I first met Cloudwater Brew Co. owner and founder Paul Jones in November 2014. I was exploring Manchester’s booming bar and restaurant culture. Finding myself stranded in the Northern Quarter, right in the heart of the city’s modern food and drink movement, I was passing the time by musing about my situation on Twitter as I decided what to do. It was then that I received a tweet from Jones offering to drive me to my next destination. Other than following each other on Twitter, we barely knew each other, but he’d end up driving me to a couple of bars in the suburbs that I’d wanted to check out, and would spend the rest of the afternoon with me and a couple of friends as we ate and drank our way around town. He even made sure I didn’t miss my train home.
Jones told us about the brewery he was opening, which, back then, was little more than a Twitter handle. That, and a beautifully designed logo, which was decidedly more than your average new small business usually manages to conjure. Shortly after our first meeting, Jones gave his future customers firsthand perspective as his brewery was painstakingly installed. It began with something as simple as concrete being poured to create a new floor in the warehouse Jones had recently acquired. But soon, more flooring was laid, pipes were plumbed in, boilers were installed and bright, chrome tanks were stacked into place.
Cloudwater had significant up-front investment. Their buildout was some distance from the normality that is the homebrewer-turning-pro concept we’ve become accustomed to. This semi-large startup brewery model that’s fairly common in the U.S. is practically unheard of in the UK. And the trouble with us Brits is that as soon as we see one poppy growing taller than the rest of the crop, we want to cut it down to size.
“When all people have in front of them is a bottle and our social media feeds, they need something substantial that communicates who we are and what we do,” Jones says. He’s in his mid-thirties and stands tall and broad shouldered, smartly dressed, with a bushy, red beard. He looks every bit the archetypal new-wave brewery owner.
“I didn’t want something geographical,” he continues. “We’re proud to do business out of Manchester, a city we’re working hard to make a positive contribution to, but it defines little about who we are.”
“Cloudwater” comes from the Japanese term unsui, which translates as “cloud, water.”
“It’s a term for a novice who has undertaken training,” Jones explains. “We’re not so young, nor are we particularly inexperienced, but, as the wise man Shunryu Suzuki once said, ‘In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.’”
He grins, realizing he might sound a tad pretentious, before erupting into a characteristically booming laugh. To the casual observer, Jones may seem a little cocky, but upon meeting him, you quickly realize he’s a pretty down-to-earth guy. He’s well-dressed, self-assured, and speaks with real conviction about the well-prepared plans he’s laid out for his new business. But there’s a boyish enthusiasm in his tone that makes it easy to understand how genuine his endeavor is. His background in the music industry has obviously influenced his new vocation. It feels as though Jones controls Cloudwater just as a record producer would direct an artist. His vision is crystal clear, and he’s assembled an experienced staff to help him realize it.
Once inside the ordinary looking brick and metal warehouse that’s home to the brewery, visitors are transported far away from the location’s industrial surroundings. Ancoats is a small area of Manchester about a 10-minute walk from Piccadilly in the city center, but Cloudwater is a space that feels part brewery, part Buddhist temple. Bright light is reflected off white walls and steel tanks. Electronic music purrs from speakers mounted high on the walls.
Half of the building contains the brewery itself, while the other half is home to a modestly sized taproom that opens to the public on Saturdays. To maintain the Cloudwater ethos, you can’t just show up and enjoy a beer. Instead, customers have to book in advance, enabling the brewery’s staff—including Jones himself—to offer a personal table service and a drinking experience that’s much less frenetic than that of a typical brewery bar. They’re still happy enough for people to turn up unannounced for bottles and growler fills to-go. Any inch of remaining space in the building is used for storage.
Greater Manchester is synonymous with the history of British brewing culture. It’s home to two of the better-known traditional UK breweries: Joseph Holt’s and J. W. Lees. Perhaps most famously, though, it was formerly home to Boddingtons, which, despite now being a brand in decline, was once exported to more than 40 countries.
In its heyday, Boddingtons was famous for being pale and straw-like in appearance while being lip-smackingly bitter. It typified the kind of beer the UK‘s Northwest was famous for. Boddingtons was eventually acquired by Whitbread in 1989, and Whitbread was purchased in 2000 by the company that would eventually be known as Anheuser-Busch InBev. In time, Boddingtons gradually became darker in appearance and its redolent bitterness all but disappeared, replaced with a hollow, burnt-sugar sweetness. Those that were there back in the day still reminisce over how good it once tasted.
Greater Manchester is now home to more than 70 breweries, and the majority of these have only opened in the last three years. Marble Brewery opened in 1997, and revived the region’s pale, hoppy style with its Manchester Bitter. It also happens to be where Cloudwater’s head brewer James Campbell cut his teeth. Marble, along with the craft-brewing boom that was happening across the UK, but most notably in London and West Yorkshire, gradually oversaw the resurrection of Manchester as one of the UK’s great brewing cities.
