The secrets to Cloudwater’s success

You would need to be living under an upturned barrel for the past year not to have spotted the phenomenal rise in reputation of Cloudwater Brew Co, the Manchester-based craft brewery started by James Campbell, formerly head brewer at the city’s Marble Brewery, and the hipster entrepreneur Paul Jones. Cloudwater is not even 18 months old, but already spoken of alongside Thornbridge, Kernel, Magic Rock and other top stars of the British craft brewing scene. It was voted best new English brewery of 2015 by Ratebeer, and its beers, especially its collaborations, score extremely highly on rating sites.

Nobody gets that level of buzz without something extremely interesting going on, so I was eager to get down to the Real Ale shop in East Twickenham and hear Paul Jones talk about the rise of Cloudwater at one of the shop’s regular “Meet the brewer” sessions. Good beer alone is not enough to be a storming success in such a short time. Paul confirmed this with a presentation lasting an hour and a half which made it clear that Cloudwater’s rise is powered by a clear and focused vision on the beers it wants to brew and a ferocious dedication to critical self-analysis that means pulling every beer apart and analysing how closely it came to fulfilling the brief set out for it in terms of delivering to specification, and then working out what would need to be done next time to get closer to the brief. It’s a management philosophy I suspect springs from Paul Jones’s background in the engineering side of the music business, and it certainly looks as if Cloudwater has brought a level of conscious business and management sophistication to the British craft brewing scene that makes most new brewery start-ups look like shambling amateurs. Possibly because most new brewery start-ups are shambling amateurs, one might conclude. And again, I may be wrong, but I detect the influence of a music industry background in Cloudwater’s clear commitment to never stepping into the same stream twice: the idea that 2015’s beers are done and away, and all that matters now are 2016’s beers, just like last year’s musical hits are so last year.

The result is a regularly altering line-up of kudos-winning beers that have gained Cloudwater masses of publicity and a hugely dedicated following. Their popularity also makes the beers frequently hard to obtain: I had not been able to find any Cloudwater products before the Twickenham “meet the brewer” session. That makes my take on the beers unfair, since you really can’t properly judge a brewer on just one evening. It’s clear why they are so popular: almost all were sharply focused, clear, clean and faultless. Faultless to a fault, almost: “beautiful” is not the same as “characterful”. But I need to drink more Cloudwater brews over more evenings to decide if this is a valid criticism.

I was going to copy-edit Paul Jones’s Q&A presentation at Twickenham down to merely “long read” rather than “massive over-the-top read”, but I decided people would find something insightful in all he said – he’s a very articulate, enormously enthusiastic man – so here it is, complete: more than 9,000 words. Settle down with a beer:

How long have you been going?

“Cloudwater is now about 16 months in, so really we still feel like babies. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, there are a lot of beer styles we want to turn our hands to. We started out with a range of beer that we were rating ourselves about five out of ten: in some cases worse in some cases a little bit better. All of our hoppy beers especially, were very bitter, so the aftertaste was very different from what you got on the nose: when you initially tried the beer you got this bitterness that really built up. As we moved through summer last year, into autumn and winter production we kept dropping the bitterness down every opportunity we could get. We were trying to work with more and more interesting yeast strains rather than yeast strains that would be invisible and not play a part in the final flavour of the beer.

“That’s something we’ve really enjoyed with beers that are brewed over in Vermont, the likes of Heady Topper [the cult double IPA made by the Alchemist microbrewery], beers made by Hill Farmstead [Ratebeer’s “Best Brewery in the World” in 2012, 2014 and 2015], Lawson’s Sip of Sunshine. These are beers that are made with three powerful ingredients rather than two, and often just one powerful ingredient. The West Coast hoppy beers tend to get the yeast out of the way, with hops backed up by complex malt. We want simple malts, we don’t really like the caramalts or caramelised flavour, we think it muddies the presentation of the hops, but we do want fruit – we want a very fruity beer. So we went in to try to move towards experimenting with different types of yeast, and Vermont yeast really came through across a lot of the beers that we love. We’ve tried to move our range more towards fruity, supremely drinkable, lower bitterness, and that’s a path that we are definitely still on. We’re always looking for ways to tweak what we’re doing and gain even more drinkability, so that you get to the end of a beer without any kind of a tarnish on your palate, whether that’s bitterness, or any display of an off flavour, a flavour that isn’t allowing the hops and the fruitiness to shine.”

Where are you based?

Paul Jones, co-founder of Cloudwater, speaking at the Real Ale shop in East Twickenham, Middlesex
Paul Jones, co-founder of Cloudwater, speaking at the Real Ale shop in East Twickenham, Middlesex

“We’re in Manchester, a stone’s throw away from the city centre. None of us are actually Manchester born and bred, we’ve all ended up moving to the city for different reasons. But it’s a pretty good city to brew in. We get no automatic support in Manchester: nobody does. The crowd’s a very tough crowd, very cynical. We eventually think that’s a good thing: even though it didn’t feel so at the beginning, it really toughened us up. We have to put some phenomenal beer out there for folk to give us the time of day, and I think that’s a positive thing, for us and for every other brewery starting up. No one’s jumping up and down about any start-up there unless they really get that quality of product down.”

Did the acclaim Cloudwater received – best new brewery in England 2015, according to Ratebeer, for example – make you less likely to be adventurous, to rock the boat?

“No, we’re more likely to take a risk. There’s definitely two ways to interpret the situation we find ourselves in right now. We have an internal score system. We give all our beers, first of all, a pass or a fail. Did we achieve all of our sensory objectives, did we achieve all of our technical objectives, yes or no? Really simple. Still we’re about a 30 per cent fail on that very binary decision. And then we dial it in with why we think the beer was a failure: did we miss a sensory target, do we think it’s not quite the style, was there a technicality, that we might be, like, point one per cent of abv out, enough to flag something up and say, ‘Hey, we didn’t hit our targets spot on.’

