While Britain’s pub industry has been struggling for a long time and alcohol consumption in general is on the slide, ‘craft’ breweries here, and in the rest of the world, have enjoyed something of a renaissance. Relatively big brands like Scotland’s Brewdog and New York’s Brooklyn Brewery have garnered a disproportionate amount of attention, but the spirit of craft beer is really all about small, independent brewers.
One of those is Tyne Bank Brewery, which was founded by chemical engineering graduate Julia Austin in 2011. ‘In 2005 I took a trip up the west coast of America into Alaska, and there I experienced fantastic beer made on the premises of these breweries, and they were all made with fresh and sometimes unconventional ingredients and it was brilliant,’ Austin told MT.
‘As a chemical engineer with a passion for beer already, this sparked the desire to manufacture something that I actually loved, which makes a bit of a change from the things that go into road markings and toilets and ceramics and things that I've done previously.’
When a larger brewery decided to upsize, Austin took on their old premises and began making beer. The business has grown substantially since – Austin isn't keen to talk turnover numbers but she was featured in the Fortuna 50, a list of the fastest growing women-led small businesses by the Centre for Entrepreneurs. Tyne Bank Brewery has grown by an annual average of 101% for the past three years, placing it 12th on the list.
The business began with Austin and a brewer and she's since taken on two more staff to cope with demand. Most of its business is in supplying pubs but it's also got listings with the upmarket Booth's supermarket chain in the north-west of England and supplies small bottle shops.
‘It's been very, very interesting – a very fast learning curve,’ Austin says. ‘When we started there was quite a big interest in a new brewery starting up and we found it relatively easy to get new sales. I think that situation would change slightly now for somebody starting up because there's just so many. We had a great start really and I think we were quite influential in kick-starting the craft scene in Newcastle.’
It's a movement that's exploded in the city since, and this year it will host the second instalment of Craft Beer Calling, a festival that will bring together 60 breweries including some from the US and Denmark. It's no surprise Austin's pretty upbeat about the sector's prospects.
‘I think it's very buoyant, especially for quality beer’ she says. ‘The key thing at the moment is quality – people don't have that much money to spend and when they do it has to be the right choice - the right pub, the right beer. So the important thing is to stay on trend for what people want to drink, to listen to the publicans and work with them, but also to look for new places.’
Austin, a mother of two, admits it can be difficult as an entrepreneur to balance work and family life. 'I think maybe naively you think when you run your own business you can maybe fit family life in a bit easier but unfortunately that's not the case at all,' she says. 'It is quite diffcult to get the right work/life balance and give the team enough support. When you've got external commitments you can't always be the last one out the door – which can be quite difficult when it's your own business and you feel like you should be there.'
One way Tyne Bank has tried to stand out is by brewing unusual guest ales, the most recent of which was brewed with rhubarb and custard. 'It's not something that every brewery does... it gives us a USP,' says Austin. In the future, she says she wants to expand the brewery’s national and international reach. She’s been eyeing up the Swedish and Norwegian markets and hopes to begin exporting by the end of the year.
Austin's not blind to the difficulties of rapid growth though - a problem that's particulaly exacerbated by the complex way beer duties are levied. ‘We just need to maintain steady growth – especially with the amount of beer duty that we have to pay and [because] the bigger contracts don't offer the same sort of terms, if you grow too quickly you could end up with cash flow problems,’ she says. ‘I don't think there's a particular limit on how big we grow, it will just be the speed that we get there that will be the key thing.’