Postcard From The UK: Cloudwater

"The real pain is to come."

Up until a few weeks ago, if you were going to chat to Paul Jones, the founder of Cloudwater (pictured above right), you'd go in knowing to expect a wide-ranging conversation. It would in all likelihood veer broader and deeper than mere beer and brewing, but the chances are it wouldn't include phrases such as that. Or repeated use of the word "chaos".

Yet, as he prepares to join Aussie beer drinkers online as part of Never Mind The Shutdown – Here's The Growlers during Virtual Good Beer Week, the man behind the Manchester brewery that's grown rapidly into one of the most sought after brands in the world has plenty on his plate.

When we speak, he's coming to terms with an announcement from the British PM Boris Johnson that appears to have done little more than sprinkle confusion throughout a country already dealing with the second highest official COVID-19 death toll on the planet. And, having managed to morph Cloudwater into something that is surviving for now, he's already starting to think about how the brewing industry – and the wider ecology of industries in which it sits – will make it out the other side.

"It's pretty unnerving and to try to run a business in amongst all that has been super stressful," he says. "We've had to find new ways to cope and adapt and hopefully bring people a little bit of what they are used to and need to find some sense of relaxation in this times."

As with many breweries here in Australia, that's involved a huge switch in focus to online. Prior to the shutdown in the UK, 93 percent of Cloudwater's beer was sold into trade – pubs, bottleshops, distributors – with just seven percent going through their two taprooms and their online store.

"Overnight, 100 percent of the draught beer market ceased to exist," Paul says. "We scrambled and took on a couple of new export customers but still 80 percent of our cellar was full."

Brewery staff's roles switched to packaging beers to fill online orders. Both taprooms were closed and a decision was taken to avoid any form of takeaway so as to avoid giving anyone a reason not to stay home.

Cloudwater launched at a time when the craft beer scene had been growing fast in the UK for a number of years so Paul says they'd been able to build their business off the back of a pre-existing audience. In this new climate, however, that's no longer the case; "We're not going to survive off craft beer drinkers," he admits.

So, as with brewers here, they've been looking for ways to "put ourselves in front of a wide audience", which has included a campaign in support of NHS and other key workers.

"My wife's a doctor and a lot of friends and family are in the health service as well so we [as brewers] might feel like we were going through it but our jobs don't involve risking death," he says.

 

Cloudwater's iconic logo on another signature hazy, hoppy release.

 

He's keen to highlight potential challenges elsewhere too, notably within agriculture. While the grain suppliers he's spoken to are confident other outlets, such as the global whisky industry, will see them through it's a different picture when it comes to hops. The Northern Hemisphere harvest and selection rolls around in September and his main supplier, Yakima Chief Hops, have told him they're worried brewers won't come good on their contracts, meaning they'll have 2019 hops taking up cold storage space needed for this year's crop.

While Cloudwater – best known for their highly hopped IPAs – have clawed back from a couple of weeks of zero production to around 45 percent of pre-pandemic levels, Paul isn't confident they'll get through their supply.

"Some of [the growers] are looking at cutting bines so they don't use up nutrients and water," he says. "It's been pretty much bounty time for the hop industry. We have to think about this stuff in the manufacturing industry."

As for the opening quote to this article, one that reflects comments from Mazen Hajjar of Hawkers in our 50 Days Of Lockdown article from Monday, it relates to his fears as to what lies ahead, when the point is reached at which the hospitality trade can start to open up again. They are fears that range from just how breweries calculate when to start producing beer destined for trade again – as well as how much – to concerns over safety. And they're likely to apply in any country with traditionally vibrant hospitality and nightlife cultures.

How does a business already carrying a financial burden from the shutdown fund the resupply of customers in the knowledge payment will take one to three months to come in – and that's if the businesses you supply survive those opening weeks? How many people will be allowed to go to pubs? How many will even want to at first? What if there's another spike in cases and the government has to tighten restrictions once more?

"It's going to be really tense," Paul says. "The first thing the wider industry is going to want when it reopens is a tonne of beer but overproduction is really risky."

He adds: "Another thing that's been massively highlighted is that people are acting as if it's temporary. Some of the effects of this will be here with us for years. The aviation and travel industry will be affected by this for years and years. How it will reshape life in developed and developing countries remains to be seen."

And that reshaping includes how we'll socialise and the role going out will play in our lives.

"Maybe people in the UK have relied on pubs and bars and restaurants being places they can use to treat themselves and socialise and it's how a lot of people cope with mental health pressure. I hope that people have learned strategies to survive and thrive in these times.

"Will it mean people need pubs less in the future? Are the people that are there first queueing up [when we reopen] the ones that we want? Are they there to support the industry or is it because it's been desperate for them? How do you evaluate who's safe for your staff? We have to figure out how to play our part when the easing comes."

And with the easing – not to mention the tapering off of furlough support, the UK's more generous version of JobKeeper Payments – will come a shake out.

"It's going to be chaos at that point," he says. "For the large part, the industry has managed to avoid closure thus far but the wolf is at the door."

For all that, alongside the ability of so many businesses to change their models so quickly for the new look landscape, he says there are positives to be found, including one related to his virtual Meet The Brewer session when he beams in from Manchester to Australia this Saturday.

The Cloudwater team has been exploring online possibilities beyond selling beer and merch and he sees it as something more people will become accustomed to over the coming months, meaning he can supplement his trips Down Under in person will virtual events.

"I can't crack open a beer with you every week at 9am," he says. "But I'm happy to do it every now and then."


For more on how to get involved in Saturday's Never Mind The Shutdown event and next week's session with Polly's Brew Co out of Wales, head here

As part of the #keepinglocalalive campaign we're running Postcards from the Edge stories, highlighting the ways in which people are adapting to survive. If you've got a story you think is suitable – or have something to add to the campaign resources online – get in touch.

Photos from Cloudwater's socials.

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