Beer Background

Dave Wickett, the man who brought back beer and pride to Sheffield's 'Steel City'

Added: Thursday, May 17th 2012

Dave Wickett once joked that he ran the biggest commercial brewery in Sheffield. In fact, his Kelham Island Brewery was the only brewery in the city following the closure of two Bass plants and one each from Whitbread and Wards.

Single-handedly, Dave restored brewing to Steel City. He died on16 May after a long battle with cancer, aged 64. He was born in Potters Bar in Middlesex but spent most of his life in Sheffield, where he graduated in 1976 at the main university and then taught economics at the local polytechnic, now Sheffield Hallam University. He continued to teach what he later called “the dismal science of economics” until 1990 but in 1981 he took over the Fat Cat pub in the Kelham Island district of the city, which he ran at first in his spare time.

Dave was a passionate real ale drinker. He was active in CAMRA and served for several years on its Economics and Industry Committee, which published well-researched reports into the anti-competitive activities of giant national breweries.

His early experience at the Fat Cat highlighted the problems facing cask beer in the 1980s. When he opened the pub, he asked Wards if they would supply beer. The brewery sent the head brewer round: he inspected the pub and its cellar and said he could install a cellar tank for “bright beer” – filtered and pasteurised – with pressure pumps on the bar.

Dave declined the offer and instead started to serve Timothy Taylor’s handpumped Landlord from Keighley. The success of Landlord in the Fat Cat prompted Wards to change their attitude and supply cask beer to the pub until the brewery went out of business.

In 1990 Dave launched Kelham Island Brewery in the beer garden behind the pub, the first new brewery in Sheffield for 100 years. He used kit brought from the Oxford Bakehouse & Brewery. His first beer was Best Bitter, which is still brewed today, but gradually he built a wider portfolio of beers. He was one of the first micro-brewers to make golden ale and in 2004 his Pale Rider proved its popularity with drinkers by being named Champion Beer of Britain in the finals of the CAMRA competition staged during the Great British Beer Festival.

In 1999 Dave moved the brewery into bigger premises close to the original site but with five times the capacity. It was a fateful time as it coincided with the Conservative government’s Beer Orders that attempted to bring greater competition to the industry and more choice for drinkers. National brewers’ pubs were required to sell guest beers from smaller producers and companies such as Kelham Island flourished. In 2007 he was forced to move once more to a larger site but still within yards of the Fat Cat.

As well as brewing and pub-owning in Sheffield, Dave found time in 1990 to launch a pub with an American partner in Rochester, New York state. From the opening day, the Old Toad has specialised in serving craft beers from the U.S. and Britain, and serves British-style food, including fish and chips. In common with the Fat Cat, the Old Toad offers a good range of vegetarian meals, as Dave was a passionate vegetarian and refused to use traditional finings made from fish bladders in his beers.

Dave acted as consultant to Thornbridge Brewery, which opened in garden buildings at Thornbridge Hall, Derbyshire, in 2005. Its success, with such beers as Jaipur IPA and St Petersburg Imperial Stout, led to the creation of a custom-built new brewery at Bakewell, with a capacity of 20,000 barrels a year. Kelly Ryan, one of the first Thornbridge brewers, who has since returned to his native New Zealand, says “without Dave Wickett there would have been no Thornbridge Brewery.”

In January 2010 Dave was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer and was given just six months to live. He not only survived for considerably longer but threw himself into a whirlwind of activity. In 2011 he opened a small brewery at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, which is the site today for a school of artisan food and cooking. The brewery, in outbuildings on the site, uses the original Kelham Island kit and supplies cask and bottled beer to local pubs and for use in cooking at the school.

In Sheffield he worked with the university to create a Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology with the aim of developing a post-graduate course for micro-brewers. In 2011 he was awarded the Professor Robert Boucher Distinguished Alumni Award at the university.

In the same year, Jim Harrison, the owner of Thornbridge Brewery, brought Dave to London in his wheelchair where he was given a lifetime achievement award by the All-Parliamentary Beer Club. The home page photo shows Dave receiving his award from Nigel Evans MP, Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons. Image below shows Dave with his wife Helen when he received the Champion Beer of Britain award in 2004 for Pale Rider.

In his spare time, Dave was a passionate supporter of Sheffield United football club. He wrote for match programmes and for as long as possible attended both home and away matches.

Dave Wickett not only restored brewing to Sheffield but he inspired a legion of beer lovers to follow his path and launch small breweries dedicated to cask beer. His legacy is in every pint of good beer sold in Britain today.

Dave is survived by wife, Helen, and his son, Edward.


Dave and Helen Wickett