A Visit to Cloudwater Brew Co

When I first moved to the UK it didn’t take long to figure out that Cloudwater Brewing represented something very modern.  The visuals—16 oz cans with wrap on labels, ingredients listed on the can for all to see, prodigious hop additions, premium pricing—were immediately familiar to someone from the USA.  When I bought a can of a double dry hopped IPA at the bottle shop in Newcastle Central Station, the manager told me that everything he stocked from Cloudwater flew off the shelves.  When I ordered a glass of DIPA at The Hanging Bat in Edinburgh, the bartender gave me that knowing look of someone who’s chosen wisely.  When I drank the beer my senses told me there was substance to back up the hype.  The DDH Passion Citra IPA was hazy to the extreme, bursting with tropical fruits, vinous white grapes, and herbaceous fresh hop notes.  When you throw in low bitterness and a soft mouthfeel you’ve got a beer that is on par with the best NE IPAs I’d enjoyed back in the states. Cloudwater Brew Co. went from completely off my radar, to a prominent position on my list of must-visit UK breweries.

Once I started doing some internet research it became clear that while I may have been blissfully unaware of Cloudwater, the same was not true for most craft beer lovers in the UK.  Despite their tender age, debuting on Valentines Day 2015, they’ve quickly become one of the darlings of the UK craft beer scene.  In 2017 RateBeer pegged them as one of the top 10 breweries in the world, along with the likes of Hill Farmstead, Trillium, Cigar City, Other Half, and Evil Twin. Say what you want about such accolades, but clearly a segment of the population is crazy for Cloudwater.

As an American expat my interest in Cloudwater goes beyond what their beer tastes like.  When small breweries began to slowly emerge from the scorched Earth environment that was the American brewing scene in the 1980s, they were heavily influenced by British brewing traditions.  As we all know American breweries took some British styles, most notably IPAs, and turned them into something new, something that eventually became barely recognizable from their old-world progenitors.  Fast forward 3+ decades and the winds of change now blow east rather than west.  As a cultural observer I’m keenly interested to see what life is like for an English brewery that fully embraces an American craft brewing aesthetic.  When I made plans to visit an old friend in Manchester I wrote to Cloudwater in the hopes that I might get a chance to speak with someone at the company.  I was thrilled when Paul Jones, co-founder and managing director of Cloudwater, agreed to take some time out of a busy Saturday afternoon to sit down and talk with me.  Our conversation, as well as the beers that were pouring, did not disappoint.

Cloudwater Mandarina Helles
A glass of Cloudwater’s Helles Mandarina at the Barrel Store.

A Cloudwater Primer

Most of my American readers will be unfamiliar with Cloudwater so a quick primer is in order.  Inspiration for its name comes from the Japanese word unsui, which translates as “cloud water.”  The term comes from Zen Buddhism, and is used to describe a novice monk seeking further training and deeper knowledge.  It’s not meant to evoke ties to a specific place, but I can’t help but note that on average Manchester receives over 230 days of rain per year, so it seems appropriate on that level as well.

Cloudwater has no core range, no flagship beers. In fact, they rarely brew the same beer twice.  Last year they brewed an amazing 131 different recipes.  They are still relatively small for a brewery that has generated such buzz, producing 4000 hectoliters (3400 US Barrels) in 2017, but in the coming year they hope to double that.  The brewery is located in the Ancoats neighborhood of Central Manchester, a former industrial neighborhood that was once home to the large textile mills that fueled the city’s rapid growth during the 18th and 19th centuries.  As the manufacturing industry departed for foreign shores the neighborhood’s fortunes waned.  In a cycle that has been repeated many places, low rents eventually attracted a young entrepreneurs and bohemians.  Ancoats is now home to a multitude of restaurants, cafes, coffee roasters, bars, breweries, etc. and is considered by some as one of the hippest neighborhoods in the UK.  Both the Cloudwater Brewery and the nearby Barrel Store, which functions as a barrel aging facility and tap room, are located in the Ancoats neighborhood.