“We have a very self-critical point of view. I first of all don’t mind at all that we try to develop that criticism in the public too. What we’re striving for is really good value for money for you guys, really good quality beer – we put all the ingredients out there so we’re trying to help everyone learn why it is that they like a beer, we’re very open to answering questions from home brewers or other professional brewers publicly, not just behind the scenes, so we’re really looking to try to raise expectations. That’s one of our goals. We want to raise expectations internally, so that we always want more from our process. We have this philosophy of continual improvement. So we get to a point where people are expecting a high-quality beer from us, because they had a good time last time, and I couldn’t ask for more. The opposite, that people were expecting us to release a shit beer, would be utterly depressing. That would keep me awake at night. But for people to expect us to put a reasonable beer out, I think that ‘s a reasonable expectation.

“We’re terrified of dropping the ball, and if we drop the ball once, everyone will go, ‘Hah! See, told you, they weren’t up to any good’ – or do they say, ‘Ah well, never mind, they didn’t get one beer right, so maybe they’ll be back next time.’ So I can’t say there is no pressure, but we try to thrive on that. I think it’s really important, with where the UK brewing scene is, largely people aren’t educated. They’ve learnt by doing. A lot of breweries are run either by home brewers having gone pro – and 20 years ago James was a home brewer having gone pro, it so happens that he’s been working all that time, but he’s never had formal education. What he’s learnt, he’s learnt from word of mouth, from talking to people, from getting criticism and feedback on his beer.

“Of course, we have to start off by doing what we want to achieve, and then we have to put it out there and see what the response is like. If the response is good, then we’re in good shape.

“We are always looking to test ourselves against the best beer out there in each possible style. Not only once we’ve made a beer do we go through that internal deep process: before we make a beer – for example we’re going to make a Helles before the end of the summer, as soon as our new tanks arrive we’ll make a Helles, that’s one of the first beers to go in there – we will drink around that style until we come up with a sensory target for our own beer. Then we’ll test our result against those original beers that gave us the sensory target in the first place. Because there’s no point in making a Helles and saying, ‘It’s a little bit better than Camden’s’, or whatever we might do internally in the UK. You might be an expert in Helles, and say, ‘Guys, come on, you didn’t do your homework.’ We’re always looking for opportunities to find that benchmark, and try to close the gap between where we are right now and where we think that benchmark really is. And that’s only our benchmark. But there are 10 of us in the company, so that’s a pretty broad range of opinions to form that.

“So all of these things mean we’re actually quite happy to have that expectation there. It’s a challenge, it sometimes is scary, but it would be a lot more scary if people didn’t get excited or have any expectation at all.

What are the backgrounds of the people involved in Cloudwater?

“I haven’t worked in the brewing industry before Cloudwater, so setting up the company with James was very much a baptism of fire for me. James and I worked on it for nearly a year before we employed a couple of folk. We employed Al Wall, who’s our lead brewer, he does a lot of the technical stuff, he’s been working in bar cellars for 12, 14 years, he’s a computer programmer and engineer. We employed Will France, who set up Port Street [the Manchester beer bar], expanded Common [Manchester cafe-bar] and set up Beagle [in Chorlton], really good beer bars in Manchester, and ran the first couple of IndyMan Beer Con festivals, our fifth hire was Emma Cole, she was regional north manager for BrewDog, and also Al’s girlfriend, so that was pretty convenient! Everyone else we’ve hired has come to us with maybe a little bit of prior professional experience, but we’re bringing new folk in that have a good combination of drive, interest, qualifications in another field, that we bend and twist and make good for our company.

“There’s ten of us in total right now, really not a lot of experience in terms of running a brewery, especially in the first six months, when we had to rely on James alone to set the standards, train people up. But now I think, we’re got to the stage where, in many respects the rest of us have caught up, because we’ve really absorbed very quickly the working practices he implemented, and now we critique the hell out of them, and try to improve them. We are working hard now as a team on training, skilling ourselves up a little bit more, and looking at everything we’re doing with a critical eye and making sure that we’re not resting on our laurels.

“I trained in music technology – which I always thought was entirely useless. I was just about to start an audio mastering company, which is an area I really enjoy in new technology, but I was also very fed up with working in a very solitary way, albeit in an area of music that’s fascinating. So when I first started working with James to start Cloudwater, I largely thought that all that training was going to be useless. But actually, it’s fascinating just how much I’ve been able to apply the same critical ways of thinking, the same lateral view that I would have on a musical project. I can look at brewing in a very similar way. And there are a lot of creative decisions in our company that need to be made – so it turns out that the training isn’t entirely useless. I think it’s actually a bit of a strength, because I personally believe that when you have a beginner’s outlook, like, nothing is fixed, you want to know why something has to be dome like that, not just taking it on face value, and absorbing that process, you want to drill down and understand quite why it has to be like that and is like that. So all of us that are new to brewing, we’ve all brought that sort of outsider’s perspective, and we’ve applied a lot of that critique as creatively and as carefully as we can. That outsider’s view has been very useful, and I think it will continue to be useful. We’re going to end up with hiring three, maybe even four or five more people this year. I probably want one of those people to have had some decent experience in the industry, brewing somewhere else. But I don’t mind bringing two, three, four people in that are fresh to it.

Cloudwater has become famous for collaborations. How do they work?

