On the 26th of September 2016 I received an email that made me jump up and down with excitement – Jennifer Tucker’s invitation to RateBeer Best arrived in my inbox and filled me with just about every emotion a young business owner could feel.
“You have been selected to participate in this exclusive event based on your brewery's world class performance at RateBeer. The awards ceremony Sunday morning recognises RateBeer Best winners for the year 2016 and we strongly encourage your attendance.”
Yeah whatever (we’re never quite good enough, you understand), but damn right I’ll make the journey and head out to SF to participate (even though I’m not what you’d call a relaxed airline passenger)!
See, despite our utmost focus on quality we always think we’re behind and catching up to who we consider the best. We’ve never thought of ourselves as up there with any of the UK’s best breweries, let alone breweries abroad, many of whom we think operate on levels of finesse, nuance, or boldness we can only dream of.
Six months in our beer was shaking off early diacetyl presentation and ineffective CIP problems (read unintentional brett infections and lab result scares), gradually modernising, dropping in bitterness from its near IBU war beginnings, and picking up in aroma and boldness. Twelve months in we found ourselves trying as hard as we could to catch up to the best in the UK, from those focused on flavour to those focused on consistency, and to all those in between too. Eighteen months in and we felt like we were finally hitting our stride, but damn, all those beers I’d brought back from the US over the months seemed so far ahead of what we were able to achieve in terms of flavour impact (and in some senses, they still do). But as we aren’t a US brewery – we’re situated ideologically somewhere between European drinkability and finesse and US boldness and progressiveness, and we’re keen to find our own way forward through experimentation and constant evolution.
To ship our beer out to RateBeer Best we pushed back against the usual sea freight route to get our beer out to California, sucked up the financial losses to try and get the beers on tap over there at reasonable prices, and put kegs on a plane destined for San Francisco. After all, we’d been invited to RateBeer Best, at least we’d presumed, off the back of the reviews for our Double IPAs, so the least we could do to feel any confidence was to send fresh beer.
When I arrived in San Francisco a few weeks ago, and met up with our twelfth, and newest employee Katie (more on this in a future post), we both buzzed with anticipation. Would our beer taste ok at the tap takeover Kevin at Shelton Brothers had arranged at Mikkeller SF? Would any of the visiting brewers, in town for RBB, think we were doing ok? Would De Garde regret lining up a Manchester based collaboration (you’re all coming to their tap takeover, right?), and would the team at Cellarmaker feel like we could do their progressive, juicy beer making justice with our collaboration too?
Our lives at the brewery are deep in such critical, reflective questions. Nothing we do ever feels good enough, so not much we arrange, get invited to, or partake in ever really feels like something we’re fully worthy of.
Let’s skip ahead a week or so, to our time at RateBeer Best Festival. As new kids on the block (and with the compromised position I always worry we’re in) I knew we weren’t going to draw a crowd off the bat, and was deeply annoyed not to have remembered to bring anything to dress our bar, but people trickled by as the queues grew to impressive lengths for excellent breweries like Side Project, De Garde, and Trillium. As mid afternoon arrived, and as attendees had presumably sampled beers they already knew or had heard about, we started to pick up, until we too had a near continuous queue for the rest of the session, and weren’t far off selling out of beer too by the end. This felt great – each time we’ve visited the US to pour our beer we’re starting from scratch, without a reputation, and with only the quality of our service and beer right there and then to rely on. It was deeply exciting to see attendees return back for more samples, some even professing “Best DIPA in here!” and other such kind but seemingly nonsensical statements. For what it’s worth, I take every compliment as seriously as it’s given, even if I hold differing views about where our beer is in comparison to breweries we think of as better.
Saturday night passed with so many delicious beers in the company of so many wonderful people in the industry, and precious time to unwind, relax, chew the fat, and have a damn good laugh.
I awoke to what can only be described as a difficult start. Jet lag the week leading up to RBB, fighting off a bug, and a hangover combined to make packing my bags and making the award ceremony a struggle, but there was nothing going to stop me! I had no idea what to expect, but I felt confident we weren’t going to be sat in the audience just to applaud other people.
