Clever girl

Few new breweries manage to make the kind of splash achieved by Neon Raptor. Now Nottingham’s hype brewery is growing up, but still as thrilling as ever


As a postman, you get a lot of time alone with your thoughts. In the cold, the wind and the rain, the mind can wander, dreams can take root, and wild plans can be hatched. For ex-posties Josh Mellor and Tom Ainsley, this daydreaming took the form of a craft beer bar; a warm, dry(ish) convivial haven, where they could indulge their shared love of craft brewing. Even when they finally decided to take the leap though, quitting their jobs to open Suds & Soda in Derby, neither would have imagined they would one day be running a brewery of their own, fêted by some of the biggest names on the international scene.

“As the bar was literally being built, I was still posting mail,” recalls Josh. “Tom had already finished, and was on-site every day, talking to me about the colour of the toilet seats… and then he says out of nowhere ‘Oh, that guy from that brewery wants to know if we knew anyone in the industry who might be interested in buying a brewery?’”

As it turns out “that brewery” was Neon Raptor, a literal garage project consisting of a name, a jazzy logo, a handful of recipes, and a 100-litre brewkit. “I think they’d done one cuckoo brew, and the launch party was in the guy’s house, it was that kind of scale. The beer was good though.” So Josh and Tom started talking to founder Alex about getting involved, and by April 2017, just a few months later, the deal was done. 

For a team who had only just committed to getting into beer via hospitality, launching what was essentially a new brewery at the same time seems like a stretch. To Josh though, it was simply a natural progression on a path they were already taking.

“Tom and I had worked bars alongside being postmen. So we spotted a gap in the market; Nottingham had a few good craft bars and Derby really didn’t. Then when the opportunity came around to take on Neon Raptor too, we decided to move it to Nottingham, to try to turn Nottingham into Manchester and push things from that level. So neither of us had a brewing background, but in terms of understanding of the market, understanding the culture as well, we had a lot of ambition.”

Josh and Tom, the founders

Through 2018 and 2019, Josh and Tom put a huge amount of shoe leather into building Neon Raptor’s profile, going to every beer festival they could, making friends with other breweries and gaining valuable advice and connections along the way. With its super-creative beers scoring highly on Untappd, and festival invitations pouring in from Copenhagen, Tokyo and across the States, the brewery had earned a place on everyone’s ‘ones to watch’ list.

“It totally surprised me,” admits Josh. “A lot of craft beer sales are based on a form of… not arrogance, maybe, but certainly a belief that the product is good enough to rise to the top. Even with that mindset though, we were kind of so surprised when it was selling so quickly. Like, what has happened, what's going on here? So then you adjust and think about how to keep this hype machine moving, how to learn from what’s worked and keep hitting those buttons.”

As tempting as it would be to overthink their next moves, in an attempt to anticipate the wave on which they were riding, Josh and Tom did the brave thing, and kept brewing whatever took their somewhat eclectic fancy, in the hope that the approach continued to pay off.

“The whole point is, we brew what we want because we're honest to ourselves, and our customer base has gone with us. Like ‘don't try and pander to what you think we want’. That’s a lot of trust they’ve placed in us, which has been great,” says Josh.

In more recent times – particularly since the rising cost of raw materials has made wild experimentation a risky luxury – there has been a gentle move at Neon Raptor to “grow up a little” in Josh’s words. The soaring cost of raspberries, for example, has put one of its favourite seasonal beers beyond reach. And, although there might be occasional calls for a chocolate orange stout, a pale ale or session IPA will sell every week of the year. The important thing for Josh though is that “it’s our pale ale, or our session IPA, that we wanted to brew because it interests us.”

With plans for an expanded site well underway, and a new Nottingham taproom where Neon Raptor’s more experimental beers can find a home, the brewery’s energetic, hype-inducing spirit is still there, albeit with a more laid back side that will hopefully entice an even wider spectrum of drinkers into the fold.

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