“The process of collaboration is complex across the industry as a whole. So you have everything from an entirely sensible and reasonable business point of view where you want to work with someone else because they’re in a region where you’re not so big, or a new country, so you get exposure, or you might want to work with them just because you think they’re really cool, they’re making excellent beer. You might also work with someone, not because you think the beer’s amazing but you think they’re really nice and you want to hang out, and you think there’s going to be a good exchange of ideas, even though they might not be making a beer that makes you jump up and down and gets you out of the house at seven o’clock on a Saturday to nip into town and try their latest release. There are lots of different ways of going about it. We did do two pretty high-profile collaborations within the first two months of starting as a brewery, but then we didn’t do anything for pretty much the rest of the year, because we worked with two long-term friends of ours – Will, who we employed at the start of the company, had known Jasper at Camden for years, I’m really good friends with Alex Troncosso, who used to be director of brewing at Camden, so when they said, ‘Hey, do you want to come down and brew?’ we said, ‘Sure! We’re going to learn something, let’s do it. Don’t know what you’re going to get out of it …’ We really felt like that, like complete charlatans. But we went down, had a great time, definitely learnt loads, made a really good beer with those guys, really proud of that.

“We had Mark Tranter [founder of Burning Sky in Sussex] come up, Mark and James had known each other for 15, 20 years, that was really straightforward to organise too, but after we did those two, we were like, ‘Hey, slow down.’ Because what we didn’t want to appear like is that we were trying to ride on anyone else’s coat-tails. We wanted to make sure that we stood on our own two feet and attracted collaborations on the strength of the quality of our product. We didn’t want to get to the point where, like, OK, we’re just collaborating our way into the scene – it had to be something more substantial than that. So getting to the point where Connor [Murphy], who was organising Manchester Beer Week, wanted to pair a brewery inside Manchester with someone from the region, Magic Rock said, ‘There’s only one company we want to work with,’ and that was us. We really like what Magic Rock do, so that was the point at which we actually felt a lot of pressure. We, by that point, only a couple of months earlier had got to the point where there is a high level of expectation for our hoppy beers. And folk obviously really love [Magic Rock] Cannonball, they sell a lot of that beer. We also really like Cannonball, we like Human and Unhuman Cannonball too. So we felt a weight of expectations to manage that collaboration really well.

“The original brief, the suggestion was, ‘Let’s make a beer for Manchester Beer Week that has something to do with Manchester.’ It’s largely my experience in Manchester that Mancunians do what the hell they want – so that’s what we did. We said, ‘Let’s just make a damned good hoppy beer, because that’s what people are going to expect of us.’ We worked with a really old yeast from JW Lees [the Manchester family brewer], it was freshly cropped, but 4,907 generations old, after continuous cropping, so it’s one of the oldest working yeasts in the country. Halfway through, the beer smelt like crap – not literally, you can get that in some sour beers, but it smelt like dodgy moonshine, lots of higher alcohols. With that yeast, JW Lees makes everything from their 3.7 to 4.2 per cent abv ranges of cask beers, all the way through to their Harvest Ale. So we know it could ferment to strength, but gosh, it really presented in a funky, weird terrifying way for the first part of fermentation and the first part of conditioning too. But as soon as we started dropping the yeast off the beer, it started to taste wonderful, and we thought, ‘Thank god – we don’t have to pour the beer down the drain.’ We were brewing to a deadline for Manchester Beer Week as well, so it’s not like we would have had the opportunity to pull the plug on it and brew it again, we would definitely have had egg on our faces with it.

“We have a couple of collaborations lined up in the next couple of months, when James and I go over to San Diego, we’re going to be brewing with a couple of breweries over there: I really hope that we can bring some of that beer back over here, somehow. When I was up at BrewDog’s AGM this year, we were the guest brewery from the UK, the guys from Modern Times [top San Diego brewery and the guest brewery at the AGM from the US] said, ‘Why don’t you come over for our hoppy beer festival?’ and I thought, ‘Yeah, this guy’s smashed, he’s really going to regret saying that tomorrow.’ I kept silent, and then the next day he repeated it, and so I though, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ There’ll be 52 breweries at the festival next month, in August and I think we’re the only non-US brewer, so that’s pressre. We’re brewing beer specifically for that festival, timed to be released from tank, go on the plane the next day and get to San Diego in time for the festival. The beer will go a bit bonkers when it’s up there rattling around, that’s for sure, but it will be force-carbonated, so it’s not like we’re worried about it churning up too much, and because it’s force-carbonated the pressure’s set in the keg, and we really don’t tend to see any shift in CO2 presentation with the type of yeast we use. It doesn’t tend to ferment down any more. It’s slow to get down, but once it’s down, that’s it, it’s done. If it was a saison, or something with Brett in it, we might be a little bit worried that it could go a little bit nuts on the journey, but we’re confident with what we’re sending out that it should get there in good shape. And it’s cold – it’s very very cold up there. So that’s also going to keep things nice and calm. It’ll be going into their cold store in Sa Diego, and when it gets to the festival it should pour as well there as here.”

What future plans does the brewery have?

“It is definitely something very much on our minds that we’d like to get into running our own place. First and foremost because it will give us that immediate feedback on how the beer is pouring. We’re allowed by our landlord five hours a week of retail, and no more. I’m working hard on that, my local policeman and licensing officer are trying to arrange a meeting with the landlord to try to clue them up on why some of their fears are not founded in reality.

Draught beer list“When we keg our beer, or bottle it, in order to carbonate it, it has to be very cold. When we tap it, it’s about one degree, or half a degree, and it goes straight from packaging to cold store, where it’s five degrees maximum. The beer comes through a line cooler, through the wall of our coldstore into the taps, and that’s how we pour the beer in-house. That is a set-up that very few of our retail partners could have in their spaces, for all sorts of different reasons. So we don’t get a good insight, even though we’re pouring our own beers in-house, about how they’re working out for people in the trade, and occasionally we’re surprised when there’s a pouring difficulty, when we didn’t have it. So we’d like the ability to pour our own beer and critique how that’s working out and catch those problems, hopefully, before anybody else does and figure out how to remedy them. One of our white IPAs, a customer in Bath had two kegs that didn’t pour very well. We just credit the wastage, but if that was a problem across the entire batch, it would be good to be able to pick up on that and try to eliminate it. So from a quality/feedback point of view, running our own bar would be great, and definitely for increased earnings the beer it would be wonderful.

