I struggled to work out the best way to write this. Like do I focus on meeting the guys from Cloudwater and everything they told me, or just write it as it was, a nice friendly day out at White Rose Cooperage with all sorts of really interesting people?
No brainer then, a day out at the cooperage it is and it all started with a message on Facebook Messenger from the Master Cooper himself. It’s always good fun going round to see Alastair Simms, he does a nice line in wit and repartee and a decent mug of tea. Anyway, as soon as he mentioned Cloudwater and a cask of beer in the same sentence, I thought, definitely, what is there not to like about this?
I got there bang on eleven and within 10 seconds Alastair thrust a glass into my hand saying, ‘What do you think of this”?
Nice hoppy aroma, tropical fruits, a touch citrussy. ‘A 6.5% IPA from Vocation’, Alastair said. Got to be Life and Death then, but there’s something a bit different? It’s sort of hoppier, sharper, dryer, more complex.
‘Course it’s different, it’s in a wooden cask.’
Soon Alastair was thrusting glasses of ale into the hands of the small crowd of people getting out of the mini bus. I recognised Paul Jones and Al Wall, from photos I’d seen, turns out the rest of them weren’t from Cloudwater at all. Sam Buckley, chef and owner of Where the Light Gets In, a highly acclaimed restaurant in Stockport, told me they were here because they were embarking on a collaboration brew project with the guys at Cloudwater.
I took quite a liking to Sam and his team, nice people, sound ideas. His intention was to collaborate with Cloudwater to design a beer to complement and pair with his food. I like his notion of a no menu tasting menu, you get what you’re given, the very best of locally sourced ingredients. If you need convincing that WTLGI don’t use absolutely the best of everything, just bear in mind, their house ale will be brewed by Cloudwater. A trip to Stockport for a bite to eat is definitely on the cards, only thing is they’re already booked up until the end of October!
If you ever get the chance to have a tour of White Rose Cooperage then I’d recommend it. Interesting, entertaining, you learn all sorts of things, you sometimes get to have a go yourself. The one thing that surprises many people outside the industry is that barrels are properly called casks as in;
Q. ’So what’s this type of barrel called Alastair?’
Alastair. ‘A barrel.’
There’s a bit of something extra as well, the smells and the light of the cooperage give an oddly oldy worldy feel to the place, like stepping back in time, to somewhere better, into something that’s been lost from many places. You can touch and feel the wood and it feels good. It’s like moving into a more organic time zone.
Even the tools are old. Alastair’s had a lot of them for thirty eight years and most of them were second hand then. He showed us one of his planes which he knows was sold to a brewer in Devon in 1865, and it wasn’t new then.
The tour wasn’t just didactic neither. Lot of questions were forthcoming and not just from the brewers. The type of Oak probably raised the most discussion. Alastair said he always sat down with the brewer and ascertained exactly what the brewer wanted from the cask first. He’d then be able to advise exactly which type of Oak to use. He was keen to point out that the casks could be re-used, even when they were being used for barrel ageing; unlike one brewery who sold off some Rum casks after a single use, as planters! Alastair likened the Cooper as the original recycler, not just making new things, but converting wine casks to beer casks, reconditioning old casks, making old into new, making and remaking timeless things that live on and on.
The talk then progressed to vats and cider houses and foudres. I’ll confess, I had to look that one up. Alastair’s take on Metric cracked me up. He told us he’d had some of his tools stolen saying, ‘… the insurance company replaced my tape measure with this stupid thing, all the measurements are in foreign.’
The back to front ‘SSAB’ lettering on a branding iron jobby created a bit of interest, you know, the thing they burn the brewers name into the cask head with. Al told us he’d got a bottle of 1978 Bass Princess Ale from which he was going to harvest the yeast from and create a stock ale, which sounds an interesting project. There was also a lot of interest in glass headed casks too, which would be brilliant behind the bar in a restaurant or on a tap house bar, allowing the punters to see the live product?
I was struck by Paul’s enthusiasm, integrity and his straight talking nature. He was the first to dive in and have a go with a small adze sort of ‘thingy me bob’ when Alastair offered. He wasn’t just doing the ‘oh look at me thing’ neither. He was proper interested, listening, interacting with Alastair, the tool and the wood itself. He didn’t make a bad job too. I got the impression he’d succeed in whatever he chose to do, a sort of natural leader. We discussed lots of things and his outlook impressed me greatly, particularly around peoples freedom of choice, to do what they want, whoever they are, so long as they are right with people and do what’s morally correct. I watched him take some photos and he was very measured, methodical, careful and thoughtful in what he captured. In fact the total opposite of myself!
So, are we going to see Cloudwater back in cask, in wooden casks then? He smiled, shook his head, and said, ‘We might, but only in our own premises, in small, bespoke special brews.’
‘That’d be ideal in them glass headed casks then?’ I said.
Paul smiled at me again and said, ‘It’s a possibility.’
Hopefully it’s a possibility that will happen. I’d love to try some small batch Cloudwater beer from the wood, but that’s not the main reason they’d visited. Paul explained they were more interested in securing Alastair’s services to recondition their own existing casks which were in regular use. There was more than a passing interest in wooden fermenters too.
Frank, open and honest, Paul’s biggest concern was the fact they couldn’t produce sufficient beer to meet demands, meaning there were lots of people out there unable to get hold of Cloudwater beer. Paul reckoned they needed to increase production fourfold just to meet current demand and he didn’t like letting people down who wanted to try their beer. I asked him if a bigger brewery was on the cards, he said it had to be.
If I’m honest, he told me lots of things, like they’ve just signed a lease on a new tap house premises and he was flying out to the states in the morning to do three beer festivals and half a dozen collaboration brews. He did tell me who with, but I didn’t write it down, it didn’t feel right, it wasn’t any kind of an interview, more a chat, so I’ll leave it at that and tell you about the second half of the day in another post …