Reflecting, rebuilding and re-energising

Dec 27, 2021

In the fast-moving, ever-changing landscape of the pandemic, finding opportunities to pause for reflection proved incredibly difficult.

For much of the past two years, it’s felt like every week has brought a new challenge and so much of our energy has been directed towards adaptations, adjustments and changes of direction.

In that intense environment, we had to make decisions fast, on the fly and turn our hands quickly to whatever needed our attention in any given moment. Our team has needed to be incredibly adaptable, working across various areas and helping other departments just to keep things going. Unfortunately, this has meant opportunities for collective problem-solving and co-working with the wider industry proved to be few and far between.

Only in the last two months does it feel like we’ve finally had chance to take stock, examine what we’ve done well and not-so-well, and put detailed plans in place for the years to come. Internally, we’ve committed to a process of reflection, taking on board feedback from staff, customers and industry peers, in order to better serve our customers and community.

We know we’ve made some mis-steps over the past two years but we’re a team of almost 60 passionate people who are determined to learn from the experience and embody a spirit of positive change within this industry.

 

A renewed sense of community

There have been a number of positive outcomes to emerge from the past two years too, not least of all in building stronger bonds within our home city of Manchester.

When the first lockdown was announced in March 2020, we all scrambled to prepare for the unknown, struggling to make sense of what business might look like while fragments of information reached us bit by bit.

One of our earliest thoughts, after considering how our own sales model would need to change, was for our brewing friends who did not have an existing direct-to-customer platform, the appropriate licensing or access to the kind of wide customer base we benefited from ourselves.

So we reached out to breweries - primarily in the Manchester area - with an offer for them to use our webshop while taking 90% of all sales revenue (the other 10% being used to cover the costs of staff, packaging, fulfilment and shipping). The initiative grew from there as we had conversations with folks on the back of the initial launch and our friends from Boundary in Belfast, where licensing is notoriously difficult, recently told us it’s unlikely they would have survived the pandemic without the support we provided to them.

The spirit of that offer was extended to the wider hospitality industry in our home city too and we worked with the restaurant Higher Ground to help them set up an at-home offering that was delivered via our own refrigerated vans. Following on from this, we also set up meal club events with independent food traders The Dosa, What’s Your Beef, Wallace & Sons and On The Eighth Day, helping them to generate much-needed revenue at a time when their business was severely curtailed or completely shuttered.

 

A commitment to giving back

Despite the struggles we’ve faced throughout the pandemic, we felt it was important not to pull back from our commitment to supporting causes we’re passionate about.

So we have continued to devote time, energy and financial support to a number of projects that are close to our hearts, including Brave Noise, Black Is Beautiful, Reign or Shine and Beer Kulture among many others.

Over the past two years, we’ve donated £78,824 to good causes through a series of charitable beers and initiatives, including our not-for-profit festival Friends & Family & Beer, which raised more than £11,000 for Wood Street Mission and The Pankhurst Trust despite the onset of the pandemic meaning we were forced to waste a significant amount of leftover beer that we would would otherwise have sold on in order to boost the total.

We are also proud to have played a role in the foundation of Eat Well, a truly collaborative effort from chefs and hospitality professionals in Manchester that formed as a reaction to the growth in inequality exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This non-profit organisation provides up to 1,000 chef-made meals for vulnerable people across Greater Manchester and provides a great example of what can be achieved when like-minded businesses work together.

We will also continue to devote production capacity and resources to Queer Brewing, Rock Leopard, Eko Brewery and, soon, Good Karma - four breweries currently without their own bricks-and-mortar facilities who haven’t benefited from the same access to opportunity as we did. To facilitate positive change within our industry, we feel it’s important to do what we can to support and platform business like these ones.

So, it is this energy we are aiming to carry forward into 2022 and there's so much we can achieve working closer together with our community and industry peers.

 

Rebuilding bridges

There have, however, been mis-steps too and we have frequently found it difficult to effectively communicate the intentions behind decisions with wider implications for the industry, largely because the physical distance imposed by the pandemic has widened gaps in communication.

In those gaps, mistrust has grown and it feels like we've too often focused on what divides, rather than unites us.

But we're determined to put this right, and we'll start by doing more to listen to customers, colleagues and peers.

When we took the decision to pause supply to the independent trade in late March 2020, we did so with the survival of our business and the safeguarding of jobs as our sole motivation.

We had stripped production back to the bare bones in order to introduce safety measures designed to reduce the risk of infection and transmission, and were wondering how on earth we would recoup around £250,000 in unpaid trade debt. At the same time, we were met with unprecedented and unexpected demand on our webshop and scrambled to safeguard jobs, not just by turning to a lower-risk sales channel that wasn't credit dependent but also by reallocating staff from jobs in our bars and brewery to roles in the warehouse or online retail.

