Williams Bros: Craft Before It Was A Thing

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.

Main illustration above by and copyright © 2015 Rachael Smith who blogs about beer at Look at Brew and is on Twitter as @lookatbrew. Other images courtesy of Williams Bros.

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.

Illustration from The Heather in Lore and Lay, 1903.
Illustration from The Heather in Lore and Lay, 1903.

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.

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St Michael’s Canon #2: Ebulum

Ebulum: cap and book page.

It’s listed in our bible, Michael Jackson’s Great Beer Guide (2000), so why have we never tried Williams Bros elderberry ale, Ebulum?

For one thing, their beers were rarely seen in London when we lived there. They would occasionally turn up in supermarkets, but we can’t remember ever seeing this particular brew in Sainsbury’s or elsewhere.

Then, not long after we started blogging in 2007, Williams Bros was one of the first breweries to attempt to send us some samples, but the postman apparently ‘misplaced’ them and they never arrived.

Perhaps it also got lost in the post-c.2005 ‘craft’ mania: it had the misfortune to be something other than an IPA.

In his GBG, Jackson promises it will be ‘slatey-black’, with ‘winey, rooty, licorice-like, slightly medicinal flavours’. That description brought to mind Riga black balsam, a potent, tar-like cough cure that Latvians drink for fun. That, perhaps, set us up to expect something more intense than we got.

We can confirm that, 15 years on, Ebulum remains black. Our first impressions on tasting, however, were of oily water. As it warmed up, the wine-like flavours promised by Jackson began to appear, but… it tasted like watered wine. We did start to detect a hint of Ribena, but perhaps that was the power of suggestion at work? A bit more concentration highlighted a sort of fruit leather character and some black treacle. Finally, in the last sips, something like juniper berry began to pop out.

Ultimately, we wanted something more from a strong elderberry ale — more obvious exoticism. It’s a perfectly acceptable porter-like beer, but could do with its fruitiness amping up, and perhaps some trickery to give it more body. As it is, we wouldn’t rush to drink it again.

Disclosure: we got our bottle of Ebulum in a case of samples sent by Williams Bros.

Sainsbury’s Beer Hunt 2012

Scarborough Fair IPA label

Sainsbury’s is a confused supermarket these days. Having carved out a niche for itself with the pioneering ‘Taste the Difference’ concept — neither as ‘cost-conscious’ as Asda and Tesco or as posh as Waitrose — it’s struggled to reinvent itself for recessionary times, coming up with a slogan we can’t remember but which can be summarised as ‘cheaper than you might be expecting on certain product ranges, terms and conditions apply’.

Throughout the hard times, however, they’ve retained some kind of commitment to beer with their yearly ‘Great British Beer Hunt’. This year, we got sent four of the twenty beers currently on offer. It wasn’t quite a random selection — we suggested that we’d prefer beers from beyond the West Country.

Blue Monkey 99 Red Baboons (4.2%) refuses to pigeonhole itself with an easy style descriptor. It’s black, though, and the small print mentions mild and porter. Our very first impression, however, was of floral hops. Insofar as we’re convinced black IPA is a thing that exists beyond the imagination of bored brewers, we thought, for one moment, that this might be it. The perfume passed fairly quickly, though, leaving behind a slightly tart, moreish milk chocolate flavour. We’ll buy this if we see it.

Williams Bros Golden Prodigal Sun (4.1%) confused the hell out of us. ‘Aromatic Golden Ale’ led us to expect something lighter and more citrusy than the brassy, sweetish beer that emerged from the bottle. The particular quality of the sweetness was what really got us, though: it tasted very much like raspberry jam. (Others, we note, reached the same conclusion.) We half expected to find pips in our teeth. Though it was certainly interesting, it won’t be on our shopping list next month.

Nethergate Lemon Head (4%) completely confounded our expectations. Nethergate’s beers, in our experience, are almost always pretty good, and sometimes very much so, but they just never to spring to mind as an exciting brewery. We’re never delighted to see Nethergate on a pumpclip. Furthermore, we’re not 100 per cent convinced by ginger in beers — it rarely works. This beer, however, works magnificently. It’s fizzy, but that absolutely suits the over-the-top Fentiman’s flavours. The malt and hops are out of the way, not clashing with the ginger, but providing something more than wateriness as a backdrop. If autumn wasn’t approaching, we’d want bottles of this in the fridge to drink after work. Scintillating stuff.

Finally, there was our favourite: Wold Top Scarborough Fair IPA (6%). Again, honest reaction time: it reminded us more of Oktoberfest than of other IPAs, with the kind of round maltiness we’re always looking for in a Festbier. The high alcohol level helped, we think, making it one to really chew on. It didn’t prompt a long list of tasting notes resembling the flavour key on the back of a pack of Jelly Belly jelly beans, but it did lead to several contemplative silences and satisfied sighs. (It is also proof that ‘maize’ has its place.)

In summary, though the full list contains a few grim-looking clear-bottled beers from regional brewers who’ve only ever let us down, these four give us a sense that someone at Sainsbury’s ‘gets’ beer — or, at least, understands the appeal of variety and distinctive character.

We saw someone getting stick for suggesting that 99 Red Baboons might be considered a black IPA. When did we decide there were right and wrong answers to our personal reactions to a particular beer? Grrr.