“Cashflow is a massive problem. We buy most of our ingredients with 30 days’ credit, but we certainly don’t use all the ingredients we buy within 30 days of buying them. And even if we did the beer’s in tank for 30 days. So by the time that beer’s into package, and we’re spending more money on the packaged items, and more labour too, we then sell beer to our distributors and the consumers we deal with directly, and most of those want 30-day credit terms, which usually end up more like 45 days by the time everybody pays their bills. So we end up very squeezed as a company cashflow-wise. Now, even if we could bring just five per cent retail on, managing our own place, we wouldn’t wait to pay our own bill! We’d be getting that money straight over the counter, straight into the till, straight back in the brewery’s bank account. That would stop us from freaking out as often as we do about, ‘What if all these bills don’t come in in time?”

“We just took advantage of an opportunity we’re going to get maybe once in the next two to three years to buy a load of white wine barrels. They’re very rare, they don’t come up often, they didn’t come up on last year’s list. We bought a hundred of them – that’s a significant outlay, and we’re not going to see the money back we put out on those for a year and a half. There are lots of ways a brewery gets money tied up, and retail from that point of view is quite sensible, bringing cash back into the business. I think we’ll see more and more breweries doing more and more retail, because it makes a lot of sense. You get to control the quality of the product, you get the customer feedback quicker, you get the cash into your account quicker, and you get a little bit more of it. More money for us as a company would mean more hops in the beer, we could afford a lower margin on the wholesaling if we were getting a bigger retail margin,

“We could have a completely different approach to our business if we could bring on some retail. So I think you’ll definitely see some self-retail from us, hopefully this year. And I think you’ll definitely see more and more breweries doing what Magic Rock have done over in Huddersfield and move to a site where they are allowed to run a brewery tap as many hours as they see fit. That’s a very fundamental strategy in the States. I was hanging out with the guys from Commons brewery in Portland [Oregon] a week or two ago, and they were asking me questions about what’s coming for the industry within the UK, and when I told them how much retail the average British craft brewer does, so Kernel, I think, are only doing about 10 per cent of their production as retail from their own site – it’s very, very little.

“If you were to talk to Commons they’re probably doing 30 per cent, Modern Times 50 per cent, Societe [San Diego] 65 to 70 per cent, and the numbers keep going up, until you get to someone like Tree House [in Massachusetts], Side Project [Missouri], they’re doing upwards of 85 per cent. So in the States there’s a production brewer, who is selling out into the trade, there’s a brewpub, and then there’s a retail brewer. Every US brewer that I’ve spoken to is very much of the opinion that, how the hell do you make any money without retailing your own beer. When we get beer anywhere outside the reach of our one van, that’s going usually to a company that requires discount enough so that when they put their margin on we’re not monstrously expensive; and then the retail margin, to keep lights on, and pay staff and so on, is, quite rightly, made a point of sale. Unlike the States, we have pubs and bars left, right and centre, lots of good bottle shops up and down the country. So we’ve got a great network already to get beer out. I don’t think you’ll ever see a brewery in the UK do 50 per cent self-retail, not in the next few years I might be wrong. But it will definitely be something on everyone’s minds more and more as time goes by.”

Would Cloudwater ever do a triple IPA?

“My response is, not really, because we’ve never had a triple IPA that’s made us sit up and be as excited as we have been with the double IPAs that we’ve had. That’s not to say we haven’t enjoyed triple IPAs that we’re drank. When Human Cannonball’s in good form, we definitely have enjoyed that beer. But it didn’t top our experiences that we’ve had in the double IPA category. That said, it’s a real feat to achieve a clean, drinkable triple IPA, so it’s possible at some point we’ll turn our hands to it and see what we can achieve. But no immediate plans.”

Tell us about the beers we’re tasting tonight

“We really like to make something that’s low ABV, and we really like to make sure we’re making beers within that hoppy beer category. US Light is called US Light because it’s featuring US hops, the freshest we could get hold of right now. We’re just starting to see hops from New Zealand come into the country from the new harvest, so we’ll end up before long with an NZ Light. Beyond that we’ll have an AUX Australian Light, and if we’re lucky we’ll get some British hops before the end of the year, you might get one or two of those before we come around again next year. The US Light [3.6% abv, Ahtanum and Bravo hops] is important to us to demonstrate that lower-abv beers are not boring, they don’t have to lack on body, they don’t have to lack in flavour. This beer is meant to be as drinkable as possible, so it’s not made with the punchiest possible alcohol levels.

“The Session IPA [4.5% abv, Simcoe and Centennial hops] is a cut-down IPA, low in bitterness, presenting all the aroma right through to the aftertaste. We’re looking to have a really long experience with those aroma hops that we’ve used. In common with American session IPAs, we’re looking for drinkability. It’s a beer that I find I drink quite a lot, and feel comfortable to sit on for a while, though even then it’s not going to make me fall over too soon.

“Cloudwater IPA [6.5%, Citra hops] is slightly different to the one we brewed at the beginning of our spring-summer season this year, but almost exactly the same recipe, and I think it was the first time that we’d made an IPA at that strength where we feel we’ve dialled in the balance of malt to yeast to aroma hops. The yeast we use in all of our hoppy beers started off being Vermont ale yeast by a chap that grows up yeast for commercial pitches for breweries. Unfortunately we were let down the second time we bought that yeast so we weren’t able to continue with that particular company or that particular strain. We were then let down by another company – we ordered Vermont yeast and ended up getting Sam Adams yeast, definitely not the same – they were like, ‘Oh, it’s nearly from the same place …’, like ‘London yeast is Nottingham yeast.’ They’re definitely not the same. Now we’re on to WLB 4000 [Vermont ale yeast], which a strain that comes through from White Labs, a much more stable supply, and we’re finally getting this particular hop and yeast back on track.