The Cloudwater Barrel Store

To call the Cloudwater Barrel Store hard to find is something of an understatement.  The space, which functions as the tap room for Cloudwater, is in the Picadilly Railway Arch, a long, single story brick structure located just north of the city’s central train station.  There’s no signage, no food truck, no queue of obsessed beer geeks waiting for a can release, but Googlemaps tells me that I’ve reached my destination.  The industrial setting is a common theme among US craft breweries, and those who generate the most buzz are often located in nondescript places, but even the likes of Trillium, Other Half, De Garde, and Hoof Hearted usually have a signboard out front. Manchester’s young craft breweries (Cloudwater, Track, Chorlton, …) are downright clandestine, nearly invisible to people who don’t obsess over things like double dry hopping and mixed fermentation.

The blue metal door that covers the entrance to unit 13 is opened just wide enough for one person to squeeze through.  I step inside out of the cold winter drizzle to find a spartan but inviting room that is surprisingly active for 12:30 pm on a Saturday afternoon.  It’s a long narrow space, with white walls and an arched corrugated metal ceiling.  There’s a small bar set up toward the front where two employees are serving beers from 10 taps.  To the left of the bar there are shelves filled with 750 mL bottles of various barrel aged beers, to the right a refrigerated storage case with a dozen varieties of canned beer.  Large oak barrels are stacked two deep and 3-4 high down either side of the space all the way to the back of the room (I later learn there are 260 barrels aging various beers).  Mellow music fills the space, and most of the 10 simple wooden tables that sit between the barrels are already occupied.  There are roughly two dozen people enjoying an early afternoon beer while chilling out, and I mean that in a literal sense because the inside temperature is brisk.

Cloudwater Barrel Store Outside
The Cloudwater Barrel Store (Unit 13 Sheffield St.).  Could Mr. Whippy’s soft serve ice cream and hazy, fruit-forward IPAs be the next big thing?

I scan the taplist, which offers beers ranging from a 2.9% abv dry hopped pale ale (Small Vic Secret Pale) to a 12.0% barrel aged stout (Bourbon Black Forest Stout).  There are a several collaboration beers, and more than half of the beers feature a hop variety in the name.  I’m pleased to see that all pours are £3, with the pour volume varying (2/3, 1/2, or 1/3 pints) depending upon the strength of the beer.  Intrigued by the hoppy lagers, a style that Cloudwater seems to embrace, I order a glass of the Helles Mandarina and take a seat at one of the last open tables.  The beer is moderately hazy, topped with a dense creamy white head that lasts forever. The taste captures the orange flavors of the Mandarina Bavaria hops, perhaps as well as any beer I’ve encountered.  The hops blend nicely with the soft, bready malt base, there’s a touch of hop resin, and just the right level of bitterness at the finish.  It’s a modern take on a classic style that hits the mark in my book.

Paul is running late, so I have time to get the full taproom experience.  The industrial sized space heaters have taken enough of the chill off that I decide to shed my winter coat.  An experiment that only lasts about 30 minutes. By 1:30 pm the crowd has doubled and I’m sharing my table with a mix of Brits and Americans, who are in town to see the Man City – Newcastle match later in the day.  For my second round I go low and order a glass of Small Vic Secret Pale.  We are deep in the haze now, with an appearance that those who deride hazy IPAs sometimes compare to chicken broth.  The aroma is a big blast of fresh green new world hops, the flavors are a mix of tropical fruits and the kind of dank notes that remind you hops are in the same family as cannabis.  This beer may be short on ethanol (2.9% abv), but it’s long on flavor.

Just as I’m finishing my second beer Paul Jones arrives.  He’s a tall man who looks to be in his thirties, sporting a big ginger beard, a black baseball cap, and a warm coat.  He apologizes for running behind, brings me a DDH DIPA, and for the next hour we talk about about Cloudwater and the challenges of running a craft brewery in the UK.  In what follows I’ve done my best to paraphrase the highlights of our conversation from my cryptic notes, augmented by a few follow up questions handled through e-mail.

DSC09736

Tap Rooms

One of the things I’m most curious about is the relative scarcity of brewery taprooms in the UK.  In most parts of the US opening a brewery and opening a taproom go hand in hand.  It’s not at all uncommon in the US to find craft breweries that focus almost exclusively on tap room sales.  Even small start up breweries, where the brewers still hold down full-time day jobs, usually have limited tap room hours.  Here in the UK the scene is significantly different.  I’m not saying that brewery tap rooms are a rarity, but from my crude observations I’d say it’s no better than a 50:50 chance that a given brewery will have a taproom.

