Manchester’s world-beating beer megastars


Objectively one of the best breweries in the world, Manchester’s Cloudwater really needs no introduction. Yet, perhaps partly because of its fame and success, it’s easy to get the wrong idea about this iconic brewery, to assume it must have trodden a similar path to other early-2010s UK success stories, in terms of its scale and approach to the market. Pay a visit to its brewery and taproom though, and you’ll find a much more modest setup; there’s no multinational brewing money here, just hard work and passion on a city centre industrial estate.

Before we get into Cloudwater’s unique place in the wider Manchester and UK craft scene, let’s quickly recap why the brewery is such a massive deal, and why we’re so thrilled to have its beer in the box this month. Founded in 2014 by Paul Jones and James Campbell - formerly the head brewer at Marble - Cloudwater’s hop-forward, US-style brewing made it arguably the first UK brewery to experience the kind of intense, rockstar hype that was already such a feature of the US scene.

Its fame spread far beyond the UK, with Cloudwater hitting the RateBeer global top 10 in 2017, eventually climbing to the number two spot, just behind Vermont’s legendary Hill Farmstead Brewery.

How to maintain and build upon such a meteoric rise though is a challenge that faces all such breweries, and not all have what it takes to endure in the long-term. How can you hold the interest of an inherently fickle market? How can a brewery turn its initial burst of success into something more sustainable without alienating fans? Where does it find room to take risks when any mis-step will be under the magnifying glass?

Cloudwater is one of very few breweries to have navigated these waters successfully, and its recent launch of a new core range – alongside its constantly-changing and still venerated experimental line-up – cements its transition from Hot Young Thing to Brewing Icon.

“Things obviously move very fast in craft beer, and our core range reflects a very different landscape to what we faced when we first started,” says Ollie Graham, Cloudwater’s head of marketing and sales. “Today, there's many different kinds of craft drinkers. You've got your people who were very excited about our recent barrel project releases. Those sold out in no time, because there's anticipation and a willingness to pay a premium, in recognition of the huge time and effort that goes into making these very special beers. 

“But there’s another, much larger layer of people who recognise the brewery name and what it means in terms of quality, but who are maybe intimidated by a constantly changing line-up, and by these premium products where they’re not completely sure what they’re going to get. They still appreciate great beer, but want something that is hazy, pale, sessionable and, very importantly, reliable.”

While there are obviously commercial reasons for wanting to push into this larger market of more casual craft lovers, I put it to Ollie that it’s not really necessary to Cloudwater’s success or survival. Ollie counters this, pointing out that Cloudwater has needed to remain as light on its feet as any other brewery, adapting to the many changes and pressures that have hit the market. As much as any commercial reason though, I do get a sense that Cloudwater’s decision to launch a more accessible core range also reflects a deeply egalitarian streak.

“We’ve been clear from the start that the core range shouldn’t be a compromise,” explains Ollie. “They epitomise our style, and are based on recipes that we've built and refined over the years. They bridge that gap between the kind of creative, constantly-changing brewing that Cloudwater is famous for, and those drinkers who lived through the peak of light lager in the 90s, have seen what the big breweries are offering now, and are open to quality beer that doesn’t feel like it’s just out to intimidate them.”

Even for a brewery with a Midas touch, such a transition can be tricky, and Cloudwater’s attempts to woo a broader market haven’t been straightforward. An ill-fated contract brewing arrangement with a larger brewery briefly saw its beers on the shelves of Tesco, but Cloudwater pulled the deal after deciding that it didn’t achieve the well-intentioned goal of using wider accessibility to benefit other breweries that were committed to positive change Undeterred, it finally launched a core range in August, which includes Fuzzy, the beer in this month’s box. 

“We learned our lessons from that I think,” says Ollie. “At present, we don’t have any intention to go back into the supermarkets, so our focus now is definitely on building better relationships with our trade customers and distributors, with a consistent offering. It’s important that they know we’re here to support them in what is going to be a difficult time for them as well.”

Such honest self-reflection seems to be a big part of the way Cloudwater is run, and is perhaps one reason behind its enduring appeal. For example, its decision in 2017 to end brewing for cask was reversed a year later, with a much smaller group of cask venues selected to ensure consistent quality. Similarly, the brewery has in recent times sought to be a more active advocate for its home town.

“I think that we've taken the local scene for granted a little bit,” says Ollie. “We’ve perhaps been perceived as a brewery in Manchester, rather than a Manchester brewery, but that's 100% going to change. We’re very proud of our local partnerships, working with a lot of local businesses to add different dimensions to our offering in a mutually beneficial way.

“There's a plethora of great breweries within half a mile of here: Track, ABC, the new team at Sureshot who are making absolutely amazing beers. But it’s also a city rich with history that we can work with and take inspiration from. JW Lees for example is a great brewery going back hundreds of years; we've got a beer out at the moment called Proper DIPA, which is a bit of an ode to Manchester, and uses JW Lees’ house yeast, which is thousands of generations old.

“As a city, I think the people in Manchester have never been one to compromise. You know, it's all about pushing the envelope a little bit, whether it’s in music, sport or style, and I think that extends to beer as well.”

Of course, it’s impossible to discuss the character and motivation of Cloudwater as a brewery without mentioning its charismatic co-founder and leader, Paul Jones. Having a vocal, well-known figure at the helm of a successful brewery can be a double-edged sword, as we’ve seen time and again in recent years. Paul though seems to have a real knack for keeping things interesting without alienating his peers or attracting the ire of the beer world at large. When he talks, people listen, possibly because it’s well known that he’s still hands-on, driving beer creation and brewing innovation.

“Oh, gosh, no – he’s here all the time,” says Ollie, when I cheekily ask if Paul is ever tempted to take a more ceremonial role. “He’ll install himself in my office and we talk through ideas, and he’s always brainstorming with Mark, our brewery manager. He has this fantastic wealth of knowledge and energy to feed into the brewing, which means we just never stand still with it. Paul’s behind a lot of the collaborations we do, with modern and traditional breweries from the UK and US… I think he’s just got this real hunger to learn from them, and synthesise their experience into what we do.”

While we’re on the subject of Cloudwater’s prolific record for collaboration, it’s worth noting that these haven’t just focused on pushing brewing practice forward, but also the culture and values of the UK industry.Many of these projects have centered around providing a platform for social cause-led breweries, driven by under-represented groups in the craft beer industry – for example, its International Women’s Day brews and the Reign or Shine project with Rock Leopard Brewing Co., 2nd Shift Brewing and The Queer Brewing Project. Ollie is proud of such projects, but explains they are just one manifestation of Cloudwater’s action-led approach.

“We want to be vocal in trying to change perceptions and shift the status quo, but we’ve also tried to build this into the business, rather than it just being something we talk about. You look around and the industry is still predominantly white males, so we're super proud of the fact that actually 55% of our workforce is female, and that our talented brewery team is even further female-skewed.”

It must be an odd experience for a relatively young brewery to find itself lauded as the very best in a highly competitive and creative international movement. It certainly sets the stakes at a level where self-inflicted pressure will probably be greater than any external expectations. So, in a Jonesian spirit of learning from others, what lessons can we take from Cloudwater’s enduring popularity? First, that genuine hunger for improvement is much healthier than a desperate search for novelty – a common trap. Second, that flexibility and a willingness to accept when you’ve veered off course are vital for keeping that all-important authenticity. And third (perhaps most importantly) that hard work beats hype in the long-term, but it’s certainly great to have both.

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