Now the only regional brewer in the North East, Camerons has big plans, as Phil Mellows reports.
Sometimes one little mistake can seem to haunt you forever. During the Napoleonic Wars a French ship was wrecked off the coast at Hartlepool leaving one survivor to struggle ashore - the pet monkey. Believing it to be a French spy, the local folk put the poor animal on trial and hung it.
Ever since, the people of Hartlepool have been known as monkey-hangers. Even the football club's mascot is a man dressed as a monkey. You get the feeling that his election as mayor a few years back only compounded the original error. And then there's Peter Mandelson, the town's former MP... but let's turn to the more positive side of Hartlepool - Camerons Brewery.
Until recently, Camerons looked set to join the ranks of other ill-fated regional brewers in these harshly competitive times. Founded 150 years ago, the business peaked in the 1970s when it operated 750 pubs. Then it fell prey to industrial decline and commercial predators - the Barclay Brothers in 1982, Brent Walker in 1989 and Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries (W&DB) in 1992, by which time the estate had declined to 51 pubs.
W&DB put the brewery up for sale in 2002 - and found a surprise purchaser in local businessman David Soley. Mr Soley had entered the industry three years before when he bought Castle Eden Brewery, the former Whitbread plant to the north of the town.
But the 650,000-barrel Camerons Brewery was a big step up. Sadly, keeping two breweries going wasn't viable so Castle Eden was closed. Its 16 tied pubs were sold to Jim Walsh's new venture, Tadcaster Pub Company, and Mr Soley started again with 10 former Pubmaster pubs that came as part of the Camerons package.
The company itself was restructured with four directors at the top - David Soley, ex-Bass executive Jeffrey Burdass, accountant Clive Owen and David's son Chris, who became general manager. "Effectively we were starting over again with a blank sheet of paper," says Chris Soley, who has spent the time since rebuilding a pub estate and giving the company a clear identity and an ambitious set of goals.
Camerons has quietly accumulated 35 tenanted pubs in the last three years, from one-off purchases and picking up houses that churn out of the two big players, Punch and Enterprise.
Early summer will see the completion of a rebranding exercise for three focus cask beers - Camerons Bitter, Strongarm and Castle Eden - that will once again find the famous Camerons lion symbol figuring prominently.
"It's about putting Camerons back on the map," says Chris. "It is the only regional brewer left in the North East and now it's back in family hands. We've got a great name here and we need to build on that. People ask us if the brewery is still running, even the locals. So we have got to push our brands and turn the business around."
The Soleys seem to have got off to a sound start. According to Chris "the business is sustainable and performing and the outlook's good. We are looking to expand rapidly".
That will include taking the pub estate to 150 houses and pushing the beer brands out nationally. For Chris the two sides of the business are mutually dependant. "We want to build a strong vertically integrated regional brewer pub estate," he says. "Pubs can give your brands strength, they are a marketing tool."
Acquisitions will chiefly be found within a 70-mile radius of the brewery - traditional "Camerons country" - through cold calling and a close relationship with the big estates to pick up the odd disposal. The target will be "very much community pubs with sustainable clientele and good community spirit," he says. "They still exist in the North East and sometimes regional brewers can offer these pubs more."
Camerons offers flexible tenancy agreements, from three-year deals to 25-year leaseholds, and it is looking at introducing a six-month tracker agreement. Rents and discounts can be tailored to the individual.
"That's something our size allows us to do," says Chris. "So many pubs fail because of blanket policies imposed by big companies that just don't work for individuals.
"We want to nurture our estate, make the pubs feel part of the brewery and not left out on a limb. We want to get their involvement from day one and create a better partnership. We'll be doing brewery tours, getting licensees to taste products, taking them on trips to Hartlepool FC - which we sponsor - incentives, rewards for loyalty. The kind of personal touch big companies can't offer."
Alongside bonding the pub estate to the brewery, Camerons will look to develop its freetrade business, especially on bars in the major pubco estates where Chris hopes a stronger brand identity and a more professional approach will give tenants and lessees, plus their business development managers, a good reason to stock the beers.
"There is a national decline in ales, but look at a brand like Black Sheep," he says, referring to the brewery founded by Paul Theakston, located not too far away in Masham, Yorkshire. "Its volumes are growing. I don't see why we can't grow as other regional brewers have done."
For all that there is one element in the Camerons set-up that is likely to continue to dominate into the medium-term. The rather impressive brewery has a capacity of 650,000 barrels, dwarfing the 30,000-barrel sales of the company's own brands. That makes contract brewing rather important, at the moment mostly for Scottish & Newcastle. No fewer than 150,000 barrels of Kronenbourg are brewed at the Hartlepool plant.
The Soleys' longer-term hopes, however, are for the Camerons name to regain its old pride - not least among the people of Hartlepool. "This town is known for monkey hanging, Peter Mandelson and electing a monkey as mayor," says Chris. "But it's this brewery that should be the focus of the town."