Failed dead chicken salesman, sacked computer systems account manager and mutually terminated employment as headmaster of a preparatory school isn’t the best curriculum vitae. That’s why Nick Stafford chose to run his own business 25 years ago. Today Hambleton Ales is one of the most respected independent brewers in the country having started from his in-laws’ garden in the backwater hamlet of Holme on Swale.
“I tried flogging chickens to restaurants and my biggest customer was Nidd Hall, unfortunately they ended up being my only one. I knew nothing about computers and although I’d had some great experiences in teaching at preparatory schools my headship next door to the Queen in Windsor didn’t work out. What I realised was that it didn’t really suit me working for others. It’s a good job I’ve been able to do this because I’m actually pretty unemployable.
“It was my brother who set me on the brewing track. He had a pub called The Sun Inn in Dent in Cumbria and he’d just started with his own brewery. He told me not to get into the pub game as they were over priced.”
Nick tried all he could to avoid having to call on in-laws Bob and Jenny Peek in letting him convert their outbuildings but rent at 99p a year was something he couldn’t have managed anywhere else and he duly rolled up his sleeves in 1991 to create the business.
“Whatever I had to do I did it as much as I could myself to keep costs down. I learned hard and worked on bricklaying, concreting floors, putting in drains and all the design work. The capital required for my first business plan was £50,000 and all I had was £3,500 and that was in the form of an ageing Peugeot 205. I managed to scrape together a grant from the Rural Development Commission and a loan from my brother. How I managed the rest is lost in the ether of time. My market research included interviewing 24 publicans and by the time of the launch at the Nag’s Head in Pickhill in 1991 I had brewed my first beer, Hambleton Bitter.
“It was a session beer that I’d come up with after having employed the services of independent brewing expert David Smith from York who has assisted many other brewing enterprises and I’d designed the ale as a Tetley’s look-and-taste-alike. It looked like Tetley’s but tasted like one of the excellent craft beers around today.
“The so-called craft beer explosion that many believe started in America was started in the UK. We exported it to the US and the Yorkshire maltsters we’ve always used, Fawcett’s of Castleford, ship container loads of malt for their craft beers.”
Nick hit his projected sales target for his first year within six months. In 1994 he purchased an old sheepfold yard building and set about converting it as his new premises. He added bottling to his existing cask ale business.
“The bottles gave us our first real advertising. I’ve been extremely fortunate over the years as customers have always come to us so I’ve never had to put a salesman on the road.”
Hambleton Ales moved to Melmerby near Ripon temporarily in 2005 before Nick’s new premises were built and opened in 2007. It’s from here he’s built a thriving brewing and bottling enterprise that sees him offer six main beers including Nightmare, the first ever champion winter beer of Britain which he first brewed in 1997.
The inspiration for Nick’s move from Holme on Swale came after his right hand man and neighbour Chris Batty suffered a fatal heart attack.
“Chris was the first man who stuck his neck out for me. He was an electrical engineer by trade, had seen what I’d started, kissed goodbye to everything and joined me. I was both surprised and chuffed that he wanted to be part of what I was doing.
“The year after he died I was still in the converted sheepfold yard where the roof leaked and the wind whistled through the boarding. It was as rural as you could get and I felt that I wasn’t doing Chris’ memory any justice. He would’ve wanted me to move on, so I sold the land and finally came away from what was a leaky rust bucket.
“We spent two-and-a-half years just across the way from where we are now and that, like our champion winning ale, was a nightmare in lots of ways but the wait to get in here proved well worth the effort and once again I was able to design exactly what I felt we needed.”
The Melmerby base now sees half of Nick’s business coming from his own beers and half working on other beers in collaborative brews plus bottling for them too.
“The bottling line was specifically designed for low volume niche market craft brewers. Beer is best packaged and sold fresh in lots of small batches and that’s what we’re able to do. Since the introduction of small brewers’ relief on excise duty was introduced in 2002 there has been an explosion of small breweries from around 300 back then to 1,600 today. We’ve picked up quite a bit of packaging for the new ones.
“We’ve been involved with getting on for 100 collaborative brews and my head brewer John Morgan must be the most experienced brewer and packager when it comes to the greatest variety of beer brands and styles. One of the latest we’re involved with is a brew called Toast, which includes processed bread. It’s really very good.”