Brew Hui Meets: Sam Williamson

Call it a happy accident, or even a beautiful mistake – but the last post ended in the place where this one begins: with my elbows resting atop a Galbraith’s Kauri table, pint of Bob Hudson’s Bitter within reach. But this time, my exceptional company is not related to me; this time, I’m joined by a gentleman who has such a diminutive sense of self that he has no idea how important he really is.

And I love people with that kind of blind-spot.

Sam Williamson – Galbraith’s resident brewer – unquestionably possesses the qualities that we New Zealanders value above all others: namely, outstanding individual ability coupled with genuine humbleness and humility. Both qualities are necessary companions in this context: if you’ve got the first but not the second, you’re considered an arrogant wanker; and if you’ve got the second but not the first, then you’re an underachiever who could do better. We Kiwis, then, are a tough crowd.

But respecting Sam is easy. As far as brewing ability goes, he could hardly be under more pressure: Keith Galbraith’s own World-Famous-In-Mt-Eden adage – No Crap On Tap – would hardly resonate if his own beers didn’t act as the flagship for his philosophy. But because of Sam’s outstanding brewing ability, the Galbraith’s beers continue to hit the high marks set by Keith himself, and then (principally) continued by Ian Ramsay. They were certainly big shoes to fill; but fill them Sam has, with rare aplomb.

And with regard to the second-mentioned quality, I’ve never met a meeker brewer: he’s the kind of bloke who would rather get on with the job of creating outstanding beer than receive plaudits or praise. It was all I could do to get him to agree to having his picture taken for the blog – and even then, he insisted that half his face was covered by a pint glass.

photo(Sam1)

Sam‘s path to the top of Mt Eden Road – and the metaphoric top of the brew pub food chain – was a slightly unusual one. As an organic chemistry student at University, he developed a robust understanding of the science of brewing; but back in those days, he’d rather spend his time distilling “dirty, dirty bourbon” than creating anything that resembled an honest pint. That all changed when he took a job at Auckland Breweries – a short four months before it became Steam Brewing Company, the now-famous Otahuhu brewery that continues to contract brew a blush-inducing proportion of the quote-unquote craft beer floating around Auckland (and elsewhere, for that matter).

Sam’s start at Steam was typical of anyone beginning on the bottom rung: his early days were consumed by floor-sweeping, forkhoist-driving and tank-cleaning. Sam reckons that these Long Wait-type jobs gave him a grasp of the ignominious side of brewing – the bits that aren’t really brewing at all, but are utterly essential to a brewery’s success. After years of learning all he could about cleaning, bottling and fermentation, he finally had the chance in 2010 to put it all into practice – to create a beer from scratch, and release it as a Cock and Bull seasonal offering. The result was the Cock and Bull Common Beer – a Steam Beer (pun intended) that called for lager yeasts to be fermented at higher, traditionally-ale-friendly temperatures.

The process of creating the Cock and Bull Common Beer gave Sam a glimpse of a future he didn’t know existed: these days, mustering different beers from raw ingredients to final product is a daily occurrence. Sam laments that the elegance of the Galbraith’s brewing setup – elegance being synonymous with simplicity in this case, given the entire setup revolves around three tanks and a shit-load of casks – means that he doesn’t get to flex many of the brewing muscles that he developed at Steam. Sam’s lamentation is, of course, delivered with fists-full of irony; because unlike Steam – where the exceptional brewing team receive little-to-no public recognition – at Galbraith’s, Sam has the opportunity for some much-deserved time in the sun.

We talked about the pressure that comes with filling such a lauded position – at which point Sam revealed himself as the driven brewer that exists beneath his humble persona:

Galbraith’s enormous brewery window – viewable by all visitors as they walk through the front door, provided they look slightly to the right – affords a generous view of the brewing operation, with two notable exceptions: firstly, the all-important cask conditioning room, where magical drops like Bob’s and Grafton Porter find their legs; and secondly, the Government-certified quarantine area, where Galbraith’s store their enviably-legitimate boxes of imported whole hop cones.

Voyeuristically peering through the window and watching Sam at work is to step back in time; back to an age before industrial commodification, when beer was made and consumed locally. I have a romantic notion that Galbraith’s provides a template for how things ought to be – a brewing landscape generously peppered with small-scale producers, making just enough turnover to buy exceptional raw ingredients, employ outstanding staff, and provide a healthy-but-honest profit for use in the event that the owner doesn’t die tomorrow.

Call that utopianism, or even socialism if you like; I couldn’t care less. I’m more than comfortable lining-up beneath any banner that shares my yearning for a world where places like Galbraith’s – and, by default, outstanding brewers like Sam – are a dime-a-dozen, rather than diamonds in the rough.

Twitter: @jasegurney | Facebook: www.facebook.com/brewhui

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