Jones isn’t concerned with following in the footsteps of the city’s heritage, though.
“Those trad guys have a completely different business model to the rest of us,” he says. “I imagine their concerns are more as landlords than breweries, with thousands of taps in what totals over 600 tied houses in the region between them. Younger, independent breweries pitching for tap space are really quite different compared to companies looking to keep their traditional pubs and inns as pride of place in local communities. We’re up against any other brewery in the world that can get its beer to a tap in the UK at a reasonable price.”
As much as Jones has respect for the local scene, the size of his goals reflects the scale of his ideas.
“We don’t suffer from a loyalty to Manchester that could see us stop pushing once we’re making the best beer in town, nor do we suffer from only wanting to match or surpass efforts in London or elsewhere in the UK,” he says. “Because our loyalty lies with quality, we’re open to appreciate the efforts of any scene in the UK, or beyond, that inspires us and has it’s own sense of progression.”
Cloudwater released its first beers in March 2015 amidst a wave of hyperbole of Jones’ own creation. Some, such as an inspired U.S.-hopped Weissebier, were well received, but others fell short of the mark. By Jones’ own admission, some of Cloudwater’s early beers weren’t quite where they wanted them to be and even now he confesses that his best beers are hitting “90% of their quality targets.”
The glass of red ale I’m drinking that forms part of Cloudwater’s Autumn range says otherwise. It’s clean, with defined aromas of pine and orange rind that translate beautifully on the palate. It’s matched with a dose of graham cracker sweetness for balance before closing with a drying, bitter finish. I’m finding it difficult to figure out exactly which 10% of this beer doesn’t taste right.
Seasonality is perhaps the key aspect of Cloudwater’s ideology, with much of Jones’ inspiration being drawn from modern British cuisine. “We’re excited by seasonality, and saw no reason why we shouldn’t make it central to our brewery,” he says. “Even if it does make our production schedule rather more complicated than it would be otherwise.”
Breweries producing seasonally inspired beers is nothing new, but typically these are designed to complement a strong core range. Not at Cloudwater, where there are no core beers—a completely new portfolio launches every three months.
Each new release is branded with new artwork sourced from a different independent artist each time. Not only does this strengthen an already appealing brand, but it feels like Cloudwater is giving something back to the artistic community that helps inspire it. “What we gain from our exploration of seasonality, ingredients, fruit additions, brewing styles with each season in mind, and changing year round styles such as our IPA to suit each season, is far more than we lose from not having a core range,” Jones explains.
He does admit that they always produce a pale ale for cask, and that, due to its success, the Hopfen-Weisse has been recreated, albeit with an altered hop bill each time. They also put out the odd special release, and, at the end of 2015, produced a stunning double IPA. For me, one style that Cloudwater is really nailing is the Lager. From simple German- and Bohemian-inspired recipes right through to a beer that contained an addition of Guji Sidamo coffee, its Lagers have been some of the brewery’s most accomplished products so far.
As we finish up at the brewery and begin the short walk to the Northern Quarter for some lunch, I ask Jones about the negative reaction from some towards the scale of investment that was put into his brewery.
“I think it’s just that the UK hasn’t seen a lot of experienced brewers changing or starting new companies as the U.S.,” he says. “I’m not sure whether newer U.S. breweries such as Ecliptic or Crux Fermentation Project, for example, would be asked why they weren’t playing it safe with a smaller kit.”
“We’re working on our barrel store, a place where we’ll mature and sour beer in wood, we think we have space for up to 400 barrels in there, and serve some of the finest sour and aged beers, natural wines, and fermented foods we can lay our hands on,” Jones says of Cloudwater’s future.
He pauses a moment to dwell on his words before laughing again in his typically wholehearted fashion.
“As for our long term plans, we’re keeping things open,” he continues. “We have many, many ambitions. We want to become not just an excellent brewery, but an excellent employer too. Whatever takes us towards as many of our goals as possible, we’ll do.”
It feels appropriate that we’re sitting in Common, a bar that, along with its sister venue, Port Street Beer House, helped reignite Manchester’s interest in great beer. When Common was updated last year, it was met with a typically downbeat Mancunian attitude towards change. To me, Common is the perfect example of positive evolution in the city’s food and drink culture—an evolution that breweries like Cloudwater will continue to drive.
Jones takes a moment to reflect on the first few months of running his business.
“We’re young, still growing, and still finding our limits, so we don’t know where we’ll be in some months' time,” he concludes. “But we’d hope to be doing everything we can through our work in the brewery, and behind the scenes, to make Manchester one of the most exciting cities in the UK for modern beer.”
Manchester will be important for Cloudwater’s continued development, despite Jones’ relative ambivalence toward his city and its goals. And his constant desire to achieve something greater, well, that’ll be important for Manchester, too.