Beer is a tiny industry. Even stretching across oceans, the traveling lot of brewers and salespeople (like Paul), and writers, strategists, and brand folks (like myself), are seemingly hovering in the air at all times, touching down for moments at a time in bars and breweries to conduct our business around a fantastic pint or two. Thankfully, we're never truly alone.
On a recent stretch in San Francisco, working to launch a start-up in the East Bay area, I discovered that one of the more interesting UK brewers was bellied up to the bar at Magnolia's new brewpub space in the Dog Patch, drinking his way through their English-inspired Milds and Bitters, one of the only breweries in the U.S. to make such beers on the regular. And they make them very, very well.
So why are we at Magnolia in San Francisco drinking a lot of English style beers right now?
I’ve been asking myself this same question all the way down the coast. What I found so far is European beer styles made on the West Coast are fairly true to style. I don’t tend to find a lot of innovation in European styles on the West Coast so far. At first, especially in Portland, which is kind of like the Northwest Mecca, [it was like] why am I not finding mind-blowing variants of Saison or darker styles? A lot of the Porters up there were very clean and precise, and Belgian styles like spot-on versions of traditional European beers. I would scratch my head and wonder why that’s the case. Then it struck me it’s the same reason why we try and brew palate-wrecking, hoppy beers in the UK, because that’s what we didn’t have before. The IPAs are modern tradition versus the bitters and porters that are much older. If you want them fresh and here, someone’s gotta be brewing them. These are the beer styles that, at least from what I read, make a big impact on modern U.S. breweries. It’s easy to hear a story about “I went to the UK and I had a pint of Bitter, or a pint of Mild, and it really impressed me. It was more flavorful than what I was drinking in the States at that time, and that made me brew a Triple IPA the next year that ripped everyone’s face off!"
So many of our first-wave brewers were inspired by English breweries, Goose Island among them. Fullers ESB, that was the beer that started Goose Island. And breweries like Boulevard, Sprecher, so many in the Midwest especially, brought back a European inspiration that lead to great things.
It’s not difficult to understand those traditional English beers when you have maybe a more timid backdrop of watered-down Germanic Lagers, like generations after folks were brewing them here and making them mass-market. That makes a lot of sense. I think the fact we’re sitting in San Fran and I’ve started off with a Bitter flight...
...because there’s more than one on draft!
Yeah, there is. And they have a cask list with a Bitter on it as well. It makes sense that people here are no different than people anywhere else. They want something exotic. The exotic thing, given that people here are surrounded by some of the best modern beer in the world, is traditional stuff from somewhere else. And traditional stuff from a country that inspired a lot of modern American breweries makes sense.
Are people in the UK brewing proper IPAs? When they set out to brew an American IPA, are they able to do that, in your opinion?
Pretty much. I think we probably get, in terms of hops, the rejects. [laughs]
Well, brewers here are struggling to get the rejects, too! It’s what makes me ask the question. How are they pulling it off, and can they continue to pull it off long-term?
There’s a hop merch in the UK, Charles Faram. They’re the guys we work with. They contract a lot of hops, and even as a brand-new brewery, our head brewer has been working with Charles Faram for 15 or 20 years. He used to use his own salary to buy interesting hops and sneak them into one of his first brewing jobs because the company was like, “Don’t you dare make really flavorful beer. Fuggles and Goldings are all that’s allowed.” [laughs] So he would work with Charles Faram to sneak hops into the beer. There is some good stuff that comes over. At Cloudwater, we get multiple, different crops. For example, Centennial is a hop that we created different batches with. One of them was great, one of them was just good, and the other was absolutely fantastic. We were lucky as a new brewery, because of James’ 20-year relationship with Charles Faram, that we could choose the batch that we felt was most flavorful. So we have some pretty good hops, and people can make some very, very good hoppy beer. I have to be honest, BrewDog just put out their version of Stone’s Enjoy By and that was absolutely fantastic. Breweries near us that are very West Coast leaning, like Magic Rock and some of Buxton’s line, they end up coming out really, really nice. Now, the biggest difference between these hoppy beers it he UK and here in the U.S. Northwest I think, so far, has not been this hoppiness of the beer. It’s more, well, like I’ve had only one beer that’s been flawed on my whole trip! I’ve been drinking a lot of small, measured tasters, which isn’t the best. I prefer to drink half or third pints if I can because I like that experience down the glass, but I want to try a good number of different beers because I’m not going to get that chance again.
