IT’S always fascinating hearing brewers’ stories about how they started off. For many, it’s a chance to become their own boss, or the perfect use of redundancy money, or simply the natural conclusion to a lifelong passion for beer, less concerned with the profit than the art.
So when Sean Hill told me he’d only got into his ale a couple of years ago, I wondered which category he fell into.
But perhaps it’s not that unusual – drive is the main quality you need to succeed and, with the zeal of a new convert, Sean has gone from lager drinker to brewery owner in two years – although the plan required a bit of a nudge from external forces.
Engineer Sean, 47, would sit with work friend Brian Sloan, 45, both from Gateshead, in the Central Bar along with four other friends. The pair know each other from working at Network Rail, and Brian – a long-term ale fan – turned Sean’s head with beers such as Harviestoun’s Bitter and Twisted, and Ossett’s Silver King. They then imagined running their own brewery.
The group dwindled, until eventually landlord Dave Campbell came over. “He said ‘you two need to stop talking about it and start doing it,” says Sean.
It was time to put up or shut up. They went for it.
“There were six of us at the start but now it’s the two of us. It was initially in my garage and the temperature fluctuated too much, so we went to the Central. We’re now ticking the boxes that come with moving from being a hobby to a proper business.”
Those boxes include a business course, sorting tax, and health and safety – all the aspects I don’t like to think of when I daydream about being a brewer.
Initially brewing for charity, the pair quickly devised a niche to exploit in an overcrowded market. With their railway background and pictures of steam trains on the pump clips, Rail Ale Brewing is aiming for steam festivals, volunteer railways – anywhere where rail enthusiasts might be found. Even the beer names are carefully chosen: Amber Aspect (amber ale), Green Aspect (blonde) and Red Aspect (ruby bitter) – “aspect” being the colour of the signal lights on railways. They’ve also diversified to get the Rail Ale Brewing name known and avoid an over-reliance on beer sales: sausages, black pudding, pies and chutneys all contain their beers.