“The double IPA is still relatively easy drinking – it’s still the same remit, it needs to be a very flavourful yeast and we’re looking at the aroma experience also being your aftertaste experience. One more thing to say about the yeast – as you go up in strength, in fermentation , alcohol is a stress factor for yeast. So it inhibits reproduction and it often can cause more esters to be produced by the yeast during fermentation. So as you go up in strength, the same yeast strain presents itself more and more boldly. So what you’ll notice as you go up is a little more peachyness, a little more stone fruit, and that’s coming from the yeast. As you get through to the double IPAs, we tend to find that maybe 80 per cent of what you taste in that beer is from the yeast, and much less so in a weaker beer such as the US Light. But it’s really fascinating to work across four different strengths with essentially the same profile and largely the same target, seeing what happens to the yeast under different fermentation conditions.”

What’s the story behind the dual release of the double IPAs versions 4 and 5?

“We decided that we really wanted to experiment with the timing of dry hop additions. There’s lots of anecdotal evidence and hearsay about the effect of biotransformation on a hoppy beer – biotransformation being where the yeast will take in some of the aromatic flavour compounds that exist in hops and in some cases chop those compounds and create new flavours. We also know that adding hops during fermentation, because there’s gas constantly being ejected in that process, it vents off some of the finer flavours. But you also get a nice rounded flavour at the end of that process too. So we made a batch of wort and then hooked up the transfer line to both tanks so they filled and self-levelled, because we’d connected them to each other too, and then we topped that up in the afternoon, so we had the two tanks full.

“We pitched the two identical worts, and we made exactly the same volume of dry hop addition, except that for version 4 the dry hop addition was entirely during the fermentation, so we added hops right at the beginning and then about half, two thirds of the way through fermentation. We only make our dry hop additions, typically, for three days, so that first addition did stay in the beer a bit longer than it might otherwise have, But luckily it didn’t pull out anything astringent or vegetably, so we were quite happy about that. For 5, the dry hop additions were, again, the same weights, two different additions made at the end of fermentation and then later on during conditioning, so when the yeast had been dropped off the beer, The temperatures in each beer were a little bit different when the hops went in, because, of course, during fermentation we’re 16 degrees right up to 21, during conditioning it could be 14 down to 12. So there is a slight temperature difference there, but chiefly between 4 and 5 what you’re going to get is the difference between hops during fermentation and hops after fermentation. We really wanted to make this test not just to guide our double IPA process but all hoppy beer production, to see what we could do to home in even more on that balance we want to achieve.

Cloudwater Double IPA versions 4 and 5
Cloudwater Double IPA versions 4 and 5

[After the Twickenham crowd tried 4 first, then 5, and then a blend of the two, the votes were pretty conclusively in favour of 5, with the blend not far behind]

PJ: “You’ll be pleased to hear that you guys are definitely reflecting the wider feedback from folk in the North West who’ve been able to get these two beers: the feedback was definitely much more in favour of 5, and that slightly punchier presentation. Our original plan was to release these two beers, get the feedback from you guys and then brew version 6 from the results. I’m sorry to say that version 6 is already brewed, it’s in the tank, because we have to get the beer out in time to go to San Diego with it. We did a tasting the day that we bottled both of these beers, we invited a bunch of folk from Manchester to the brewery, sat them around the table – the next day was really, really hard, I have to say – we drank through the bottles on their own, we drank through blends, we really loved how rounded and drinkable, quite rich, 4 was, we liked how dry and punchy 5 was, so we’ve ended up going for 80 per cent 5 and 20 per cent 4,

“The American beers that we’ve drunk that have presented really really well in that double iPA category, they almost burn the back of your throat with hoppiness, and that’s what we’re looking for. We still don’t get it yet out of our double IPAs, we’ve got some way to go. But now we’re going for 20 per cent of the dry hop addition towards the end of fermentation, 40 per cent three days into conditioning and 40 per cent three days away from the end of conditioning, so before we crash cool. We’re actually trying to suss out whether we can integrate another dry hop addition between fermenter and bright beer tank, but we’re not sure technically, it might introduce oxygen. So we’re seeing if we can make that happen.”

What’s the process for ageing beer in barrels, is Cloudwater ever worried about how the beer transforms in barrels, and how does the brewery make sure that at the end of the day it gets a product it believes in and wants to sell?

“As well as the white wine barrels, we’re also getting three 5,000-litre ex-Amarone [strong somewhat bitter red wine style] foeders from Italy, so we’re going to have a lot of barrels and a lot of wood to fill with beer. If you’re dealing with spirit barrels, it’s nearly impossible that they’re infected when they come to you because the spirits are so strong, especially if you pop the barrel open and there’s still spirit in there and it’s strongly smelling of spirit. Then we’re very confident that the barrels are going to be in great shape. We play by the book, we don’t just put the beer on top of the spirit in the barrel, that’s illegal, so we dump that out. We tend to rinse the barrel with cold water, then we’ll do a little hot water steep, just to make sure that the barrel’s nicely saturated with moisture again and it’s shown to be water-tight. Then we’ll put beer in: what we’re aiming to do with any kind of spirit barrel maturation is take some of the flavour of the wood, of the charring, if it’s there, and especially of that previous spirit occupant and infuse that in the beer.