We picked up 7 awards right off the bat, even before the ceremony started:
• Best Beers in the World - DIPA - v3
• Best New Beers - Cloudwater DIPA - v10
• Best New Beers - Cloudwater DIPA - v3
• Best New Beers - Cloudwater DIPA - v6
• Best New Beers - Cloudwater DIPA - v8
• Best in Pale Lager - Bronze - Cloudwater Spring Summer 2016 - IPL Centennial
• Best in Double IPA - Silver - Cloudwater DIPA - v3
Wow! And I was told there was more to come!
As Joe Tucker (Mr RateBeer and all round jolly nice man) got things started my mind raced around what might lie ahead.
Best Brewery in Greater Manchester!
Best Beer in Greater Manchester! Yes!
Ok. Totally worth the journey already.
Best Brewery in England! What?! Seriously?! I mean I know we’ve made some great beers this past year, but we’re only just getting started…
Top 100 Breweries In The World. Holy fuck. Wow. Oh my, I mean I was blown away to get best in England, but Top 100? You guys sure?! Ok, so Beavertown, Thornbridge, Kernel, Magic Rock, Siren, Buxton, are all there. I guess we’re in a similar league to them. Ok…
I was totally buzzing. To go from Best New Brewery in England 2015 to the Top 100 Breweries 2016 was a complete thrill. As I take care of all the social media I sat back down to post some snaps to our accounts. The team back home will be chuffed, I thought!
And then something happened nobody would have predicted. Sam from Other Half took to the stage for 10th Best in the World. Then a few places up in 7th Trevor from De Garde. Makes sense. They’re great guys, and their beers are really impressive too. Hill Farmstead is bound to hit 1st again, so who else is going to be left? Get that Top 100 photo posted dude!
“5th Best goes to Cloudwater.”
WTAF?! I ran up! Oh my! No fucking way. No way. Seriously?! I was speechless, with the biggest smile on my face!
There I was, on stage alongside nine of the world’s best breweries, representing not even yet a toddler of a brewery in a regional city in England (that can hardly be said to have welcomed us with open arms, but has thankfully warmed to us over time) – totally stunned.
After many congratulations, and a few swigs of beer to cheer all the awarded breweries it started to sink in.
Shaun Hill congratulated me and asked if we’d got Best New Brewery last year. Yeah, how come? I didn’t get it at first, not until Jennifer Tucker told me that we’re only the second brewery in RBB history to go from Best New Brewery (by region) to a place in the Top 10 (apart from Hill Farmstead). We were also the first brewery from the UK to get into the Top 10 too. Heavy!
So what now? I mean where on earth do we go from here?
Regardless of any accolades we’ve received so far, and might receive in the future, we’ve still only one goal, the same goal we’ve had that fired us up to start in the first place – to make the best beer we possibly can. I hope it’ll be our life’s work, and it will undoubtedly take so much more planning, critical thinking, process improvement, reality checks, confidence, honesty, self belief, off flavour training, thirst for knowledge, and all the other things that I guess helped get us this far so soon.
Nothing matters to us more than you guys getting great value for money from our beers, and us raising expectations again and again, both of what you guys expect to get from us, and from the modern British brewing industry as a whole, whilst we work hard to grow our own expectations of what we think we’re capable of achieving too. We’re so incredibly grateful for the recognition from British beer lovers up and down the country, and solemnly promise to keep pushing on even harder than we ever thought we could. I hope there’s a long road ahead of us, and that we make ever fewer mistakes in pursuit of ever better beer. Thanks so much for all your support – the critical praise when we get things right, and the kind and patient constructive criticism when we screw things up.
We’ve a lot to live up to, and will do everything we can to go even further than we’ve ever hoped. Here’s to our third year brewing, a year when political manoeuvres may see many of us struggle to keep our chins up, but a year where we’ll do our best to make those moments of relaxation over a beer as good as we possibly can.
P.S. Save the dates – 16.02.18-18.02.18, Manchester.