Manchester’s Cloudwater Brew Co has launched this month to a mix of high acclaim and wary suspicion. As much of the UK beer scene, and Manchester in particular, welcomes the brewery’s plans and ambitions with open arms and eager tastebuds, a section of the beer-drinking and industry-critical public has already made its mind up. To them, Cloudwater are a slick, self-consciously ‘craft’ brewery riding a wave of hype and getting a mob of blindly-enthusiastic, instantly loyal fans raving about their beers before they have even been put on sale. This very blog post will be treated by the same people as witless flag-waving by yet another sucker. But there’s more to this new brewery than (admittedly very, very pretty) branding and big talk.
The credentials of those involved, formerly of Marble, Summer Wine, BrewDog, Port Street Beer House, and others, isn’t under any doubt. Early tastings of the first batches brewed on Cloudwater’s kit are almost universally favourable. So what’s so controversial? The brewery’s output and designs for the future are unquestionably at odds with traditional brewing industry. That doesn’t mean an eclectic core range of obscure styles, but in fact, no core range at all. Four separate, distinct ranges will release across each year, using the best available ingredients to make the most flavoursome beers that can be made with what’s available. In an industry increasingly filled with tropes and cliches, many see Cloudwater’s approach as thrilling, while others see yet one more gimmick.
The self-stated focus on “modern, seasonal beer”, deliberately side-stepping the C word entirely, is a simple, pure and impressive attitude. Why say you’re craft, when you just are?. What’s really got people talking though, is the size of the venture. The almost industry-standard approach for a financially solvent and confident new brewery is to start out with a 5 BBL (~800 litres) brewhouse. This is seen as a sizeable, serious but cautious investment. Cloudwater are starting with a brewhouse three times that size, and that’s just the beginning. In Britain, we can’t help but be suspicious and critical of those with deep pockets and high ideas of themselves.
I’ve assured myself of the quality of the beer Cloudwater has made so far (the Pale Ale and Table Beer in particular, on cask at the Wenlock Arms at the weekend, were both beguilingly clever and accomplished). What I really wanted to know was the motivation behind Cloudwater, and how they see themselves and the people who are critical of them. Paul Jones, the brewery’s co-founder, was more than happy to oblige. All the people involved in Cloudwater are heartfelt beer lovers and more importantly, genuine and clear-headed people, but Jones is undoubtedly the brewery’s voice, one that is utterly without doubt and unambiguous about what Cloudwater is.
Why have you started Cloudwater at this size, when many people would see it as safer and less costly to start small first?
“Whilst it’s true to say that a smaller brewery would have probably cost less, only a third of the cost of our set up has been spent on the brewery itself. The rest of our budget was taken up with infrastructure such as flooring, utility supplies, and the equipment and space necessary to package and store our beer well.
“In his previous brewery, James Campbell comfortably brewed on a similarly sized brewery, and built up the brewery to regional, if not national acclaim. If we would have been starting a new brewery, without a head brewer of 20 years experience, it may have been fitting to start small to see how it goes, but James’ track record is strong, and gave us the confidence (some would say cheek!) to be aspirational.
“I’d like to add that we’re not so fresh faced and youthful as we once were. Food and drink industry employees (along with employees in far too many other industries in the UK) are too often woefully underpaid, and consequently result in businesses staffed in the majority by those young enough to not have yet developed significant financial worries or commitments. If we are to be a business responsible for the long-term wellbeing of our founders and staff, we have to take rather less craft-star things like pensions, living wages, retirement plans into account as early as possible. We’re actually trying to run a business as well as a brewery.
“It would have been much safer to not start a brewery at all, but life is short, and it’s important to do what you believe in and have fun too.”
How long did it take you to decide on the size of the brewery you would be building and using?
“We asked many of our friends in the industry for their advice with regards to brew length. The majority suggested we start even bigger (20 and even 30 BBL). If you look at the successes of nearly every brewery that is making great beer right now, you’ll notice many breweries doubling in size in rather short cycles. The resounding opinion was to go for a brewery as big as we could afford.
“What followed was a lengthly process of consultation, investigation, and research as we sought to put as many strong options for our brewhouse on the table as possible.”
Did the beers you want to make determine the brewhouse, space and other factors of the planning, or did the recipe designing come afterward?
“Very early on in planning the brewery we talked about how to ensure we had a modern, technically-proficient brewhouse that would allow us to competently make ales and lagers. This very much informed what we looked for, the manufacturers we ruled out early on, and those who we attracted quotes from.
“Planning a brewery means thinking from as many perspectives as possible about space requirements – How much space is needed for raw ingredients, and packaging equipment and packaged goods? What happens if or when we need to install more fermentors or conditioning tanks?
“We poured over our floor plans as many times as we could, but we had just a rough idea of the space we were looking for. In the end, what it really came down to was the types of warehouses and larger archways that were available, and what we thought we needed to do to transform them into the sort of hygienic food production facility a modern brewery is.
“A significant ambition of ours was always to have an open brewery, somewhere we could welcome the public into regularly. To that end, a brewery in the middle of an out of town industrial estate may not have worked so well for us as a new company, so premises in and very near to the city centre was prioritised. If we can contribute to Manchester’s growing and improving food and drink scene we’ll be very happy.”
A project the size of Cloudwater’s is outside of the financial reach of many breweries when starting up. What would you say to people who think you are ‘buying’ your way to the top of the craft beer scene?
“The first thing I’d say is that life’s a little more fun with a touch less cynicism! There are no shortcuts. The craft beer scene, with the exception of a little hype here and there, functions as a meritocracy. The vast-sized family brewers and global industrial brewers are suffering market share losses despite turnovers that eclipse the craft beer scene in the UK, evidencing the fact that money won’t solve so many problems.
“The only way we’ll get to the top is with a lot of hard, considered, mindful work, as is the case even with those breweries that started out with rather less capital to risk.”
Since you’re starting at a point which many brewers would dream to be in in 5-10 years, does this allow you to dream even bigger for the future, or are you more worried about properly executing everything you plan for the present?
“We’re starting at a point that I believe our head brewer has thoroughly earned and deserves. Before there was a craft beer scene in the UK, even before I really liked beer myself, James was working hard to push the beer scene forwards, and acting as an early (some would say pioneering) champion of NZ hops, and hoppy beer in general. Whilst some brewers may dream of this point in 5-10 years, James has been dreaming of it for nearly 20 years.
“We have a list of ambitions as long as all our arms put together, but we won’t achieve a single one without careful attention to the here and now. A bright future, whilst envisioned by dreams and idealist vision, is the result of current efforts (and a little good fortune and happenstance). We’re starting a new brewery in an incredibly well-developed scene, and would be foolish to do anything other than recognise that quality is ever more important than newness or variation.
“As for worrying about proper execution, we certainly would gain rather more restful nights sleep if it was less of a concern for us, but also, we’re only human (sorry, love that song), and only just getting started. There are going to be people out there, from the cynics, the inverted snobs, right through to the fail-lovers that will cherish any mistakes we make, because of our experience, ambition, jealousy, or for no reason whatsoever. We have never said we won’t make mistakes, or that we’re going to be the best. That simply isn’t in our character at all. But I will say that we are going to work as smart and as hard as we possibly can, with the chief aim of making very enjoyable beer, and to run a business well enough to be around for a long time with which to do so.”