Cloudwater Brew Co., which began brewing in February 2015, has been named “second best brewery in the world” in the annual RateBeer Awards. The Manchester, UK-based brewery moved up from fifth place in last year's competition, coming second only to Vermont’s Hill Farmstead, which has held the number one spot since rankings were adjusted in 2015. Boston’s Trillium Brewing Company took third place.
Unlike previous years, no physical awards ceremony took place this January. Ratebeer founder Joe Tucker decided not to hold the event and accompanying beer festival in 2018, following the sale of a minority stake to Anheuser-Busch InBev-backed ZX Ventures the previous year.
[Disclosure: Good Beer Hunting's studio side is the Executive Producer of a Condé Nast project, October, in which ZX Ventures is an investor.]
WHY IT MATTERS
Cloudwater’s ascendancy to becoming one of the most well-regarded breweries in craft beer is nothing short of remarkable. Few could have expected the beer maker to have such an impact on the brewing scene judging by its humble beginnings at the start of 2015—a time where many were saying the UK brewing scene was lagging behind its U.S. counterpart.
Co-founder Paul Jones, acting as the ebullient traveling frontman of the business, has been at the center of this meteoric rise. He clocked up 60,000 miles in 2017 alone, connecting with the heart of modern U.S. beer culture as he did so. While the brewery’s first couple years haven’t been without controversy, it’s been a wild and rewarding ride for the most part.
He’s also something of a pro content marketer. His thoughtful, often-introspective blog posts have ensured that his brewery is constantly at the forefront of the beer drinkers’ minds. And, as an example, the tweet to his latest missive garnered more than 60 retweets and 350 likes in less than 24 hours.
But to credit Jones alone would do a grave disservice to the brewing team. Head Brewer James Campbell and his team have been working tirelessly throughout the year to keep up with Cloudwater’s ambitious release schedule—which often includes two or more new beers a week—alongside Jones’ travel-inspired creativity.
“I’d have lost my shit if I’d been at a ceremony this year and got called up for second best brewery in the world,” Jones tells GBH. “By the time Trillium got called for third, I’d have been slamming a beer and playing back in my mind what went wrong, and how we need to do better to delight our customers.”
Meanwhile, some brewers and consumers think that the awards shouldn’t have continued in their current form following ZX Ventures’ investment in RateBeer. One of those brewers is Jones.
“As much as I think it’s a shame the festival didn’t run this year, I think it’s for the best.” he says. “RateBeer’s relationship with independent breweries is still up in the air, and I think it’ll take time still for the dust to settle, and for breweries to figure out whether hearing from their customers through a company that has ties to AB InBev is valuable or not in the long run.”
Nevertheless, Jones says events such as the RateBeer awards are valuable to his business. After all, events such as these, along with a string of collaborations with some of America’s most-hyped breweries—Other Half, The Veil, Modern Times, and Jester King, to name a handful—that has vaulted Cloudwater into its current position.
“Although they were extremely good times, and I really enjoyed meeting brewers and fans from around the world, and tasting the best beers in the world all in one place, I think I bit off more than I could chew,” RateBeer founder Joe Tucker tells GBH. He describes his decision to cancel this year’s event as “a massive relief.”
Tucker also states that for the second year running London is RateBeer’s largest source of traffic per metropolitan area. As much as 10% of the site’s traffic originates within the British capital. “The emergence of more world-class breweries and beers has brought greater international attention to the UK beer scene,” he elaborates. “Cloudwater is an amazing brewery led by extremely passionate people dedicated to the highest standards. It was no surprise to see the final tally.”
But what is RateBeer’s relevance to the modern beer community since its investment from ZX? While some have tried to figure out the benefit of this investment might be for the “disruptive” venture capital firm, no one has drawn any concrete conclusions. In the meantime, some breweries—including Dogfish Head and Belgium’s Cantillon—went as far as to ask that their reviews, which area all completely user-generated, be removed from the site.
“I'm not sure if the RateBeer awards necessarily augur anything—they are, by definition, backwards-looking, after all,” longterm RateBeer user Leighton Smith tells GBH. “The awards tend to reflect overall patterns and tastes in the beer world. For the breweries that pay attention to what people like, and I don't think all breweries actually do, a RateBeer award is a helpful data point.”
Questions over the validity of the RateBeer awards in its post-ZX era—and whether or not independent breweries should be celebrating these accolades—look unlikely to subside. For Jones and Cloudwater, though, it’s still seen as an immense boost—not just for his brewery, but for the UK brewing scene as a whole. Jones isn’t in a hurry to discredit the value added to his work by RateBeer, at least.
“I worry the dim view of sites like RateBeer are propped up by a sense of superiority that the industry—brewers, competition judges, writers, bloggers—ought to shake off,” he says. “All feedback on our beers is deeply personal, but I also value all the feedback we get. People that want to spend their money drinking our beer, and then want to spend their time evaluating that experience, whether reviewing on RateBeer or otherwise, have more than earned a moment of our time for their thoughts.”