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Brewing company head is to give new craft beer makers first taste

THE sense of renewal in Glasgow's east end is not confined to the areas that will directly play host to this summer's Commonwealth Games.

CHEERS: Scott Williams will bring his experience of the beer industry to new brewers at the Drygate Brewing Company in Glasgow which is scheduled to open in May. Picture: Phil Rider
CHEERS: Scott Williams will bring his experience of the beer industry to new brewers at the Drygate Brewing Company in Glasgow which is scheduled to open in May. Picture: Phil Rider

As the sporting event draws ever closer, the race is on to get the Drygate Brewing Company on Duke Street up and running.

It might not have the scale of the Emirates Arena or Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome in the shadow of Celtic Park, but it is shaping up to be a project like no other in Scottish brewing.

Drygate also represents a meeting of two very different - albeit Scottish - brewing cultures.

It is a joint venture between Williams Bros, a star of the craft brewing scene, and Tennent Caledonian Breweries (TCB), home of Scotland's biggest beer brand, Tennent's Lager.

Based in a former box factory, dating from the 1950s, and situated on the edge of TCB's historic Wellpark Brewery, it promises not only to be somewhere to drink beer and learn how to make it, but a focal point for friends to gather and enjoy food, live sport and music in a variety of spaces.

Scott Williams, who started Williams Bros with brother Bruce in 1992, outlined the vision for Drygate when he invited The Herald to tour the still-developing building.

Designed by the award-winning Graven Images, and spread over two floors, it will feature a rooftop garden terrace, offering views of the Glasgow Cathedral and Necropolis (Drygate is derived from the German for priest's path).

Inside diners will have clear sight of the two microbreweries - one a fully commercial, 24-hectolitre operation, the other a "pilot" 250l-kit for budding home brewers - as well as the kitchen downstairs, allowing diners in the 130-capacity restaurant to watch their food being prepared.

There will be a shop, where beer made on the premises can be bought, and in each of the main bars 24 different craft beers will be on tap, 17 on the back bars and seven on the front.

And on the entertainment side it is hoped Drygate will host everything from jazz nights to live comedy, with the owners looking to draw custom from Dennistoun and the thousands of students based a short walk away at the University of Strathclyde.

Mr Williams hopes Drygate, which is scheduled to open in May, will forge a reputation as a centre for brewing excellence.

He said: "New brewers are springing up all over the place, and it seems like it is everybody's dream to open a brewery.

"But they can come along to Drygate if they have that dream, brew batches on a smaller scale but still commercial, and find out what response there is to their product. There is no investment required apart from on a batch to batch basis.

"And if we can be this kind of nexus for creative brewing - and fair enough they will all go on to build their own breweries after that - then that's great.

"It's really about encouraging the growth of the market, and players in it, rather than saying we don't want anyone else to join it and just keep it to ourselves."

One might think a project uniting two brewers at either end of the beer-making scale would inevitably lead to friction.

Mr Williams acknowledged the much bigger C&C Group, owner of TCB, does take a different approach than Williams to issues such as procurement, audits and quality checks, but on the whole he said the two parties have combined well.

And in spite of having to divide his time between Drygate and Williams' own business, which includes bars, home-brewing shop and an expanding brewery, he has found the project to be extremely rewarding.

Mr Williams said: "It is a challenge but by the same token I am learning a lot about the industry.

"As craft brewers, you run around chasing your tail like you always do and you don't really look at the whole marketplace and understand it. It's really interesting to get an insight into that."

When it launches, Williams and C&C will hand over the day to day running of Drygate to a new team currently being assembled.

A three-strong brewing team has already been recruited, and are currently learning the ropes on the equipment which will be employed at Drygate in Italy.

Mr Williams hinted he thought C&C would not be quite so involved in the venture, which will brew and market its own Drygate brands.

But it is perhaps a measure of how seriously it views the opportunity in the craft beer sector that it has been so hands on.

C&C boss Stephen Glancey told The Herald in October the Drygate investment is expressly designed to allow the brewer to tap the fast-growing market.

