We used to drive into Manchester past Maine Road (Manchester City’s old ground), through Moss Side and the always-steaming Royal Brewery of Scottish & Newcastle; then skirt past Whalley Range to the top of Deansgate just as the arced roof of GMEX came into view, or swerve a tighter left to Old Trafford, like Ryan Giggs cutting in from the wing. Moss Side remains my first impression of Manchester, a city which, despite years living in the Midlands now, still feels ‘mine’. But boy, what an impression: the street fronts then, as most are today, were Victorian terraces – strong, red, Ruabon brick, glossy but tarnished, clothed by plastic shop facades of a range of implausible businesses, 48 sheet poster hoardings and spray-paint tags. Behind was the urban ‘improvement’: low rise local authority dwellings where once were the back-to-backs; low-rise, red or blue flags fluttering depending on your allegiance, set off on battleship grey and cream concrete. Not far north of here is the city centre; back in the ’80s the blooming was only just beginning and this area was tough, rough and uneasy on the eye.
And Manchester’s beer weren’t that easy on the throat back then either. I’ll be honest, whenever I drive home, I see my first Robinson’s pub (The Lawton Arms usually) and there’s a pang of ‘I’m home‘. But I never got on with their beer. There was Boddington’s of course, Boddies, which had mythical status growing up – pale, strong, smooth, hardy somehow, brewed up next to the prison, it somehow erred on the boundaries of good and evil. Then Whitbread got hold of it and turned it into a confection, a very successful one for a few years I grant you, what with all the ‘Cream of‘ and Blue Tits and Wafer Cones and that, but a confection nonetheless; a confection that today it is reaping the rewards from. It’s largely gone (unless you’re in a Whitbread owned Premier Inn, well known for their beer range) and it’s mythical presence is lost forever. And there was Hydes, but they were confined to their own pubs so were off my radar. And that was it; my mental landscape: Manchester, rich, industrious, ambitious in all but beer.
It would be trite to say it’s changing – there are so many craft breweries now that even many villages have one – what am I saying? There’s one on top of a Moor – but there are Manchester beers that now have that ‘edge’ just as the city has in industry, in architecture, in music, in media, in sport. So many in fact, that I worry – a worry that I know many don’t share – but I worry about how these breweries can survive in an environment where we are drinking less in general, drinking less beer in turn and where the big boys are waking up to the threat and the opportunity posed by craft. The key of course, even if your exit strategy is to sell up, is to create a brand, and a brand built off beer that is superbly brewed and truly different.
That’s what Cloudwater are doing. A tongue-in-cheek riff on Manchester’s rep for precipitation, the rainy season is at the heart of the brand – although every time I’ve been up recently it’s been unseasonably warm and bright. Cloudwater are up round the back of Piccalilli Station and they’re brewing seasonal beers – seasonality in fact, is at the heart of what makes them different. Perhaps it’s the stories of queues round the block for Russian River’s ‘Pliny the Elder‘ that drew them to it; or perhaps it’s just a philosophy of ‘we’ll sell what we brew’ – a philosophy that takes you away from having to worry about the economies of brewing to a tight ‘product specification’ band, worrying more about brewing efficiently and consistently rather than the taste, a skill in itself (and a skill the big boys are better at than many craft players). That neck of the woods, Ancoats, is Lowry territory of course, and there are more than hints of it today. Victorian factories lying dormant or repurposed; narrow streets, still lain to setts or tarmaced over, the setts peeping through down the edges or where wear and tear has scuffed off the surface. From improbable nooks and crannies, buddleia springs out with its attendant insect life as if to warn that if we don’t reclaim the buildings, they will.
It’s this ‘when it’s gone it’s gone’ word of mouth that seems to be fuelling Cloudwater’s burgeoning reputation. Their Double IPA v3 (DIPA v3) has a menacing, grasping hand jumping out as a greeting: it sports bittering hop in abundance and then four aroma hops Citra, Chinook, Comet and Mosaic, a blend of east coast, west coast and the Pacific all raining down in Manchester. With the addition of brewing sugar, this beer is a whopper and it seems to cover every dimension of IPAdom: piney and tangy, like you’re shoes scuffing up pine needles in a forest; grassy and dry, with the aromas of newly mown lawns in Spring and that spiciness, both I think, from the prodigious hopping and the yeast strain. I drank it whilst reading the paper (at 9% ABV, I should say whilst I could read the paper – it got a little blurry after a while, but that could be age) and the ever-so off white head lasted and lasted as only the real cream of Manchester could.
I was actually more impressed though with their Dark Lager from their winter range. A more modest 5.5% ABV, but actually a ‘dark’ ‘lager’, i.e. it was dark from the more roasted proportion of the malt, but it’s many stratifications of flavours, its layers attested to good lagering. This wasn’t a mild ale that’s been laid-low for a week more and masquerades as ‘lager’. This had that rounded smoothness, that matured and assured depth of character where no single element overwhelms – and – and this is important, it is drinkable, sessionable, call it what you will. A lager in name, with the character of a refined ale. And there is something of the Lowry about these beers; seemingly simple – from the labels, to the styles – but underneath it is beguilingly complex and fulfilling. A fitting revitalisation to a part of Manchester that has been under a raincloud for many years.