like the Book of Kells.
Bruce did not have a particularly academic background and never went to university. ‘Bruce has always been…’ said Scott Williams, hesitatingly, ‘Well, he’s more distracted. He’s always looking for the next thing to be interested in. He’s very practical and gets on and does things, whatever it is, like building an extension on his house or researching an ancient beer recipe.’
The Williams family came from Dunfermline where Bruce’s father worked at the dockyard, eventually becoming an engineer with a more comfortable and secure job. Scott recalled a ‘fantastic upbringing’ spent in various places around the world, from Bahrain to Mauritius, and wherever his else his father’s specialist line of work took them.
In the 1970s, when the family had moved back to Scotland, Mr Williams opened a shop in the small town of Crossford in Dunfermline. It sold both baking and brewing supplies because, as Scott Williams remembered, the only suppliers of malt in bulk were bakery wholesalers, and most home brewers were using baker’s yeast. Then, after a short while, he moved the business to Partick in the city of Glasgow.
For his part, Scott managed a year of university before quitting and heading off to London to sell photocopiers: ‘I still flagellate myself over that – knocking on people’s doors, a bit of a wide boy… But it was good experience, it teaches you resilience, knocking on 90 doors and being told to go away 89 times.’ When he came back to Scotland, he took a job working at a company that made malt extracts and kits for home brewers.
It took several years of research and experimentation for Bruce to come up with a recipe that, in Scott’s words, ‘people would actually want to drink’. With a shudder, he said, ‘A couple of the early versions Bruce brewed were awful.’
Eventually, he hit upon a blend of the mainstream — malted barley and wheat, with hops – and the quirky, with heather, ginger and bogmyrtle as additional aromatics.
In 1992, four years after its first conception, Bruce Williams’s heather ale, now named Leann Fraoch, pronounced ‘Frook’, was first brewed commercially, in the railway station waiting room at Taynuilt, Argyll. ‘There was a little brewery there run by a guy called Dick Saunders,’ recalled Scott. ‘Dick was a jack-of-all-trades, very charming, but not much of a salesman. Bruce had been helping him out with his brewing.’
They used an entire batch of heather, picked by hand by Bruce and gangs of locals who he paid £2 per gallon bucket. His son, Chris, who now works at the brewery but was then a small child, recalled the experience in an email:
I think we spent more time playing hide and seek or chasing the massive, beautiful dragonflies about the heather. I remember the evenings with the pickers, sat round a fire, playing/jamming folk songs, drinking beer and eating stews…
They brewed enough to fill several casks (borrowed from Dick Saunders) and put them out to the trade. ‘It sold really quickly,’ said Scott.
At this point, the slow life cycle of heather ale became a problem, as Scott recalled: ‘We had to kick our heels for a year before we could pick any more heather and brew it again, in 1993.’
The next batch was just as popular, and lured famous beer writer Michael Jackson to Scotland, where Bruce Williams made him nibble on heather: ‘Now try this one. The bell heather is sweeter, but the ling heather has more perfume. Do you get the spiciness, the astringency?’
Fraoch, with its off-kilter herbal oiliness, offered something genuinely unusual at a time when British drinkers were beginning to grow weary of endless ranks of bitters and best bitters. The burgeoning number of beer writers, hungry for good stories, wrote about it in articles and books, ensuring that, almost from the off, beer geeks were lusting to taste it. ‘Some of our success has been because of the story and the image,’ Scott Williams acknowledged. ‘Michael Jackson and some of those original beer writers were genuinely interested because what we were doing was quite literary, well-researched, and all about provenance before that had become a popular idea.’
Scott, meanwhile, took on the role of Heather Ales’ chief salesman, drawing on his experience in London. ‘I found restaurants tended to have the open doors,’ he said ‘but pubs and bars weren’t interested, except some of the CAMRA pubs.’
After a couple of years at Taynuilt, they needed to increase production. Refused a loan by the bank, Bruce Williams sent them a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, which, astonishingly, did the trick. With three months to pay it back, they approached a more traditional Scottish brewery, Maclay’s of Alloa. ‘We went with them because they were only people who were really interested in what we were doing,’ Scott Williams said. ‘They didn’t really get it, but they were tremendously supportive. And Roger Ryman – he was a laugh!
Roger Ryman is now head brewer at St Austell in Cornwall but, in 1995, had just joined Maclay having graduated from Heriot-Watt two years before. When we interviewed him at the brewery, he told us about his time working with the Williams brothers:
Bruce used to turn up with these sacks straight off the hillside – heather, bog myrtle, ginger… He was wild, off the wall – full of energy and enthusiasm, bursting with ideas. But he also knew what he was doing and played the part, to an extent. He had wild hair, and always looked like he’d just come down from the mountainside.
‘The heather used to clog everything up and I’d have to shove it through with a broom handle –probably not up to modern standards of hygiene and safety.’ Roger Ryman
Though the Maclay brewery was old and in poor repair, it also offered technical advantages when it came to brewing Fraoch, as Scott Williams recalled: ‘They had this huge underback which we could fill with heather – 300-400 litres solid heather in volume — and let the beer filter over it, picking up aroma as it went.’
In that first year working with Maclay, the brothers only produced one batch because they were still dependent on a seasonal supply of heather. We wondered whether they had ever been tempted to find a more reliable source, which idea Scott dismissed: ‘You can buy heather from Poland, but it smells like pot pourri – it’s sieved to get just the flowers. Heather is all about provenance, all about Scotland.’ And picking it cannot be automated – as Scott put it, ‘It’s a pain in the arse.’ They spent several years perfecting a system, still in use today, whereby they blast-freeze the heather at -35 and then store three-years’ worth in case there’s a bad harvest.
