Cloudwater Soda

When I was 21 years old, I turned sober for seven years, in order to face up to a sense of dependance I felt I had already developed for being buzzed or merry, or worse high as a kite or drunk. At that time, I was not happy with who I was, lacking both the confidence to be or love myself, and the courage to face the sense of inadequacy and social anxiety that I often tried to overcome with a smoke or a drink. I had relied on smoking weed excessively for 6 years, and dutch courage for about the same amount of time. As a young adult, I was determined to face myself, to leave panic attacks and anxiety behind, and achieve a sense of peace without modulating my experience with intoxicants.

I learned to meditate, and studied western, Tibetan, then Zen Buddhism. I went on silent retreats, sitting for up to seven hours a day. I worked a number of jobs, with my fondest memories from those years spent as part of a Buddhist business in Manchester.

Sobriety during those years of my life felt essential. I was sure that all I was missing out on were nights out that may have otherwise taken years off my life. Since returning to drinking alcohol in my late 20s, I still find I yearn for balance and the confidence that working in beer won’t impact my long-term healthfulness, whilst still enjoying merry, belly-aching laughs. I’m no longer drawn to intoxication as I was 20 years ago, as a means of self-medication or numbed self-acceptance, I’m drawn because craft beer is innately social, and it tastes damn good! Too often though, beer spaces provide no compelling alternatives to alcohol, and too often, non-beer spaces lack the cheer, comfort, or atmosphere of the best taprooms, pubs, or bars.

This past year and a half I’ve had many experiences that resulted in ideas for making drinks that are as satisfying and unique as the beers we make, but with none of the alcohol. The community of craft beer brewers, professionals, and drinkers is wonderful not because we share a love of beer, but because we share a broad values and a love a good life and good people. It’s exciting to think that our future is one where we’re not only making better spaces for merriment and socialising within the beer community, but also one that can reach out and include like minded, but temporarily or permanently sober people in our wider society too.

Initially, it made sense to set off with our new soda project under a new banner. But these past few weeks have seen a number of key things happen that have resulted in our sodas coming squarely in-house, as part of Cloudwater’s broadening focus on being a steady and reliable source of good flavour and good times, with or without alcohol.

Upon distributing our first sodas, retailers prised open new shelf space, and nestled soda cans in amongst beers. Brewers gave me great feedback, not just on flavour, but on the need for more low-calorie, delicious drinks that could help punctuate or replace drinking alcohol. Customers introduced our sodas as Cloudwater’s new project. It was clear that to the wider world, that our sister-branded sodas were very “us”. 

Whilst all that was unfolding in the weeks after our initial sample and launch event, a legal challenge was being prepared, and earlier this week we received a letter from DLA Piper, representing Heineken’s interests in a phrase used chiefly from 2010-2013 (but once again just now) in marketing Foster’s with the slogan “Good Call”. Though their trademark registration didn’t extend to non-beer or non-alcoholic drinks when we checked through UK trademark registrations in June 2019 (they’ve now filed to extend coverage to cover non-alcoholic drink classes), and though their efforts to extract legal fees and threaten billing us for losses without an evidence verge on the sort of heavy handed tactics that pitch macro values as quite distant from community-centric craft values, our intention is not to cause confusion in the market at all, nor occupy space that they may wish to occupy in the future (with ultra low, or alcohol free versions of Foster’s Radlers, should such products arise, for example).

I’m sad to say, however, that at present we are pushing back a bill to the tune of thousands of pounds (for Heineken’s legal fees thus far, even though it seems unfathomable to imagine DLA Piper aren’t on a fixed fee retainer), and are being pushed to sign legal documents that leave us vulnerable to further fees, costs, and rather excessive obligations. We are trying to ensure as little disruption to our trade customers as possible, and gain agreement to sell through distributed stock as is, rather than recall for re-labelling (leading to much disruption and further cost). Edwin is reaching out to all our trade customers this afternoon, with as clear of an update as we can offer at this time.

It is obvious that fighting through a tribunal would be a costly distraction from the many projects we have ongoing at the brewery such as commissioning RO water, a new pilot kit, planning a cellar expansion, a possible development of our packaging department with new equipment, relocation of our goods warehouse, and more. Moreover, our future requires us to face the challenges of a much needed swing towards mindful drinking from the mindlessness and gung-ho attitudes that seemed to lead the scene when we started just 5 years ago. Our desire to be well, and be happy, runs hand in hand with our desires to lower our inhibitions, and relax into merriment. We feel we’re more whole, more honest, more likely to be an effective advocate of well-being and health-regarding drinking habits by not wearing two hats (of a separate soda brand, and a beer brand), but by embracing the fullness, and the complexity of the human beings we find ourselves to be.

Cloudwater created waves that have helped the UK beer scene to become one of the most celebrated modern scenes outside of the USA. Cloudwater is now poised to apply all of our collective creativity, production prowess, and forward thinking, to delicious drinks crafted from the ground up for fine flavour, but zero alcohol. As with beer, where one brewery’s R&D can become craft’s new trend, we anticipate there’ll be many imitations of our new sodas and recipes (though we sincerely hope they’ll be respectful, creative, and look to innovate and progress the sector in their own right), but our sights are set as high with soda as they’ve ever been with beer.

