Friday 18 December 2015

Waterford Distillery - Part I

The first promotional video from the brand new Waterford Distillery is called The FacilitatorThe name evokes the potential of their fancy, pre-owned brewing kit, as well as something of the looming character of the once mothballed site.

They could have named it The Palimpsest. Like a mediaeval parchment scraped clean to be written on again, Waterford Distillery is layered atop a defunct brewery, which itself was preceded by another brewery, and so on back to 1792.

The hulking form fronting the river was a Diageo-owned brewery until 2013. It made Guinness concentrate, also known as Guinness Flavour Extract or Beverage Blending Agent. BBA is shipped overseas - to Africa, for example - and combined with locally brewed, pale malt lager to create Guinness Foreign Extra Stout.

Waterford Distillery

The main ingredient of BBA is roasted barley, or "black", as it was known here on Grattan Quay. After roasting, milling, mashing and fermenting the grain, the alcohol content was stripped away in a column still to produce essence of Guinness.

That column still remains and will "facilitate" some interesting malt distillation experiments down the road. A less welcome remnant of the past is the messy residue of "black" that the new distillery team has been scrubbing away since moving in.

The concentrate plant was quite a recent arrival on the quays. Diageo spent €40m fitting it out with top-of-the-line kit to produce 6.5m litres of concentrate per year. But it only operated from late 2003 until 2013. On its closure, some equipment was relocated to the Guinness brewery in Dublin but most was left behind, to the delight of its new owners.

On the same site, in an older, adjacent building, is a brewery that ceased operation when the concentrate plant came online. Here they made Smithwick's, and occasionally Macardle's. Capacity was 45m litres per annum.

The old brewery, with a stranded Arthur Guinness on the end wall.

Inside, there couldn't be a greater contrast with the stainless steel and computer automation of the distillery. The appearance can't have changed much since late-Victorian times. As with the modern plant, when Diageo were finished with it they just walked out the door leaving everything behind.

James Ellickson, who started his brewing career here in 1998 and who is now a distiller at Waterford, kindly showed me around.

Below is a 4-roller Porteus mill. Very common in Scottish distilleries, they have a reputation for reliability. This one worked perfectly until the day brewing ceased. It worked better, indeed, than the mill that was bought to replace it in the late 80s / early 90s.

Porteus mill


James cranked a wheel that set chains and counterweights in motion, raising the great copper dome from the mashtun in the photo above. (If you would like to know what that sounds like, have a listen...)

The counterweights drop as the dome rises.

The sparge arms are revealed

Clearly a lot more recent than the surrounding brewing vessels - though still looking like a relic of another industrial age - is this control board, or "mimic".

The mimic

Via switches and lamps, the whole process could be monitored and controlled from here, with every piece of equipment represented schematically: ... malt bin, hot liquor tank, mill, grist case, mashtun, underback, kettle, whirlpool separator, chiller, fermenter, centrifuge, bright beer tank, filter... even the delivery truck that took the finished product out the gate is on the mimic!

This switch panel is acquiring a beautiful patina.

The eerie Mary Celeste vibe is enhanced by whiteboards preserving forever the mundane brewing details - malt types, sugar origin, etc - of the final days of production.

Guinness, Cherry's, Strangman's... the brewery on this site has had various names over the centuries. Today, as Waterford Distillery, it's still milling, mashing and fermenting malted barley. The same raw material, the same processing steps. There is a continuity of craft - and a passion for that craft - that has been passed down through the various incarnations and which has been inherited by the current distillery team.

It was a huge treat to poke around in the archaeological strata that underpin Waterford Distillery. There is a desire to open the old brewhouse for tours some day. It can be tricky to make out what's going on in the complex modern plant next door but steering visitors through an old, legible, time capsule of a brewery will certainly illuminate the process, as well as celebrate Waterford's industrial heritage.