Given the higher margins you get from selling your beer directly to the public, why don’t more UK breweries don’t embrace the tap room model.  I naively guessed there were regulatory hurdles to opening a taproom, but Jones tells me this is not the case.  Instead he feels the challenges stem from the popularity of pubs in the British psyche.  The pub is a beloved institution in Great Britain, and deservedly so, but the brewery tap room is a different concept and Brits are a little slow coming around to it.  In fact the line between pub and tap room is a little blurred, because many traditional breweries either own pubs or have agreements with pubs to serve their beer (so-called tied houses).  Green King has ties to over 3000 pubs, inns and restaurants; Fuller’s have over 400 pubs; J. W. Lees has 130 pubs; Hook Norton 35 pubs, etc.  BrewDog’s model of opening bars all over the place, which seems like an odd concept to an American, is rooted in the brewery-owned pub model.  I have to admit on a cold, wet day the coal burning fireplace and dark wood interior of a pub make for a tempting alternative to the chilly, light-industrial space of a modern tap room.

However, UK brewers have an option in their arsenal that is almost non-existent in the US—direct online sales to the customer.  That’s right, if you live in the UK you can go to the Cloudwater website, see what’s in stock, and if they’ve got what you’re looking for they’ll ship it directly to your house.  Paul tells me that currently about 10% of Cloudwater’s sales are direct to the consumer, split about 50:50 between the barrel store and online sales. Contrast that with American breweries like Tree House or Other Half, where taproom sales account for the vast majority of revenue.  Paul seems genuinely excited about the prospects for direct online sales and is hopeful that it might grow into 15-20% of sales eventually.

I also learn that Cloudwater is working on a new 100 seat tap room adjacent to the brewery.  The tap room, which should be completed by spring of this year, will be open seven days a week and will feature at least 15 taps, alongside natural wines and local gin, so that everybody who visits gets to enjoy a delicious drink. Even better than additional taps and more seats, the new tap room will be heated.  Jones tells me that it’s going to be the closest they’ve come to realizing their vision for what a tap room should be, tempered slightly by the knowledge that a move to a new location looms at some point in the future.  The need to move is not part of an ambitious plan for world domination (though I wouldn’t rule that out either), rather it stems from plans for redevelopment of the site where the brewery is located.  Apparently the timing of the redevelopment is uncertain, Jones tells me it could be anywhere from 1 year to 10 years down the road, but at some point Cloudwater is going to have to find a new home.

Cloudwater Barrel Store Inside
The Cloudwater Barrel Store on a cold, wet Saturday in January.  The space heaters cast an otherworldly glow on those lucky enough to get one of the warm seats.

Hazy IPAs

If you go to the RateBeer list of the top 50 Imperial IPAs in world, you’ll find six entries by Cloudwater.  Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Hill Farmstead, Trillium, Tree House, Alchemist, Lawsons, Russian River, Bissell Brothers, etc.  If you turn the filter to DIPAs brewed in England, Cloudwater holds down an amazing 11 of the top 12 spots.

Given how divisive hazy IPAs have been in the US.  I ask Paul what kind of reception their hazy beers have received from the British drinking public.  Obviously Cloudwater has ardent fans, but I wonder if there has been much pushback in a country with such entrenched brewing traditions.  He feels that hazy IPAs have been less controversial in the UK than in the US.  This surprises me a little, but he goes onto explain that because cask ales can have haze from suspended yeast or dry hopping the British consumer is generally more accepting of hazy beer than their counterparts in the USA.

I ask Jones if UK breweries like Cloudwater face any obstacles in sourcing hops that a similar brewery in the US would not, and how seasonality, which is part of the Cloudwater ethos, plays out with hop selection?