That speaks to another challenge of brewing. If you’re excited about making American or West Coast style IPAs in the UK, what are you tasting on a daily basis that helps you make those beers in the proper way versus something that’s a few months old?
We scramble. When a bottle shop or bar says we’ve got some fresh, home-shipped American beer, we’re like, “We’ve gotta get there!” We tend to sort of scramble over those experiences because that’s what give us an impression of what it’s actually like.
The same thing happens to me in Chicago. The West Coast IPAs that end up on our shelves are usually a couple months old by the time they get to us. They’re still much bigger, cleaner, drier, bolder than most of what we would get in the Midwest or on the East Coast, but when I go to San Diego and drink those things fresh? There’s just no comparison. It’s a totally different beer!
I’m looking forward to that! [laughs] I’m there in a few days' time.
I came back from San Diego, I think it was last October. I went into that experience thinking that I was the kind of guy that wasn’t really into IPAs, like hops weren’t my biggest attraction. I came out of there thinking, “No, that’s just the only place I’ll allow myself to drink them from now on because, holy shit, I’m just going to drink all of them." It was mind-blowing how different an IPA is when it’s a few days fresh from a local on the West Coast than it is when we finally get it in package on a shelf, warm in Chicago. It’s a different beer. Even with everyone’s lab work and shelf-life improvements, I just find it to be a shade of the real thing with only a few exceptions.
I think what a lot of the brewers in the UK are doing is we scramble over the freshest stuff we can get ahold of, and everyone’s constantly trying to up the game. Everyone’s looking to see what they can do to improve the freshness of their beer, how much dry-hopping can be done before it’s not so good anymore. People are making some very bold, hoppy beer. I can’t tell you at all how that compares because from the sound of it I’m going to have a very different experience in San Diego than what I’ve had anywhere else in the world.
You’re going to meet a dozen cab drivers that will tell you they came there for a visit once and then just didn’t leave. You’re going to start racking your brain for how you can pull that off yourself. "I’ve got a brewery in England, but maybe it’s still possible,” you’ll think. So what inspired you to start Cloudwater? Tell me what it is and what it’s about.
We are pretty much in the city-center of Manchester, in an old neighborhood called Ancoats. It’s a very industrial city. It’s touted as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and there are some nice mill buildings and factory buildings left over from that period. We try to position ourselves close to the city-center so we can be accessible to folk. We’ve been running about five months now production-wise, so brand-new, very embryonic. Cloudwater came about for a number of different reasons. I used to work in some very primitive food environments years ago. Loved serving people. Loved making nice, honest, flavorful things for people to consume. So I’ve been craving for a long time to get back into the food and drink industry. My background was in music technology. Essentially, you get trained to operate and record in the studio. I got trained in composition and a whole bunch of stuff. For the past couple years, I had aspirations that I would start a mastering studio, right before I opened the brewery, because I really loved audio production. But I was also looking around for a nice building to put a cool venture in. There was a sub-station and a couple of semi-detached houses in Ancoats—such a beautiful building. I could see the potential in the space even though I had no idea how the hell I’d make it come to fruition. I knew I wanted to do something, and during that time, James Campbell—now my co-founding partner and head brewer at Cloudwater—was getting pretty sick of his job in his previous brewery. He decided to leave, and he and I started talking about what we could do.
Tell me about that first conversation. Where was it and what was it like?
I think I visited him in his brewery.
Oh, so you were poaching him!
