(Author’s note: I have not brewed using the WilliamsWarn Personal Brewery. Therefore, what follows is an opinion of the concept rather than the specific technical capabilities of the machine.)
Towards the beginning of 2011, a story appeared on New Zealand’s prime time television news about the launch of a product called the WilliamsWarn Personal Brewery. In sparkling silver steel, it hinted to the nation of a new dawn in home brewing. No longer would making your own beer be the sole domain of big-bellied, middle-aged men wearing socks with sandals in a dark shed. Here stood a machine – an appliance – allowing anyone to brew a commercial quality beer, at home, in only seven days.
In the same mold as a bread maker, the WilliamsWarn takes an existing manual process and automates it: pour in the ingredients, push a button and a week later you’ll have a 23 litres of beer brewed to your exact requirements.
The point of difference the WilliamsWarn seems to have is in solving a few common problems associated with home brewing, including eliminating the requirement to re-ferment in bottles or kegs, temperature-controlled fermentation and greatly reducing oxidation (for a full list of pros and cons, refer to the relevant page on the WilliamsWarn website). Aside from automated bottling, it is effectively offering a complete end-to-end brewing process – for almost any beer style – at the touch of a button.
In terms of convenience, it seems brilliant. In terms of technological innovation, it seems brilliant. And quality? A Pilsner, made in the machine by a man attempting only his third brew, was entered into the 2012 Asian Beer Awards and won a gold medal. Brilliant, no doubt.
So why aren’t we all home brewing with the WilliamsWarn?
If the machine was the same price as a bread maker, perhaps we all would be. But, at around NZ$6599 (AU$5850/US$5750), this is in a different stratosphere in terms of domestic appliances. Part of this is due to it being a product still very much at the infancy of its lifecycle. It has faced dual hazards in terms of a lack of initial investment and unfavourable economies of scale, making a high price somewhat unavoidable. The price will naturally come down as the business grows but, until such time, it may remain a fundamental barrier for many. After all, one of the main appeals of home brewing, particularly at the plastic bucket and kit set level, is the low cost of producing a beer.
Happily though, there is plenty to suggest that the company is still attracting demand and should be able to ride through any initial pricing problems. Since the official launch and the subsequent gold medal in Asia, more people have been showing interest in supporting the business. The initial run of 70 units sold quickly and there are apparently more than 400 current orders waiting to be filled. And according to Ian Williams, company co-founder, they have had interest from more than 200 distributors in 50 countries.
This is a very positive development because, in order to meet their growth ambitions (producing 50,000 breweries over the next 10 years), WilliamsWarn will need to conquer the overseas market. And the place they will be concentrating on making the biggest impact in is the USA. As a country with an insatiable demand for mod cons and enough people with enough money to buy them, this is a sensible choice. When you also factor in the high number of home brewers, the USA becomes an essential market to capture. The efforts to woo stateside brewers should be interesting to observe because, while the WilliamsWarn Personal Brewery does solve some common brewing problems, there is another battle which will have to take place – the oft-cited ‘battle for hearts and minds’.
While autonomy in processes may give you a commercial-quality product, it would be a little misguided to believe that this is all home brewers are seeking in a beer. By using this machine you could, for example, brew a Pilsner that has the perfect level of freshness, hops, carbonation, crispness and clarity. But where is the art? Where is the romance? If you make home brew with the push of a button, will your beer lose its soul?
These intangible elements, though perhaps not sought by every brewer, can’t be ignored. At its most basic level, home brewing may not always be about creating a commercial-quality product. Certainly no one sets about brewing to fail, but the end product may be quite incidental to the process. A quote from the book Homebrewing, produced by the UK’s National Trust in 2011, rather eloquently sums up the reason why so many participate in homebrewing;
“…it ties into some very strong trends in modern life: a defiant urge to make and do for yourself; a demand for the authentic rather than the synthetic; a fascination with traditional methods and ingredients”
None of this is meant to detract from the WilliamsWarn itself. It really is a wonderful piece of innovation which you can only wish widespread success for. But, without wanting to overstate it too much, that alluring ritual and history of traditional home brewing may prove a tough barrier to break through.
Will the big-bellied, middle-aged man wearing socks with sandals want one in his dark shed?
If the answer to that turns out to be ‘no’, there are most certainly other opportunities the WilliamsWarn would be perfectly suited to and they are already developing new, slightly larger models aimed at them. Its small-scale commercial-quality credentials suggest that it would be a welcome addition to bars or cafes wishing to dabble in their own beer production. It is not a particularly large piece of machinery – similar in size to a fridge – so could fit into wasted spaces, for example those filled by poker machines. These types of commercial entities may have no interest in the background of a beer, but they may at least be forward-thinking enough to appreciate a unique selling point. And if it means beer production gets put right in people’s faces, removing some of the apathy about brewing and encouraging engagement at some level, it should be wholeheartedly embraced by the beer community.
For the WilliamsWarn team it has been a long, hard slog to get to this point – a struggle financially and mentally as Ian points out – but now they have several factors going in their favour. Firstly, they have done the design and development and can prove that the machine works and works well. Secondly, they have secured the all-important investment to get them to the next stage in their plans. And thirdly, beer and brewing in general are showing signs of being amidst a renaissance. Regardless of whether or not the WilliamsWarn is the next evolutionary step, the timing of the opportunity could scarcely be better.
Ultimately, when you set any emotional attachment to traditional home brewing aside and judge it for what it is, the WilliamsWarn appears to be a damn fine piece of technology and, by most accounts, makes damn fine beer. As long as it does that, the future is surely bright.
For details about the WilliamsWarn Personal Brewery and to view a video demonstration of how it works, visit the company’s website.