We feel we are not yet on a par with some of our US peers in terms of the quality of hops we get to select from, but thankfully some of our suppliers are as keen as we are to solve this problem! We have contracts with several suppliers at the moment, in order to get hold of the quantity and varieties we need this year. We try to focus on the freshest hops we have, month by month, with US hops taking the lead in our beers late winter onwards, and southern hemisphere hops taking the lead early autumn, until the fresh US harvest comes in. Although some hops do get better with a bit of age, most are at their very best as fresh as we can use them.

Inevitably the conversation turns to yeast.  One of the most popular strains of yeast for making Hazy IPAs is the London Ale III yeast (Wyeast 1318).  Despite its name, this yeast is generally believed to be derived from the house yeast at Manchester’s Boddington Brewery [1].  Even the Conan yeast strain used in beloved Vermont DIPAs like Heady Topper can likely trace its lineage back to Boddington’s yeast in Manchester.  In that sense it seems fitting for a Manchester brewery to be cranking out some world class DIPAs.  Since Cloudwater changes the recipe every time they brew a new DIPA, the yeast strain changes from batch to batch, but a New England strain is often employed (currently Lallemand’s New England yeast seems to be the go to strain), although yeast from another venerable Manchester Brewery, J.W. Lees also figures in the rotation.

Jones tells me that they would love to get a hold of the Boddington strain and see how it would evolve in their brewery, playing up the Manchester connection.  How that might happen is not so clear. Boddington’s was purchased by Whitbread in 1989, who were in turn bought up by InBev in 2000. Under InBev’s control the brand has floundered and the beer is no longer brewed in Manchester.  AB-InBev is not generally in the business of collaborating with independent craft breweries, but Jones suggests it’s not out of the question they might be able to source the original Boddington’s yeast strain at some point down the line.

Finally I ask what makes Cloudwater DIPAs so good.  His answer, “paying attention to every single step from recipe design to the final product,” sounds cliche but reflects the truth about making world class beer.  There are no shortcuts.

Cloudwater DIPA

Cask vs Keg

The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) defines real ale as naturally carbonated beer, which includes cask ale and bottle conditioned beer, but not force carbonated beer.  It’s a serving style that works well for many traditional British styles, like bitters, milds, porters and stouts, but is not optimal for many of the bigger, bolder styles that are popular in the US.  After all, you wouldn’t serve a saison, a DIPA, or gose from a cask, but that doesn’t make these second-class styles of beer.  As an outsider I get the impression that there is a rivalry between CAMRA, champion of traditional beer styles [2], and the newest generation of craft brewers. Cloudwater discontinued their production of cask ale about a year ago, so I asked Jones what led to that decision and whether there really was a rivalry between these two camps.

His answer was measured and diplomatic.  He acknowledged that some styles of beer, including some that Cloudwater produces, are expressed best when served from a cask [3].  He also noted that a side benefit of the cask culture was an appreciation of fresh beer, something that appeals to a brewery known for hop-forward beers.  At the same time, he felt that some of the consumers who are champions of cask ale were not receptive of deviations from the accepted paradigm—too hazy, too hoppy, too expensive (cask ales usually sell for £3-£4 per 20 oz pint).  Rather than devote even more effort and resources to a segment of the beer drinking public they had difficulty pleasing, Cloudwater decided to concentrate on what they do best, which means kegs for on-premises sales and (mostly) cans for the off-premises market.

Recipe Transparency

European and British breweries often hold their recipes close to the vest, but Cloudwater lists the full ingredients on their labels for the whole world to see.  When I ask Jones about this strategy he admits that it makes it easier for those who want to copy their approach, but maintains that the consumer is the ultimate winner.  If other breweries follow suit there is more good beer out there for the consumer, and a more educated drinking public.  It also means Cloudwater has to keep improving their recipes and their processes, if they rest on their laurels it won’t be long before others catch up.

Cloudwater Cans
Packaging for the Cloudwater Brown Ale (foreground) and Helles Mandarina (background).

Distributing to the USA

Cloudwater has a partnership with Shelton Brothers so I asked Jones about the present and future status of imports to the US market.  At present their distribution to the US is negligible, about 20 kegs last year, mostly at festivals.  When you specialize in beers with a limited shelf life, shipping across the Atlantic is a tough nut to crack.  Jones believes it can work with the right model, namely one where the beer is pre-sold and then air shipped across the Atlantic.  It will be interesting to see if he can convince Shelton Brothers to distribute on those terms.  There is after all no shortage of US breweries putting out some very good hazy IPAs, particularly in the Northeast where European imports tend to make their beachhead in the US market.