Well, I’d heard a rumor or two that he was itching. I went and spoke to him, and he said I’m just going to go consult for a year and see how things go. So we decided to keep in touch. He went out and consulted and helped a lot of young breweries start up. He’s not one of these guys that’s come through from an educational root to brewing. He started out as an apprentice with on-the-job learning, but the guy can make some damn good beer. So he left, he started consulting, and we got together and started discussing a very small-scale thing. Over time, it was like, “Why aren’t we shooting a bit higher?” People ask us, "Why didn’t you start with a safer thing?" I’m like, "We don’t need a safer thing! The guy can brew award-winning beer. He’s done the five and ten barrel thing—for years! Before you even knew what beer was, he was nailing it already."
So you didn’t need a false sense of modesty coming to market.
I mean, people want that and kind of tell us off a bit for not having that, like how dare we! That would just be fake if we did that. Our start-up team had 60 years of bar management and cellaring experience. Our fifth member of staff, she started 13 bars in her short career. So we come with this kind of preparation, and people are surprised that we didn’t “just see how it went on a four-barrel thing.”
I’m always amazed when people talk about another country that’s being inspired by American craft. They’re not just talking about the beer styles. They’re talking about the culture as well. It’s amazing how the culture of this grassroots-y, nano thing makes its way across the water as well, whether it’s relevant or not. They think that’s what a “real” craft brewery is!
There’s something a little mixed up in “craft” to mean, like, you have to be struggling to pay the bills, and that means you’re real. Or you have to be pretty questionable with your business skills, or your ambitions have to be meek, mild, timid.
I would describe it as people want you to be an idiot-savant. Like, this genius brewer that has no fucking idea how to run a business otherwise. It’s such a false sense of authenticity. Authenticity doesn’t always look like struggle, and this pandering to the grassroots thing. Craft beer is about making phenomenal fucking beer.
No, we’ve got little time for that. Who knows how short our lives are, and who knows what our run is in this game. We’re just trying to hit it hard right from the beginning. We shared our whole start-up story with people because that’s what we’re interested in. People would come to us and say there’s all this hype around Cloudwater. I’m like, "Is there? I posted some photos on our Facebook wall. Does that result in hype?"
Well, your photos were beautiful. I mean, they were really unique images for a brewery to post. These oddly formalist, minimalist pictures of, I don’t know, a pipe in a wall. Weird, boring shit that you made look stunning. And your brand is beautiful, and the name, Cloudwater is evocative of something—I don’t know. But I like it. Where does that name come from, and what was your process for the brand?
Names are really important. I’ve done a bunch of music projects and seen a lot of people do projects, and [our name is] influenced by the failures in the music world and my own personal failures. I’ve done projects with people who I think have come up with a really cool name and I’m like, that just works. It’s so evocative you want to know who the hell is in this band that came up with such a cool name? Already that’s enough to tantalize somebody, and they didn’t even hear one bar of your music yet! I knew with Cloudwater I wanted to come up with something non-geographic becuase that’s a bit trad in the UK. Forget that. When we started up, none of us were Manchester born and bred. It’s a city we live in that we like a lot, but none of us our blind to its flaws. We didn’t feel like we should be super-proud of Manchester. What we thought we should do is start a company with a name that would cross the ocean either way, and be good in Europe, America. But, chiefly, sound nice. We want our beers to taste nice, we want the name of our company to sound nice. Even just saying it has a nice feel to it. The name actually comes from a very old term in China for novice, Buddhist monks.
Really? I thought you were going to say a William Blake poem. [laughs]
It describes a little bit about how they used to live. They used to wander from teacher to teacher. So wandering likes clouds or finding their way like water. It also describes the way they saw life. Things come together like clouds according to conditions and water finds its way. Water isn’t bothered by a rock in the river, it just flows past it. And, in fact, smoothes it over time. When we were coming up with the ethos of the company, what we were going to express in the marketplace that we really care about, seasonality was top of the list. British food used to have a terrible, terrible reputation. It’s now got a good reputation because people focused on produce. Like fresh ingredients, what was in season, what tasted good right there and then. It’s not the thing with beer, even though seasonal products features heavy in most peoples’ business—to center yourself exclusively around that is not really the thing. I think you get two chances as a company to do what you really believe in. One is when you’re really young and no one knows who you are or what you’re supposed to do yet. You don’t even know what you’re supposed to do, but give it a shot. The other time is when you making a fucking shit-ton of money, and we might not get to that second bit. [laughs] So we figured we might as well give it a shot. If the market supports our efforts like we want, and we’re doing something we really believe in, people are supporting it.