“Now we’ve got ten or 12 Ardbeg barrels, they’re big 500-litre barrels, we’re really happy with how the stout we’ve got in there is maturing. But even though Ardbeg and Islay whisky is my favourite and I love all those phenolic flavours and even though I drink whisky neat, even cask-strength whisky I prefer to drink neat, occasionally it’s good to open up a strong spirit, and you get a wider varieties of flavours out of it. The same is true of espresso. You add a little bit of water to it, so you get a very short Americano, you’ll get more flavour out of that. So our thinking would be with our big barrels, even though we really like the beer as it is, we think you’re going to like it more when we brew a fresh batch of stout towards the end of the year andy blend the fresh stout with the barrel-aged stout, we think we’ll draw the flavour out in an even more presentable way, an even more balanced way. So rather than just say, ‘Oh, this is how it came out of the barrel,’ we think we’re going to cut that beer in particular with some fresh beer that’s got a little more body to it, that hasn’t sat in wood for a year, hasn’t been dried out by all of the char on the inside of the barrels, hasn’t been dried out by all the tannins, and a little bit extra fermentation.

“When we go into wine barrels, because [what’s been in them] is nowhere near as strong, there’s always a risk, but there’s a good risk, because the beer could be Bretty, and so pick up some Brettanomyces character after some months in barrel.That is not a bad thing. So we do always need for the first fill of a spirits or wine barrel to be a clean maturation. If we get a really good flavour of red wine or spirit, then we might look for a second fill of clean beer to get good maturation. But at some point all the barrels have been turned over to Brettanomyces, Pediococcus, lactobacillus and the next thing is mixed maturations, mixed fermentations. So we have had beers like the Old Garde [a Biere de Garde] brewed with Mark Tranter from Burning Sky, we brewed that last year, it’s been in barrel for a year, we just packaged it down into bottles, and it’s not really Bretty, but it’s definitely Bretty. You get a lovely character coming through – we’re very happy with that. But now we know those barrels that beer came out of, the next beer in them will pick up more of that Brett character. That Brett’s going to multiply and grow, and give more of an effect next time.

Does Cloudwater ever pick out one barrel in a batch for special treatment?

“We’ll taste all the barrels separately and if we find one that we think’s really nicely balanced, then we’ve got the option of putting the unblended, ‘cask strength’ beer out there But irrespective of what happens with the beer, blending’s a very important decision to make. Do we blend all the barrels of a particular beer, do we showcase one of been on their own, becase we really like its character? There’s a lot of different choices. We’ve actually been fortunate enough to be able to buy wine barrels that have come over to us unsulphured, and unrinsed. The wine is racked in France, 24 hours later we’re unloading the barrel in the brewery, and we’re filling it up straight away. Twenty-four of the white wine barrels that are coming over from France on Monday are coming over unsulphured and unrinsed. So if we can make the production plan work the way we want it to, we’ll produce wort, and we’ll ferment it in those 24 barrel, and we’ll try to utilise the wine microbes in there. We’re actually just starting a mixed fermentation project at the brewery, utilising wine yeasts in primary fermentation, finishing that primary fermentation off with a Saison yeast. Usually brewers don’t mix wine and beer yeasts, because wine yeasts kill the majority of beer-brewing yeasts. There are several strains that we’re aware of, and Saison is one of them, that does not get killed by wine yeasts.

“We’re really excited to start working with a new range of flavours in collaboration with one of our yeast suppliers, Lallemand. We’ll work at that in the brewery, but we’re also working with that in wood, and trying to see what yeast and bacteria have an effect on the beer out of those supplementary barrels. In wood, largely it’s a bit of a guessing game. We have an idea of what we want but we just have to see what happens. In the brewery, when we’re dealing with a stainless steel fermentation, we should get exactly what we want, otherwise we’re not so good brewers But in wood, it’s an open-ended question. As some point you are going to have got the most wine flavour you are ever going to get, and beyond that point you might start getting too much of the tannin. So you have a decision to make – is more maturation going to assist that beer, is it going to give you more of the flavour profile that you want, or is it going to turn it in the wrong direction? So regular weekly tastings of the barrels really help us to determine which direction to take them in. [when the barrels and foeders arrive] we’ll have double the capacity in wood than we do in steel. So there will be a lot of beer that will come out next year from us that will have been through barrel programmes. That’s going to be really exciting. We’ll get to work with blending to construct the flavour profile. Those new barrels give us 22,500 litres of woodspace. The foeders give us 15,000. One brew is only 2,500 litres. So we’ve got to brew many, many times to fill that wood up. We’re probably going to have to scrap a lot of our production plans to ensure that wood gets filled sooner rather than later. That’s going to be painful, because the beer are going to disappear even more off the shelves and bars than they already do. But the reason why we’re buying more steel tanks is, it’s impossible for us to get IPA on the shelf every week, Which is dumb, because we’re really happy with how our IPAs are going, and yet people rarely get the chance to rely on that beer. We’re really happy about how our lager’s going. But people rarely get a chance to rely on that beer too, because it’s on the shelf and then it’s gone, and you don’t see it again for four or five weeks.

Does Cloudwater use the Brettanomyces in the wood, and the environment, or does it buy the yeast in?

“In some cases we’re using the Brett that’s there – we keep the dregs out of bottles that we really like, such as Cantillon, and grow that up into pitching quantities. But the sediment in the bottom of the bottle might not be the lactobacillus, the Pediococcus, all of the Brett strains, that made that beer what it is. It might just be the ones that just happened to survive the entire brewing and maturation process. We do hatch some Brettanomyces – because that tends to live the longest – out of bottles we really enjoy, and we’re pitching that, harvesting that out of the barrels, pitching that again. We’re starting the journey of getting a house culture that we really enjoy. But we’re probably still about four years away, because of how long it takes. There are loads and loads of Brettanomyces types that aren’t widely used in beer at this point in time, and we’re starting to see yeast companies get more serious about some of the Brett strains that aren’t in common use. Hopefully over time we’ll gain access to more and more of those strains.

How did the Cloudwater name and brand come about?