Roger Ryman recalled how quickly their range of beers expanded:
Eventually, Williams Bros started to look at producing some secondary brands. They were selling niche beers into a broad market, which was really unusual at the time. It was a strong brand – selling the Scottish dream. I helped to develop Grozet, Ebulum and Alba. It was about finding the right balance between interest and authenticity, and practicality. Using spruce tips instead of hops [in Alba], for example, meant you had no natural filter in the hop back, so we had to find a way around that, using spent hops just for filtering. Alba was parti-gyled off Maclay’s 80 Shilling. I was aware of how unusual these beers were but I don’t think I had any sense that we were being ‘revolutionary’.
Scott Williams did not mince words when Alba came up in conversation: it was even more of a ‘pain in the arse’ than Fraoch.
You’ve got a very short window in which to pick the spruce tips – shorter even than heather. If you look at the trees, from March to April, you’ll see the new growth, a little brown bud, that grows a little cap, bright green, before it opens up fully. When it opens up, it goes dark green, and you can’t brew with it because it’s full of chlorophyll. It’s like cotton-picking only much more difficult, in the dark of the forest, with most of the tips way up out of reach.
Again, there was no way to automate this, or to buy in suitable materials from elsewhere.
In 1996, Hollywood star Mel Gibson won five Oscars for Braveheart and celebrated by ordering 20 cases of Fraoch for a party in Los Angeles, which led to a rush of demand from American drinkers. In 1998, Heather Ales acquired its own brewery at Strathaven, but also continued brewing at Maclay in order to meet ongoing demand from the US market.
When Maclay’s finally announced that they intended to retire the increasingly decrepit brewery, Duncan Kellock, Maclay’s Head Brewer and Roger Ryman’s boss, proposed to the brothers that they go into business together running a contract brewing plant using the old Maclay kit at a new site in Central Scotland. ‘It had been an old Younger’s depot, defunct for maybe 60 years,’ recalled Scott Williams. But the joint operation went into receivership after a couple of years at which point Heather Ales took it over, under their new company name William Bros.
Scott Williams told us, with what perhaps seemed a touch of regret, that it was at this point that things got serious:
We’ve never really had a grand plan or a strategy, or looked much at what anyone else is doing. We’ve been like a dog sniffing its own arse for 20 years. Not interested in politics, just making something and hopefully finding a market for it. We did it because it was fun and interesting. We started to become more of a business when we got our own brewery and some overheads to worry about, a bottling line and so on.
This prompted their beer range to expand yet further but with an emphasis on, as Scott conceded, ‘more commercial products — things with malt and hops’.
Their current best-seller is not, as we assumed, Fraoch, but Joker IPA, of which Scott said, ‘It’s like a gateway drug for a lot of people. Balanced, not in your face like BrewDog Punk – a sessionable IPA.’ The next most popular beer in their range is Caesar Augustus, an easy-drinking lager-pale-ale hybrid. These products might be less superficially oddball than the beer that started it all, but there is still a streak of freakiness behind the scenes, and Scott became suddenly enthused explaining the hidden principles that guide their brewing:
We like all our beers to have to have some kind of story or history behind them. So all the Williams Bros beers are brewed to golden ratio proportions – the same way the universe expands, the divine proportion. Do you know the number Phi? 1.618, the golden ratio. Look up ‘Phiness’. It’s the shape of your credit card, the proportions of the human body.
He grew yet more animated as he went on.
What that means with our beer is that if I use seven malts, the first malt makes up the bulk of the brew, but the second malt is added according to the golden ratio, and the third is in proportion to the second, and so on. It’s a pain in the ass for the brewers because it means the seventh malt is something like 0.07 litres of rye. I always say, this is how God would have made beer.
At which point, he turned coy, muttering: ‘But we don’t really mention this in marketing because it was a bit much for people.’
As he had brought them up, we wondered how Scott feels about the new kings of Scottish craft beer.
I think BrewDog are damn clever – I take my hat off to them. I remember when they used to come down to our place dropping things off, picking up casks, and I thought, gosh, it’s amazing beer, but I just didn’t think their strategy was going to work. I was wrong. I guess I’m too conservative. To a certain extent, we’ve grabbed on their coat tails as they’ve whizzed by. They’ve dragged the whole industry along with them. They’ve been critical of fellow brewers sometimes, including us, but sometimes what they say, it’s for an audience, and we don’t take offence.
He is perhaps too harsh in declaring himself conservative. Williams Bros released a mixed case of single hops beers some years ago, much like BrewDog’s current IPA is dead project, but to little acclaim. ‘Retailers didn’t get it,’ Scott said with evident frustration. ‘They’d say, “Why would anyone want this?” It’s like Leonardo da Vinci inventing the helicopter – right idea at the wrong time.’
We didn’t write about Williams Bros in Brew Britannia because we weren’t convinced that, though well-respected, they were particularly influential — there was no flood of heather ales or breweries using hyper-local ingredients in the late-90s — but if they have a place in the narrative of the ‘rebirth of British beer’ it’s this: they showed that brewers without a brewery, but with interesting ideas and a story to tell, could do very well for themselves selling mostly bottled beer. Perhaps they weren’t, as some have suggested, a proto-BrewDog so much as they were the Mikkeller of their day.
- ‘Mel’s Special Brew’, Sunday Mail (Glasgow), 18 August 18, 1996.
- ‘Scottish beer in full flower’, Michael Jackson, The Independent, 18 December 1993.
- ‘A little bit of heather and a special kind of fog’, Hamish Scott, The Independent, 10 August 1996.
- Great Beer Guide, Michael Jackson, 1998, repr. 2000.
- Telephone conversation with Scott Williams, 31/01/2015, and follow-up emails.
- Emails with Chris Williams, January-February 2015.
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