Tiny beer dream realised

Cheers: Prime Minister John Key shares a drink with William Warn co-founder Ian Williams, right, and Tukituki MP Craig Foss.
Cheers: Prime Minister John Key shares a drink with William Warn co-founder Ian Williams, right, and Tukituki MP Craig Foss.

The first fully commercial micro-breweries, small enough to take up a discreet place in an ordinary kitchen, will begin being shipped to markets next month.

It has taken New Zealand start-up WilliamsWarn six years to get to this point - following the dream of creating a world-first: a micro-brewery to revolutionise home brewing.

Founder Ian Williams, a master-brewer, said WilliamsWarn's second-generation machines will start being shipped next month to begin fulfilling a promise first revealed in a Sunday Star-Times article in early 2011.

The first generation of micro-breweries proved the technology, though imperfections in their design have been removed in the second-generation machines. Williams says this year will see the company, which late last year secured the investment it needed to continue, turn a profit for the first time.

More than 800 people are on the waiting list for one or more of the micro-breweries, including 180 New Zealanders, Williams said. That has been growing at around 100 a month since June when a brewer using a WilliamsWarn first-generation machine won the gold medal for his Pilsner at the Asian Beer Awards.

The waiting list includes 350 sign-ups from America, which remains the great hope for mass-market sales.

At $5700 a machine, that brings the promise of over $4 million in sales, Williams says.

"We have used investment up until this point, but for sure this year we will make a profit," he says.

The years it has taken to get to this point have been gruelling and frustrating for the inventor given the demand for a fully functioning micro-brewery for the home. Williams is also adamant that the machines should be built in New Zealand.

He believes a time will come when micro-breweries will be as common a household appliance as a coffee-maker.

New Zealand, like many countries, is littered with failed home brewers. Williams says research suggests as many as one in three men have tried home-brewing and thrown in the towel thanks to ropey results.

The WilliamsWarn machine is designed to end that disappointment, and allow home-brewers to turn out a commercial-quality brew every time and, importantly for beer buffs, to provide a quick and easy way for them to experiment with making different beer types and perfecting their own recipes.

Despite functioning technology and a proven market, investment eluded WilliamsWarn until late last year. Seeking venture capital and angel funding through the usual channels left Williams frustrated at the narrow focus of such investors, and what he perceives as a prejudice against making anything tangible.

"Everyone's into tech because you don't have to ship. You can just send it through the internet. They are just looking for the next Google or Amazon," he said.

The new money that Williams secured was from New Zealand businessmen, though an overseas brewer flirted with sinking capital into the project as a hedge against the disruption WilliamsWarn's machines could one day cause by taking a bite out of the sales of commercial brewers.

The downside of the new money is that Williams has had to give away a fair proportion of the company, but the upside is that the ambition remains on track, and one of the investors has joined fulltime to help push the company's development forward.

The second-generation machines differ from the first generation in being more user-friendly (including wheels, the ability to serve beer down to 1 degree Celsius as opposed to 4°C and a much-improved beer tap modelled on those seen in bars around the world). Importantly, for an item to be shipped around the world, it is also easier to maintain.

Williams has his eye on the next generations of machines.

Some of those on the waiting list are cafe and pub owners wanting multiple machines for commercial ventures, and Williams says a larger version of the machines are already on the drawing board.

Ultimately, scale will bring prices down within reach of a greater number of households, Williams said. He has a cheaper plastic version in mind for the mass-market.

It has been a far longer and harder road to sales than Williams expected. He is now renting after using all his capital to fund the development of the micro-brewery - and he now laughs to think of his naivete in launching down the inventing track.

"If you talk to anyone who has done stuff like me, the consensus is it takes five times longer and costs five times more than you expect," he said. "Visions take a long time to turn into reality it seems."

But that naivete, he believes is essential to innovation. Without it, many great ideas might have remained undeveloped, and fortunes left unmade.

Sunday Star Times