The name came first before any of the branding – I wanted something that wasn’t geographically linked to Manchester: that didn’t make sense – none of us are born and bred there, we’re happy to live there but it’s not like we’re besotted with the place. We wanted a name that had some relevance to how we wanted to work as a company, and also was using straightforward English words, but in a new way. Cloudwater comes from a really ancient poem in China that is discussing the lives and philosophy of wandering Buddhist monks, wandering from teacher to teacher trying to find the truth. As a seasonal brewery, always making a new line-up of beer, we feel a little bit like we’re wandering, there’s a journey that we’re on, and it’s a conscious decision: we’re not going to say, ‘This is it, that’s our range for ever and we’re done.’ No. We want to find ways to make that style better, we want to be making 2016 beer in 2016, and next year it’s gone, followed by something that’s either an improvement or entirely new. So we see ourselves as wandering on a journey. And the secondary meaning of Cloudwater in the poem was in regard to obstacles such as a rock in the stream – the stream is not disturbed by an obstacle. We make obstacles for ourselves, in that we don’t make the same thing, year-round. Each recipe costs us between two and six hours of our head brewer’s time to create. Then we’ve got new artwork that we commission, and a short label run. That’s really costly, But we don’t see that as an obstacle, because the result are that we keep moving, we keep getting new ideas, and fresh approaches. [small editorial aside – no disrespect to Paul and his colleagues, but the ‘old Chinese poem’ story is one you’ll see repeated uncritically everywhere, without anyone every putting their finger on which poem, when and where it was written and by whom. It’s a meme that goes back in the West at least as far as the American poet Gary Snyder, who was writing in the 1950s, and you’ll see the expression explained as the ideal mode of operation of the Zen acolyte – to drift like a cloud and flow like water. But nobody, as far as I know, has identified the writer of the poem this expression is supposed to come from: and I have a historian’s great dislike of unsourced quotes.]

“So once we had the name, I took that to Textbook Design Studio, they’re a tiny little design company in Salford, showed them a bunch of beer branding and beer labels and said, ‘I don’t like any of that – here’s a bunch of wine labels, I really like that.’ So our initial idea was to progress down a more ‘wine label’ look. And I said to them, ‘Do not dare to come back with a logo that looks like clouds and water.’ Some weeks later, we’d been through lots of different design ideas, nothing was really satisfying them or me, and then Vicky, one of the three designers, emailed me, and she was like, ‘Look, I’ve got something to send you, do you mind if it’s a bit cute?’ I didn’t want – this is not a direct criticism of that one particular brand – the industrial, macho, Alesmith look, the anvil, I wanted the company to be inclusive in its presentation, 40 per cent of the company’s staff are female, which I’m really proud of, and if there’s more that we can to do increase the diversity of the company, the better. So I didn’t want a macho, ballsy presentation. Yvonne sent me the logo, and I said, ‘That’s brilliant!’ So we went with it. The target is to make something wonderful, and even though we got there round the houses, I could see the logo in lots of different applications making sense. And also a key ambition of the logo was that we could use it very quickly without the name of the company, and get rid of some of that distraction. So you’ll notice on any of our special release beers, like the double IPAs, there’s no Cloudwater name on the front of the bottle. There’s the logo and the name of the beer. ‘Cloudwater’ is on the back, but you guys know what it is.
Cloudwater logo
“We have this long-term relationship with Textbook Studio – we always work with them, to format our labels, but we have a new artist, we partner with a new artist, each season. My brief is, ‘I like your artwork, do what the hell you want.’ That’s it. I don’t want to disrupt that artist’s process I don’t want them to be thinking like a designer, they’re not a designer. I want to hire an artist because I like their artwork. We have a ‘mother’ style, which is, say, the IPA style, and then we have a bunch of ‘daughters’. So if you were to line up two of our IPAs side by side you would see that it’s the same components in a different configuration. If you were to line up all four of our lagers that we started off with, you would see that, again, it’s exactly the same components but in a different configuration. We’re really excited to work with artists and have their ideas come straight through onto the label. It’s much more exciting than us picking one theme. The truth is, I do really like some beer branding, but I then get tired of it – it’s like, everything has a time stamp, from the branding through the recipe to the beer itself, So what might have been a cutting edge idea in 2008 or 2011 is no longer a cutting idea in 2016. We’re really trying to live in that moment, make the beer that tastes to us like a modern beer inspired by what’s happening in 2016, presented in a very modern way, knowing that however wonderful all that is, we’re probably going to finds something more wonderful to take its place. We take comfort from the fact that it’s changing and evolving all the time.”

Who would Cloudwater like to work with?

“Brewers that really inspire us … We’d probably have to largely talk about brewers elsewhere in the world that are doing dramatically different things to what’s being done in the UK. We’d really love to work with Rare Barrel In San Francisco, we’d love to work with Pizza Port in San Diego – and actually I’m working on that happening in August – and we’d love to work – it’s bullshit to say it – with Hill Farmstead, there might not be anything in it for them, but we would like that. It’s cool to work with another brewery, but only if that collaboration results in a real conversation, and sharing of ideas. Having the chance to work with someone is great, but if all you do is get a recipe down and go and help produce the beer and that’s it, we don’t get the chance to grow as a company and have that ideas exchange.”

Would Cloudwater rebrew some of the highly successful beers of the past, such as the Custard Porter collaboration with Kees Bubberman of the Netherlands?

“As wonderful as some of those beers were, and as well-received in the trade as they were, we always have to ask ourselves, ‘What new experience are we not getting because we’re repeating something from the past?’ If we worked with Kees Bubberman again, we might have the chance to come up with something even more exciting. As heartbreaking as is to get a beer like that right, if we didn’t feel we could progress that recipe we would have little incentive to go back and brew it again even though it was so well received, If Kees comes to us with an idea of how we can get even more of what we want, or a fruit addition that we didn’t get a chance to make, never say never, but I don’t think we’d reproduce it just straight how it was. But while I may be the boss, I’m one of ten people in the company, and there are nine other opinions on what we should do, and we we really have a very diplomatic process to put beers into production. So if I get outvoted …

What’s the current proportion of keg beer to bottled?