In the circumstances and with no possibility of satisfying all the demand we faced from trade, we decided to step back completely due mainly to the fact that our production output was massively decreased until we were in a better position to reliably supply trade accounts once more. We started supplying direct trade customers again in mid-May 2020 and then, once we’d built up enough stock to more consistently send it far and wide, we began regularly supplying distributors again in early August 2020.

Looking back, we understand why this caused consternation among retailers, who were faced by much of the same uncertainty and worry. Although our decision was made with the best of intentions, it had wider implications which could have been addressed through open dialogue with those affected and we resolve to approach such situations with a more holistic view in the future.

Of course, our decision to supply beer to Tesco was the source of much debate too and, again, we understand why it caused concern among retailers. The move was taken primarily to provide a platform and much-needed income for the same four breweries we mentioned further up this piece - Queer Brewing, Rock Leopard, Eko Brewery and Good Karma - as well as increasing the accessibility of our own beer. It’s perhaps fair to say the benefits of this initiative have not been realised as fully as we might have hoped and we have recently refreshed the Beer With Big Ideas pack as a way of trying to generate increased revenue for the collaboration breweries.

We are, of course, concerned about the revelations regarding a negative workplace culture at BrewDog, who brew these beers on our behalf, and all five of the breweries working on this project have clearly outlined those concerns to them, as well as our hopes for change. The situation as it stands now is that we have a contract to continue supplying beer to Tesco via BrewDog, which is currently under review. Any decisions made within this context have a long lead time and it will be a little while before you see outcomes from conversations being held now.

But we hope to prove to the independent trade, through our actions over the coming years, that we are devoted to safeguarding their long-term health and can work closely with them on an offering that excites customers and stands distinct from that which is available in supermarkets. We are ready to listen, learn and improve, so that we can move forward collectively.

 

Opening lines of communication

Building mutual understanding and trust will be a major focus for us in 2022 and beyond. We’ve already taken steps internally to strengthen this, through initiatives such as an anonymous employee engagement survey, aimed at giving staff the opportunity to provide honest feedback on our culture, leadership and policies, and our employee council, which is intended to provide staff from different departments with an opportunity to feed into decision-making and raise issues for discussion with senior management.

We will aim to apply the same approach more widely too, by ensuring we are more present within our industry and encouraging two-way dialogue with drinkers, trade professionals and peers.

This is the focus of our ongoing series of events, A Beer With Friends, which kicked off this month and will run throughout early 2022. We’re approaching these events in a spirit of open engagement, using them as an opportunity to listen to folks’ hopes and concerns, understand what we can do better and discuss ways in which we can all work together to produce better outcomes.

Honest, transparent discussion was something that characterised the regular events we organised in our early years and we feel it is possibly more important now than ever before to facilitate those kinds of in-person exchanges.

This series follows on the back of our Together Again initiative too, which aimed to build stronger links between breweries, venues and drinkers, and is a format we’ll look to repeat on a regular basis. It’s important for us to support smaller breweries that do not currently benefit from the same platform we enjoy, to learn from them and, together, to support the independent trade in order to build a stronger, more sustainable future.

Both 2020 and 2021 have been difficult in a number of ways, so even more honest, open and direct in person communication is a key focus for us moving forward. We’re here as always to listen, learn and develop in any way possible.

 

Co-working and collaboration

These are just the first steps in our drive to foster a more cooperative and collaborative environment and we’ll continue to develop our approach based on the feedback we receive through in-person conversation.

Ultimately, we’re all human beings who share many of the same values, hopes and aspirations. We’d love it if we could all reconnect over the things that unify us, build greater trust in one another,  and share in each other’s successes.

There will undoubtedly be more challenges ahead and it’s important to acknowledge the sacrifices we’ve all had to make over the past two years, as well as the losses we’ve suffered.

But we also believe it’s important to provide people with opportunities to relax, unwind and enjoy moments of fun, unburdened by the pressures of everyday life. That has to be one of the main goals we’re all working towards but we won’t be able to achieve that if our own industry feels tense and pressured.

We hope to meet as many of you as possible throughout 2022 for a beer and a chat and, if you have any thoughts you’d like to share on any of this, please do try to come along to one of our A Beer With Friends events to discuss them with us in person. We’re always open to feedback via email too and you can reach us using info@cloudwaterbrew.co

Proper DIPA

Our 8th DIPA in our  Proper DIPA series is out this week, called Proper DIPA NZ edition, a perfect example of the beautiful things that happen when modern meets tradition.We've infused Southern Cross and NZ Cascade to accentuate the JW Lees yeast strain.This DIPA excels in both body and hop intensity, delivering a hearty hop medley characterised by quintessential NZ hop aromas of white grape, all culminating in an exceptionally dank finish.Enjoyed in the video by JW Lees brewer Matthew and available in our webshop now. 

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