Sunderland fans revive VAUX beer

Craft brewers shed light on the saga of a revered beer

With a busy tap room by the Stadium of Light, VAUX is expanding, staging a beer festival in July

For Sunderland fans of a certain age, the seasons between 1986 and 1997 were marked by three promotions, an FA Cup final and yet another goal by Marco Gabbiadini. These were also the years when the team wore the sponsors’ name of VAUX in block capitals across their chests.

As an exercise in brand recognition, it was perfect. Established by Cuthbert Vaux (pronounced ‘Vorx’) in 1837, the brewery had been slaking the thirst of Sunderland’s beer drinkers for the best part of two centuries.

“We’re both Sunderland fans, and we both grew up wearing the VAUX shirt,” explains Steve Smith, co-founder of a thriving brewery and popular match-day tap room near the Stadium of Light. Both carry the name of VAUX. “Relaunching the brand was a bit of a dream come true.”

Vaux/Colin Young

Now, five years after reviving VAUX in 2019, 25 years after the venerable company closed, Smith and his business partner, schoolmate Michael Thompson, have big plans for 2024.

As their beloved Sunderland AFC aim for a play-off place to return to the Premier League, the pair will be revamping and expanding the tap room, transforming a historic pub in town and opening a beach bar, all in their home town of Sunderland. Oh, and launching the city’s first craft-beer festival this July, tickets going on sale today, February 2.

Sunderland, meanwhile, is buzzing. In the wake of the success of the three-season documentary series Sunderland ‘Til I Die, inspiration for the involvement of Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds in Wrexham, and the arrival of the youngest chairman in English football, majority SAFC shareholder Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, the city is awash with independent bars and music venues.

None of this would have been thinkable after VAUX, traditionally one of Sunderland’s major employers, folded in 1999.

Vaux/Colin Young

It took a huge leap of faith to enable former law graduate Smith to help change this. It began with a simple twist of fate. “Before I started this business, I was studying and working in Newcastle, and by chance living above a craft-beer bar. That was when I got really interested in brewing. There’s a lot of people in the micro-brewing world who just want out of their day job and do something a bit more interesting, something they’re passionate about.”

“Me and Michael loved the idea of bringing the VAUX name back. It took several years to acquire the original trademark. Fortunately, my background was in Law, and while I didn’t practise in intellectual property, I did my university dissertation on trademarks, so I had a reasonable understanding.”

“Once we acquired the trademark, it sat dormant for a while we worked things out. With trademarks, it’s a case of ‘use it or lose it’, so we needed to do something about it. As I was also looking for a change of career, the two things came together.”

“At the start, we contract-brewed with Brewlab, who teach students from all over the world and they’re based right on our doorstep here in Sunderland.”

Vaux/Colin Young

“The reaction was great, and we then used a few other breweries, but we couldn’t control quality or consistency of supply. We realised we had to take it on ourselves. I’d studied the US model of microbreweries, going to North Carolina to see for myself how integral taprooms were over there. The brewery with attached taproom is a great model because you’re selling direct to the customer.”

“Obviously, I’d also visited breweries in this country, and a lot of them are on industrial estates. Some have taprooms or perhaps a shop, but you’ve got to drive there, which doesn’t really help with footfall. We therefore made a conscious decision to be near the Stadium of Light, as we knew there was a good chance we could tempt matchgoers. We are fans anyway, of course, so that helps.”

“We even did a special beer for the Foundation of Light, the charity arm of the football club, the Roker Roar, an old VAUX lager popular in the ’90s. We got to use the club crest on that one, which was fantastic.”

“This isn’t where you come to drink ten pints of lager and then stagger home. You’re going to be trying a half of this, a third of that. That’s the whole idea.”

“We’ve got ten taps, our core range of four – Black Wave, Freddy’s Drop, German Pilsner and A Hazy Shade of Citra – and the other six rotate. Usually there are two or three guest beers.”

Stadium of LIght/Colin Young

“Match days are a bit of a ritual. Away fans are welcome – though we don’t allow Newcastle or Middlesbrough, just because it’s too problematic. For high-risk games, it doesn’t make sense. But we love having away fans in, we’ve never had any problems, there’s always good banter. We get comments on forums saying the away fans were made to feel welcome, which is nice to see.”

“We’re now at the point where it’s actually too full on match days. We’ve taken in a new unit nearer the river where we’ll be doing the brewing, to give this place more space to expand.”

“We already put on bands now and then, but we’re planning to do this regularly post-match. People tend to drift off after the game as there’s nothing to really keep them here. Now there’ll be food too. With music and the beer as fresh as ever, and all your mates here, why not stick around?”

“People tend to want more than just one thing. They say, ‘OK, there’s beer, there’s football, there’s food… oh, there’s music as well’. There’s enough going on for them to come.”

Sticking with the regular opening times of Fridays, Saturdays and match days, the team will have more scope to stage special events at the expanded tap room.

Vaux/Colin Young

Having successfully re-established the VAUX brand, the boys are now picking up the ball and running with it: “We’re opening a pub in town, an old Victorian place where Dickens once stayed, the Bridge Hotel. Then a bar/café is will be coming on stream at the beach this summer”.

“We’re also organising Sunderland’s first craft-beer festival at the Fire Station in town, where there’s an outdoor stage. We’re going to invite 15-20 breweries from around the UK, the ones we think will work really well. It’s going to be July 26-27 and should attract 1,500 people”.

To kick-start all this, the VAUX brand has been a blessing, yet a cross to bear: “We’re trying to help create a scene, to get things going here. Obviously, we’ve had a leg up, we’ve got this historic brand, but that also comes with a lot of pressure. You feel you have to do right by that brand. People have memories of VAUX, so you feel the need to make it work, more so than a typical start-up, perhaps”.

And then there’s Sunderland itself, its team in the third tier as recently as 2022, its centre linked to its rival city by local metro: “Newcastle as a city is bigger and it’s now got the Saudi involvement. It’s on the East Coast Mainline from London, it’s got all of the geographical advantages that we don’t. We’re out on a limb, you’ve got to want to come to Sunderland to come here.”

Vaux/Colin Young

“But that means there’s a pride in the area, a feeling that no-one else is going to look out for you, so you are going to have to make a go of it.”

“The metro probably harmed Sunderland in some ways – it didn’t bring people here, rather took them away to Newcastle. But now people are realising that they can be in the Cultural Quarter in Sunderland in no time, with all the new music venues, independent bars, including ours, of course… they can do all that in Sunderland. It’s saving them a 40-minute journey on the metro.”

“Hopefully the more people do that, the more it will create a kind of virtuous circle and the more other development will happen. Then you’re off and running.”

All it needs now is promotion to the Premier League…

VAUX Brewery, Unit 2, Monk Street, Sunderland, SR6 0DB. Open Fri-Sat noon-10pm & match days. For special events, see here.