Is the market supporting it?
We are five months in and approaching capacity. We’re looking to make half a million litres of beer in our first year, so it’s not a small start for us at all. You can equate that to about 4,200 U.S. barrels in our first year.
What’s really moving for you in terms of particular beers?
The beers where we really hit the seasonality dead-on. That’s the stuff that seems to sell the best. Like out of our Spring range, we had a Bergamot Hopfen Weisse that really worked. Bergamot lemons are around for a month tops. We made a great Hopfen Weisse that people responded really well to. I wish we would’ve made like three or four times more of it than we did. We were half-brewing in that tank because most of our tanks are double-brew length. We were worried about not selling all the beer. We didn’t know how the market rates were going to react to us. We thought, let’s cut it back to just a half-fill and see how things go. That beer flew out. We’re getting requests for it months after it sold out. We’re still getting people today who are asking, “Hey, are you not going to make that again?” And I’m like, maybe in a year I can! This summer we released a Lager—all British ingredients, traditionally, again. Not too dissimilar from here in the States, people tend to be very loyal to traditional Lager-making in the UK. They have a very Germanic perspective. I’m not German. We’re not German. We’ll do what the hell we like with Lager. I wanted us to feature British hops in a Lager because you can feature them in a Bitter quite well, but that’s what’s been done for a long time. For me, it was fascinating to take a very timid, gentle beer base and treat it with British hops and have them shine in a way that they’ve never shown before. That went very well for us. We made a Grisette—a 3.5% really paired-back Saison. Our table beer from Spring was another hit for us, too. James is very good with his Belgian-style beers.
I mean, making a Grisette in the states, it’d be hard to have a hit. But that performed really well for you?
For us, that was one of the beers that hit the stylistic target dead-on: 3.5%, super drinkable, refreshing. You could follow with a pretty punchy IPA or a big barrel-aged thing with that, and it would still stand up. I was drinking it with some mackerel and ginger-fried rice thing we had at home, and I thought, “I’ll pop a bottle of the Grisette and see how it holds up to really flavorful dish.” My intention with that beer was not just that it was a great summer beer, it was also a good beer for food. Most breweries don’t understand that chefs don’t want the beer to interfere with their bloody food thank you very much.
That’s where my palate comes from. The craft “a-ha” for me was Saison Dupont. It’s always been my avenue to phenomenal flavors. Not the spicier side that gets too overwhelming or the heavier side that gets a little too Bière de Garde, too sweet. I love the light, dry, funk that comes through. Grisette, for me, that’s the top of the top.
I love to drink that beer. It’s been going well for us, and it’s not been the easiest sell.
Well, why pay $6 for a pint of something that’s 3.5% when I could pay the same for 7.5%?
Oh, yes, you have those people here, too? It’s not been the easiest sell for us, but when people have tried it, they think it’s a perfect summer beer. Hopfen Weisse, we’ve made a few different versions as we’ve gone on. We made a Simcoe Hopfen Weisse. We made a U.S. Hopfen Weisse, which is basically rinsing out the rest of our U.S. hop allocation. The next one that comes up is the New Zealand, so a lot more Nelson Sauvin going into that one. We’re trying to shine a light on the unglamorous side of brewing, which is people working in a field somewhere. That’s not the rock star image that most breweries want to portray, but it’s what we really care about. British hop growers are struggling in some senses to transform their offerings in light of requests for much bolder flavors. For years they were asked for less flavor, more bittering. What we’re trying to do is shine a little light on agriculture and say, “If it wasn’t for all these people growing good grain, malting it really well, roasting it really well, we’d be in trouble. If it wasn’t for people growing really nice hops and presenting them to us in a good order, we’d be pretty screwed.” The more we can shine light on that, the better.