Cloudwater Bottles

Closing Thoughts

It’s interesting to compare and contrast Cloudwater, undoubtedly one of the hottest young breweries in the UK, with similar breweries in the USA.  It’s refreshing to see that they rely upon a somewhat more traditional distribution scheme.  I’m not saying Cloudwater beers are easy to track down, but at least one has options other than driving across the country to stand in the cold Mancunian rain to get your allocation.  Call me an old fuddy duddy if you like, but I hope the UK doesn’t go too far down that rabbit hole. With the ability to make direct mail-order sales there’s some reason to believe they may skip over that step in the evolution of the craft beer industry.

The tap room concept appears to be still evolving in the UK and has not yet reached the variety and sophistication you find in the USA.  To my sensibilities the key attributes of a good tap room—a cozy space to mingle with like minded folks while enjoying freshly made beer—are much the same as a good pub.  Tap rooms seem to have a strong foothold in the big cities like London and Manchester, and I expect their popularity will continue to grow elsewhere.

Is Cloudwater one of the best breweries in the world, as the RateBeer ratings would suggest?  Are they England’s best brewery?  Those are subjective questions, but in my humble opinion that’s stretching things a bit.  Those were always going to be very lofty targets to meet, especially for a brewery just approaching their third anniversary.  I do think if you picked them up and dropped them somewhere in the middle of New England they could hold their own against some pretty stiff competition.  I will also say that Paul Jones and the team at Cloudwater not only have a very clear vision of what they want to be, they articulate that to the public very effectively.  In the short time that I spent with Jones the drive to keep improving came across clearly.  There were multiple times that I commented favorably on a beer and he would reply with something along the lines of “it’s the best we managed so far, but there’s still room for improvement.”  My sense is statements like this stem more from perfectionism than faux modesty.  The ambition, the strong sense of identity, and the attention to detail bode well for Cloudwater’s continued success and growth.

The final question I consider is the extent to which you can call Cloudwater an English brewery.  Obviously, they are located in England, but is there anything recognizable as English in the beer they make?  On the surface you’d have to say hazy IPAs, hoppy German lagers, and mixed fermentation sours have little connectedness with English brewing traditions.  I’ve yet to see a Cloudwater beer that features Fuggles or Goldings hops.  Much of this is intentional I suspect, there is no shortage of traditional English breweries and the upstarts like Cloudwater are trying to stand out from the crowd.  However, if you look deeper one can find British influences.  The yeasts are often of British origin, and malts like Maris Otter and Golden Promise figure prominently in many of their beers. Earlier this year I picked up a tropical stout by Cloudwater, a style I haven’t come across in a very long time.  When our interview wrapped up I asked Paul what Cloudwater beer he would recommend I take home, and he told me the brown ale might be his favorite.  How many US breweries are rocking brown ales and tropical stouts?  Maybe they are more English than they seem, after all tea and chicken tikka masala are two of many imports that the English have adopted as their own, why not double dry hopped citra galaxy IPAs.

Manchester Canals
Manchester has an extensive system of canals.  A stroll along the canals near the brewery gives you some sense of the gentrification that has occured in parts of Manchester.

[1] Despite the widely held view that London Ale III yeast is derived from the Boddington’s strain, it’s not easy to find a definitive source that would confirm that claim.  You can find an interesting discussion of this, and a pretty interesting hazy IPA experiment at this page on ScottJanish.com

[2] In a surprising twist CAMRA is considering an expansion of their remit to support all styles of quality beer, not just naturally carbonated real ale.  A vote of the members is scheduled for April.

[3] I found this review of Cloudwater Bitter on RateBeer by someone named Garrold to be if not enlightening, at least humorous.  Hazy, light brown. Thick, bubbly, off white head. Certainly doesn’t smell like a traditional bitter. This has lemon and grapefruit. Some peachy notes. Lots of new world hoppage. Taste is light, juicy bitter. Crisp palate. Light, fruity bitter finish. Like a bitter, minus the farty malts.

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