Mark Stretton meets David Soley, who last year merged Cameron's and Castle Eden to safeguard the art of brewing in the North East.
I wanted to talk profit and loss but the chairman and chief executive was preoccupied with pensioners and football. "Part of being a regional brewer is interacting with the local community," he declared. "We do lots of things locally because it's not our divine right to be first choice in our trading area.
"That's why we sponsor Hartlepool Football Club and have the pensioners in here on a Friday afternoon," explained David Soley. The pensioners are ex-brewery workers who come to the Cameron's brewery for a couple of hours, play cards, have sandwiches and check the quality of the ale served in the bar. It is not a profit-making exercise.
Many have worked in the brewhouse or on the kegging line all of their working lives - if you are lucky enough to have a job in this area you do your best to keep it. Like other industries such as mining and shipbuilding, brewing is almost a distant memory in the North East. Cameron's is the only regional brewery left but it almost followed the rest when it faced closure two years ago. Along came David Soley. A straight-talking Sunderland man who was not born with the silver spoon of family brewing in his mouth.
A self-made multi-millionaire and bored of semi-retirement, David decided to buy a brewing business. But that was in 1998 and the brewery was not Cameron's. "It was very opportunistic," he said. "A friend of mine told me Whitbread was putting Castle Eden up for sale. It was clear it wanted to close it down but we managed to persuade it to sell it to us.
"Being an outsider, I saw a business with history, heritage, tradition and many other qualities but what we really bought was a dilapidated old brewery that was falling apart."
After a couple of gruelling years David realised that he would not make his second fortune here - Castle Eden was haemorrhaging money.
At the same time (2001) Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries (W&DB) was looking to rationalise its business. It had four breweries in the UK, which the board decided was two too many. It would close Cameron's Lion Brewery up the road. The brewery was a big site in good condition and a different proposition to Castle Eden. David entered talks and the two parties did a deal.
But there was a hitch - to finance it, David needed planning permission to knock down Castle Eden to make way for houses. It took the intervention of Hartlepool MP Peter Mandelson and Prime Minister Tony Blair - the local MP for Castle Eden - to enable planning to go through.
So Castle Eden effectively moved 10 miles to the Lion Brewery in Hartlepool, Co Durham, and renamed itself Cameron's.
It combined the Castle Eden and Cameron beer brands into one portfolio and retained the Castle Eden pub estate. It also took on some of the brewing contracts from W&DB.
"There was a lot of confusion when we moved," he said. "It got to the point where the receptionist didn't know how to answer the phone."
David and his directors decided they had to take the Cameron's name. "If the new boys had come in and renamed the brewery it would have been difficult to win local support," he said.
The Lion Brewery - named after Cameron's logo - is not far short of being up there with the biggest in the country, producing 240,000 barrels a year. The capacity is 440,000 barrels and the aim is to fill it with more Cameron's beer and contract brewing.
Although the company dates back to the 1830s, most of the brewery was built in 1890 when the company had aspirations to supply the whole of the North East. There are still a few reminders of lavish opulence. The floor and walls of the brewhouse are decked out in Italian marble that cost £7,000 in 1970.
Brands include Cameron's Strongarm, Cameron's Creamy Bitter, Castle Eden Ale, Trophy, Nimmo's and the Vaux lager brand Scorpion, as well as speciality brews like the Chocolate Stout that is shipped to Finland.
The company has strong links with Scottish Courage and contract brews Kronenbourg 1664. "We thought about putting Scorpion on draught but we can't spend £8m marketing it," said David. "Our real option was to join forces with a national for lager."
David and marketing director Mike Berriman have grand plans for the cask ales. "When you think of good real ales," said David, "you think of Marston's Pedigree, Fuller's London Pride or Timothy Taylor Landlord. I want to try to make Strongarm or Cameron's Creamy Bitter held in the same esteem. We want a must-stock situation."
The pub estate comprises 25 tenancies. "We are way behind on pubs," he said. "The ones we do have will probably not be a long-term part of the business.
"We will buy more of the right kind of pubs - we need more calves feeding from the brewery cow. We are aiming for 200."
Many regional brewers are seeing big returns from managed houses, especially from those with a significant food operation, but Cameron's is not interested in hands-on retailing. "Why don't we have managed pubs?" he said. "The same reason we don't have David Lloyd gyms. There is lots of City pressure on business these days. They tell you to buy into pubs, then sell out of pubs, buy into hotels, then sell out, then buy into fitness clubs and sell out again. We like brewing beer and running tenanted pubs."
In his pubs and around the brewery, he looks like a brewer born to the business. But David qualified as a chartered accountant before going into engineering. He built up Davey Off-Shore Modules and then sold it in 1990. "It was a relatively small-margin business," said David. "We used to tender for £100m contracts and be happy if we could make £4m to £5m in profit." He played golf and worked on his tan for a few years before looking for another challenge.
Buying a regional brewery when others are looking to close them is defined as masochism in most people's dictionaries, but a year after completing the deal David says the business is thriving. "At Castle Eden we were spending all our energy on surviving," he said. "At Cameron's we are devoting all our efforts to developing this business.
"We are here as a regional brewer that is looking to grow. If you look at the minutes from Cameron's board meetings in the 1930s and 1940s, they were working on exactly the same things - beer, pubs and the freetrade.
"We are trying to be what we were historically. This was once a great regional brewer with great beers and great pubs."
David says he is not in it for a quick buck. Cameron's is his legacy - Soley is the family name. "If you come back to the brewery in 20 years make sure it's a Friday because I'll be in the brewery bar with the other old boys, playing cards and having a pint."
Why Castle Eden became Cameron's
When Castle Eden moved to Cameron's Lion Brewery in Hartlepool it faced an identity crisis. "We could have renamed it the Castle Eden Brewery but there was no logic and we would have confused everyone in Hartlepool," explained Cameron's marketing director Mike Berriman.
"We thought about the Castle Cameron Brewery but again it would have confused everyone - we weren't going to kill the Castle Eden beer brands but we didn't want to be two companies. The Lion Brewery didn't quite hit the mark and a brand new name would have been an unbelievable task with serious investment. Cameron's made sense - it has instant recognition throughout the industry, heritage and a huge amount of untapped potential."
The Lion's Den
Cameron's has transformed what were originally horse stables into a microbrewery. The move will meet demand for niche brews. "The Bishop of Durham is retiring," explained marketing director Mike Berriman. "He asked us to do a special ale of only about 500 bottles. Nobody else would touch it, but it's g