We started this interview by talking about the European influence on American craft. Most American brewers, especially first- and second-wave, were inspired by UK, Belgium, Germany. Now those places are being inspired by America for the first time, so it’s kind of reversed the flow a bit. Do you think there will ever be a time when America is inspired by UK beer again?
I hope so. I think when you’re working with a backdrop of strong tradition, it’s very easy for brewers and companies to be a bit precious about these traditional beer styles. Someone’s got to keep them alive. Someone’s got to do a really good job of making ESB, Mild, Bitter, Kolsch, and Pilsner. German brewing tradition, of what I understand, is like nothing else. Every small town has their own brewery, and they’re fiercely loyal to it. We’re not quite like that in the UK, but the majority of the marketplace is loyal to brands that make traditional beer. I think what’s happening with British breweries being inspired by U.S. beer styles and U.S. versions of beer styles—that’s somewhat in its infancy still. What seems to be happening now is a bit more of the transformation of modern American beer styles into a modern British beer style. I see more and more people playing with ESB and Bitter and Mild.
So, they’re reinventing traditional styles?
Yes. And that is definitely going to become more of a feature.
As a person that would want to go to London and experience English beer, that’s what I would hope for. I don’t want to go over there and see a bunch of attempts at West Coast IPAs. That seems fundamentally uninteresting to me as a person who travels and drinks beer and wants to taste something different.
Most definitely. Hence my previous comment about being a little unsatisfied. I was hoping that if this is what these guys can do with hops, what can they do with European beer styles? It turns out, they brew very true-to-style and flawless, which is massively commendable, but not particularly mind-blowing. I’m not being blown away by Euro styles here as much as I am by hoppy beer styles here. There’s a lot of styles that are being hybridized with other styles. Now we’re getting to the stage where some British breweries are starting to consider traditional beer styles, not just making another version of a Bitter or whatever, but saying, “What can we do? How can we take this beer style forward? How can we modernize it?” We’re certainly asking ourselves that question very regularly. I think we may get to the point where there’s another wave of modern, British beer that’s been influenced by Belgian and German tradition, as well as modern American beer.
It seems to me the influence doesn’t have to be about hops or extremity, doesn’t have to be super-high ABV, or overly flavorful. To me, it seems like the best possible influence American beer can have in a place like England is permission to fuck around.
Definitely. I’d add that [while] permission to fuck around is very important, quality here is phenomenal. I might have just been lucky. I’ve been touring some of the best breweries and bars in each city that I’ve been to, but I’ve not had a duff beer. I can honestly say that would be an unusual experience for me even in a very good beer city in the UK. Some of the micros in the UK, they start off with pennies scraped together, with ex-homebrewers, no education, and some people run with that and they do unbelievable things. Other people can struggle. What they’re able to produce from what they know, what they’ve got to work with, and what they can afford—they’re not always able to reach the heights they want to reach so soon. Some modern British beer that I stumble across with reasonable ease in the UK would be flawed—either typical off-flavors, or it’s just a bit unbalanced. The balance and lack of off-flavor in the beers here, if the modern micro-scene in the UK can adopt that, as well as the freedom to do what they hell you want? Sometimes doing the hell what you want is a kind of a cover-up for going off east a bit and not quite hitting your targets. “I did this thing that’s outrageous!” “Yes, you did, but it tastes awful!” So how about you do something outrageous that’s amazing and balanced and quaffable and without flaw? This is something of the maturity that I’d love the British brewing scene to be able to capture.
Beer is so much more than what's in the bottle for the men and women who make it and sell it. There are real livelihoods at stake, and they spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the industry they serve. These are their forward-looking thoughts, and their critical thinking on what's happening now.See more Critical Drinking™ stories