One distinction we’d hoped to make, by leading our soda project under a new company banner, was that our strategy with our soda may become broader in focus and output than our beer could ever be, but in a way that wouldn’t create any confusion or further conspiracy theories about how soda strategy might speak of existing upcoming beer strategy. To be clear once more, we have neither the production capacity, appetite, nor lack of demand from indie retailers and outlets, to brew beer for mass distribution (though we are extremely grateful for breweries that focus on such work that we think is essential in reaching new customers). With the turnaround of soda being many, many times faster than our quickest turnaround beers, we may be able to target larger audiences, and could consider working with new routes to market too. Weaning people off high calorie, very acidic and low pH, high GI, artificially sweetened soft drinks, onto whole ingredient, sweetener free, low calorie sodas, and presenting a choice to those of us without a sweet tooth or a desire to lose our teeth, and to those of us that love hoppy drinks but want to carefully moderate our drinking, is our broad aim with Cloudwater Soda, and one that we’ll leave as untethered as possible.

I, and many others in the industry, long to see some return to regionality in beer. Indeed, I’ve said publicly on several occasions that getting our beer to everyone is therefore not our intention at all (it’s really, really nice to travel, and experience different foods and drinks, and different beers in new places). Our intention with Cloudwater Soda however, is to make the best hoppy, and beer flavour inspired alcohol free drinks we possibly can, and reach as many people as we possibly can that want to drink them. We may look to follow in the footsteps of many of our peers in beer, and look to co-packers, or contract-brewing partners, should we face demands for the soda that we can’t meet wholly in house.

I’d like to pass you over to Anja Madhvani, (now a member of our team at Cloudwater with a focus on soda, along with our new Head of Sales for soda, Edwin Methu-Frost), for her thoughts and experiences.

Drinking culture is changing. A quick Google will reveal a wealth of statistics on this, but we need look no further than our own drinking habits to see this shift in behaviour. As a group of people who work with alcohol day in, day out, we are aware of the ‘requirement’ in this industry to drink, from tasting new products to attending beer festivals, and hosting visitors and events. Drinking beer and other alcohol becomes the default social activity, and sometimes when we step back we may find that we aren’t always 100% comfortable with our drinking habits and how they impact on us, from mental health to productivity and physical wellbeing. We want to encourage wellness amongst our own team and our wider industry colleagues and peers, and hope that this will also impact the way our customers choose to drink. There is a happy balance that can be found.

It’s becoming clear that people want to make health-conscious choices, and that we can’t really continue as an industry to be a model for unhinged, or uncontrolled drinking. It isn’t sustainable, and it isn’t fair to those of us working in the industry, or to the communities that we serve. We aren’t here to preach, you are free to drink as you choose. But we are here to try and have a positive impact, to create inclusivity and encourage mindful choices.

There are many reasons to drink, some better than others. These are modelled to us through perpetual marketing, from billboards, magazines and social media influencers to TV and cinema. We drink to celebrate at weddings, birthdays, sporting events, Fridays. We drink to commiserate a bad day, a loss, a break up. We drink at brunch, client lunches, on train journeys, and flights. It is deeply ingrained in our culture.

People choose not to drink for many reasons; illness, religion, pregnancy, problematic relationships with alcohol, clean living, allergies, mindfulness and moderated consumption, and believe it or not, some people just don’t like it. And that’s cool. We wanted to create something that can be enjoyed by all, no matter your stance on booze, the occasion, or the time of day. Ultimately, we believe that bold, seasonal, complex, and grown-up flavours don’t have to be exclusive to alcohol.

We enjoy grown-up alternatives when we are choosing not to drink, and we wanted to create something that contributes to this category. There are already many breweries making exciting advances in the low and no beer category, but we also see that many non-drinkers decide to avoid alcohol-free equivalents. Some people have never consumed and developed a taste for the full-strength versions, or find them triggering if a previously fractious relationship with alcohol exists. This is how we came to the decision to make soda, but we hope not as you’ve seen it before. 

We approach our sodas as Cloudwater have always approached beer, with a focus on quality production, balanced flavour, precision, creativity, and seasonality. We aim to bring you a core range, as well as seasonal one-offs and collaborative works with the people that inspire us. In brewing our beer we reap bold flavours from the humblest of whole ingredients, and we want to bring these flavours to a broader audience. We want to give everyone the chance to understand and appreciate the character of hops, whether they are a drinker or non-drinker. More often than not, soft drinks are full of sugar and additives. We’re bringing you Cloudwater Soda to offer you an alternative. Something full of flavour, to be enjoyed slowly, an alternative to a boozy food pairing, something that will silence that guilty voice in the back of your head ‘this is just sugar and empty calories’. Our sodas meet the demands of a mature palate in a world of changing tastes and drinkers mindful of moderation and their health.

Whoever you are and whatever your lifestyle, we hope that Cloudwater Soda is a worthy and refreshing option for you – not lacking from being free from alcohol, but something delicious, exciting, and new. Bringing soda squarely into Cloudwater will undoubtedly result in being one of the best calls we could possibly make.

Paul & Anja

Paul Jones