Is the writing on the wall for family brewers? Thwaites has closed its brewery and sold its brands to Marston’s while both Bateman’s and Everards are downsizing. Other family brewers are struggling, ground between the millstones of the giant global producers and the ever-increasing number of micros.
But one member of the clan is feeling chipper and faces the future with confidence — a confidence underlined by a £30m funding package from HSBC bank. Camerons of Hartlepool will use the funds to expand its production and buy 40 pubs. In the 21st century and in the north-east, hard hit by the collapse of old industries, there’s one brewery still committed to the traditional brewing and tied-house system.
The wonder is that Camerons’ Lion Brewery, founded in 1835, is still operating. In the 20th century it was owned by a series of bizarre companies. It started with Ellerman Shipping Lines, followed by the
Barclay brothers and then the property group Brent Walker.
When Brent Walker collapsed, Camerons was rescued by Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries but, as a result of Wolves’ prolonged takeover battle in the late 1990s with Marston’s, Camerons was sold.
The Lion Brewery was saved again, this time by David Soley and his son Christopher (right), who had bought the Castle Eden Brewery when Whitbread quit brewing in 2000. The Soleys brought with them Castle Eden Bitter, plus Trophy Bitter in cask and keg forms, once a mighty Whitbread brand. They joined Camerons’ premium bitter, Strongarm.
David Soley is Camerons’ chairman, with day-to-day running of the brewery in the hands of his son, Chris, who is managing director. He says they had only just arrived at Hartlepool when they were hit by the “perfect storm” of the recession in 2007/08.
“It led to closures of traditional boozers,” he says. “Working men’s clubs went into terminal decline and along with them keg beers like Trophy.” Trophy is still brewed, but the volumes are much reduced.
Shipbuilding and steel had been the backbone of Hartlepool. But as they disappeared they took with them the drinkers who once supped vast quantities of Strongarm and Trophy. Today, Hartlepool has a marina and service industries and Camerons has had to refashion its business to meet the demands of a new audience of drinkers.
Soley says that once the recession was over the brewery had to face the new challenges posed by the smoking ban and the rise of micros created by Progressive Beer Duty (PBD).
“PBD revitalised the cask market,” he says. “It was a catalyst for excitement in the sector and created an opportunity for Camerons. We’ve developed a new cask range as a result.
“But there are now too many micros and some of the new entrants are having an impact on beer quality. Breweries like us in the middle are being squeezed.”
As the ninth biggest brewery in Britain, producing 54,000 barrels a year and with plans to expand to 76,000 barrels, Soley thinks PBD needs revision in order that companies of Camerons’ size can benefit.
The Soleys, along with finance director John Foots, who negotiated the deal with HSBC, have designed a business model for the future based on cask, keg and bottled beer sold both to the free trade and to a pub estate they plan to grow to 110.
The spending figures are eye-watering: £1.5m on a new bottling hall with a capacity of 10,000 bottles an hour, £4m on new brewing kit, including conical fermenters, and — to emphasise Camerons’ roots in the area — a heritage centre for visitors.
The extensions to the brewery, with an impressively marble-tiled 1970s brewhouse at its heart, are essential, as 60% of Camerons’ production is contract brewing for Carlsberg, Diageo and Heineken.
The Dutch giant has a 24% stake in Camerons but Chris Soley says that’s not a threat: “Heineken are shareholders. They’re not on the board and have no say in our business.”
Camerons is investing £6.5m in its pubs and will open six new managed outlets a year. The emphasis will be on growing the Head of Steam pub chain bought from Tony Brookes 2½ years ago. Following in his footsteps, they will employ managers who are passionate about beer and the 16 Head of Steam outlets will each have a beer sommelier — trained by the Beer Academy — to give advice on the choice of beer to customers and suggest food matches.
Head of Steam
New HoS outlets are planned for Leeds, Headingley, Sheffield and Hull, and Soley says they plan to roll out the concept to Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham, Birmingham and even Scotland.
The changing beer scene in the north-east can be seen in such new cask and keg beers as Gold Bullion, IPA and even a beer made with the addition of tea. But the runaway success has been a 4.1% ABV keg milk stout called Tontine that has found favour with both men and women drinkers.
The stout beer market has grown 10-fold in recent years, Chris Soley says. He’s meeting the demand and, in a region that’s lost Federation, S&N and Vaux breweries, he’s determined to keep the beer flag flying proudly in Hartlepool.