“Beers go 60 to 70 per cent into keg and 30 to 40 per cent into bottle. We don’t want to run our packaging shifts longer than about six hours, it’s tiring, even for people who really believe in what we’re doing, to behave in a very robotic manner, serving a packaging line. So we don’t want those shifts to be too long – it’s demoralising. We limit the amount we produce bottle-wise because of that. We could externalise that packaging, but anyone that’s running a packaging plant would would sterile-filter the beer, they don’t want to risk their packaging machinery getting infected, and that would definitely impair our flavour impact.”

Would Cloudwater ever go to a contract brewer to improve capacity?

“No. We learn something every time we brew, we make a little mistake and we figure out a recovery from it, the team’s learning a lot every time. So I wouldn’t want to skip any of those experiences, even if that helped us get more beer out there. We don’t really care about growing the company at all. But we do care about meeting demand. So at that point outsourcing makes a lot of sense and would help us meet demand. But if we can work over the next couple of years in trying to meet more of that demand in-house, then we’ll be a much stronger brewing force than we are today, even though it’s painful and it takes us longer to get there.

“However, I don’t want to just grow – I’m not interested in how much shelf space we have, how many taps we have up and down the country. But I am interested when an individual customer tweets us and says, ‘Why can’t I get your beer?’ in resolving that problem. I want people to be able to access our beer. And right now, we’re on the shelf for a week and then we’re not there for three or four weeks, then we’re back for a week. We dropped a bunch of cases of IPA at a very local bottle store and it was gone within hours. Then folk are going to have to wait a month and a half before the next one comes out. It would be nice to keep that product out there a bit more regularly. Looking to try to satisfy demand is a much more wholesome attitude, I think, than just trying to grow the company. Growing the company, you may be benefiting from an artificial support, rather than any real, strong, steady support.

“Right now we have eight fermenters, two of them are single brew-length and six of them are double brew-length. So we’re already brewing twice to fill the double brew-length fermenters. We started off brewing twice a day so the morning brew would have fill the tank, the afternoon brew would complete the fill. We then switched that around so that we would do the half-fill one day and the top-up the next day. So we get both processes down. The new steel fermenters that are coming to us mid-August, they’re triple brew-length. So we’ll do two on day one and the third on day two.

“There’s two different types of expansion in the industry. One is producing more wort – always, always a problem. From the biggest companies to the smallest, changing that cooking apparatus, that extract apparatus, always presents problems to brewers and brewing teams. You can point to many brewers in the UK who have gone through expansion and found that dialling in process always took a lot longer than they imagined. James has been brewing for 20 years, but it still took us six months to dial in on his kit, even though it behaves better than anything he’s ever brewed on, it still took him a long time to get used to ‘input of that recipe and those ingredients achieves this particular result.’ So rather than brewing four times a week, we’ll brew up to ten. The pressures will come from tank management and packaging. We’ll just grow the packaging team – we might not even need many more brewers. We will not be asking them to be part of the packaging team any more, they will just be concentrating on wort production.

“If we do move at the end of our lease, and we do decide to expand production, it will be very tempting to stay with the same manufacturer to try to eliminate those bumps, or try to go up a notch in quality. But if we went up a notch in quality we would definitely struggle for a little whille, because the kit would be configured in a different enough way that we’d need to tweak out all our recipes. The current kilt comes from Premier Stainless in San Diego. James and I both worked hard on trying to find a kit manufacturer we really believed in, and Premier won out ahead of all the British manufacturers, ahead of a bunch of Europeans too. They were really good value for money. And if you look at their list of American brewers using Premier kit, you have Alesmith, you have Mikkeller using Alesmith’s old kit, you have Green Flash, 35 pages of brewers.

“We’ll have the ability to produce up to 2 1/2 times more beer than we do right now, and we produce 10,000 litres a week right now. But we’ll gradually build up to 25,000 litres a week – we won’t jump from one to the other, that would absolutely kill us. And then we’ll see how we go. But that will really be the limit of our space, and the limit of what a sensible brewing schedule looks like that doesn’t have people on crazy shift pattern around the clock. We don’t think that would be a good quality of life for our team. So I think we’ll get to the same point we’re in now as early as this time next year, when, ‘This is it, we can’t make any more,’ and we’ll just have to live with that. We’ll give that a couple of years, then see how we go from there. But’s it’s a privilege that the demand is exceeding our ability to supply. It’s very rewarding to know that we look at our fermenters and all that beer is going to go straight out the door as soon as it’s packaged. And that’s very cool because it means you guys get to drink fresher beer, and fresher beer is always better beer.”

10 thoughts on “The secrets to Cloudwater’s success”

  1. Another secret of their success that doesn’t seem to get mentioned in articles like this is “have lots of money”. Being under capitalised is surely why most brewery start ups look like “shambling amateurs”. You need money to be professional!

      1. Regardless of where the money came from (and I agree that’s interesting), can there really be any doubt that the beers are now absolutely stunning? I repeatedly find them interesting, drinkable and flawless. Very impressed.

    1. I’m going to have to disagree, Rod, despite the briefest of experiences of Cloudwater beer: you do NOT get that much buzz without something genuinely good going on.

  2. Thanks – an interesting long read. Did they mention cask at all? I find their cask output absurdly good – it would be a serious pity if they took a leaf out of the Scottish brewery’s book on that score.

  3. Great write up of this, thank you for taking the time. The stuff on their quality analysis and control was really interesting – particularly as a homebrewer where consistency can be elusive from batch to batch!

Leave a Reply