It's easy to see why. One analysis suggests the market grew by 53% in value in the UK last year, with rising to around £350m.

Williams is riding the craft beer wave as much as any of its peers in Scotland, with its core Heather Ale, Williams Draught, Joker IPA, March of the Penguins, Seven Giraffes, Birds and the Bees and Caesar Augustus brands gaining in popularity around the UK and abroad.

But it has not been an overnight phenomenon.

Mr Williams quipped: "We were almost like a sleeper cell for 15 years, waiting for the craft beer movement to actually kick in."

The brothers' connection to beer stems from their father, who established a home brew shop in Glasgow 35 years ago.

They moved into commercial brewing in 1992, when they began making beer using historical Scottish recipes, such as Heather Ale and Alba. It was not until seven years later, when they took over their Alloa site from the defunct Forth Brewery, that they created the Williams Bros brands.

Mr Williams said: "I think we have done well out of that, because coming from a background of being botanical brewers, we are much more willing to experiment."

In its most recent accounts, the company, registered as Heather Ale Limited, booked a retained profit of £168,420 in the year to April 30. The year saw it invest heavily in new equipment at its Alloa brewery and incur costs linked to a new bar opening.

Turnover rose by 42% to £4.5m, boosted by account wins in supermarkets and overseas progress in markets such as the US, Canada, Sweden, Italy and Russia.

The period had seen the brewer invest £500,000 in a new, more efficient bottling line, which allows it to supply beer in plastic bottles for events such as music festivals. It also added new grain silos, eight new fermentation and conditioning tanks.

This year it will spend £100,000 on the purchase of a small canning line, allowing it to develop the contract packaging service it provides to other micros.

All in all it expects to brew about 25,000 hectolitres this year as it looks to maintain a growth in output rate of 30% per year.

Asked about the scope for expanding the brewery further, Mr Williams said: "We've been addressing it every year.

"You can have a brewery, but it is the fermentation and conditioning space that is the real blockage. Our lagers take a minimum of four weeks to be ready, so literally you have to have somewhere to [store it].

"We have a beer called Ceilidh which we lager for 90 days. That's a real pain because if it grows quickly, you always run out of stock because you have to predict the rate of sale do far ahead."

He added: "We have got the tank space to basically increase our production by about 50%. [But] it can't grow forever at the rate it has been."

As for the future prospects for craft beer in Scotland, Mr Williams is on record as saying the sector has at least a further decade of growth to come.

But at a time when it seems a new micro is opening every week, he said not every venture will succeed. Noting that the craft beer explosion is a natural extension of the foodie revolution, which has seen people take increasing interest in the provenance and quality of ingredients, He said: "There's 54 within the M25 circle now, and there were probably 10 five years ago.

"But two of them have already failed. There is definitely no guarantee of success.

"If you just open a brewery and have no business plan or route to market, you'll be on £2 an hour for the next three years."

Beyond its brewing business, Williams, which employs 43 staff, owns two bars, The Vintage in Leith, Edinburgh, and Inn Deep in Glasgow's west end. The bars trade under its Inn House Brewery company.

The offshoot also includes the home brew shop on Dumbarton Road and an off-licence store, Valhalla's Goat, above Inn Deep.

While the store has a focus on beer, it carries a broad range of wine. In fact, it stocks 150 or 40% more wines than the store's previous incarnation, Quel Vin.

Mr Williams, who reveals he is a big fan of Scottish beer from Innis & Gunn, Fyne Ales, Cromarty, Inveralmond, Fyne Ales, Tryst and Brewdog, said: "I don't have any ambition to own a lot of bars by any means by any means, but it is interesting to have first-hand understanding of the trials and tribulations of running a bar - the margins that everybody needs, why they need range and all that sort of stuff.

"The off-licence is really interesting for me because we have got 500 different beers in there, and every week we have people ringing up saying, here's my new beer.

"You've only got so much space so you constantly have to rotate."

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