Back in May, the announcement of the closure of Sheffield’s oldest brewery felt too awful to contemplate. Now, a group including Thornbridge Brewery have stepped in.
The press release says:
Kelham Island Brewery, Sheffield’s oldest independent brewery, has been saved from closure by a group from Sheffield.
The brewery’s rescue is a collaboration between Tramlines co-founder and Sheffield venue owner James O’Hara, his brother and financial analyst Tom O’Hara, Simon Webster and Jim Harrison of renowned Thornbridge Brewery, Peter Donohoe, founder of Sheffield based creative studio Peter and Paul and Ben Rymer marketing manager from beer festival organisers, We Are Beer.
James O’Hara, who put the group together after hearing about the brewery’s closure, said: “Kelham Island Brewery, and its flagship beer Pale Rider, are known and revered beyond Sheffield. It’s heritage that we, as a city, should be really proud of. We couldn’t let that just disappear, it means too much within the city and to the UK’s beer culture for it to become another Wikipedia entry.”
Finally, some good news.
The closure of any brewery that is run by dedicated, enthusiastic people and produces good beer is a tragedy, and there have already been too many of those post-pandemic. But Kelham Island was more than that.
When the closure was announced in May, brewery owner Ed Wickett blamed “a whirlwind of problems,” a list topped by Covid and lockdowns. They were being hit by surcharges on fueL and other utilities, and at the same time the brewery was in a dilapidated state and needed new investment. In a broken cask ale market that is indulging in a foolhardy race to the bottom on price, there was simply no margin to survive.
Ed ran the brewery for ten years almost to the day following the death of his father, Dave. He has done a great job and devoted ten years of his life to Kelham Island. But I imagine somewhere in the sadness over the closure, there was also relief.
A generation of craft beer drinkers has emerged since Dave passed away from cancer in May 2012, aged just 64. I might be wrong, but it feels like his name is not known to many these days. But he was a pioneer in Britain’s craft beer revolution. Our beer scene today would not look the same without him.
Wickett the pioneer
Kelham Island Brewery was a trailblazer. When Wickett opened it in 1990, it was the first new brewery opening in Sheffield for over a century. Everyone told him he was mad. But they’d said the same to him when he opened the Fat Cat pub ten years previously. Wickett’s favourite beer was Timothy Taylor Landlord – it’s never been out of stock in the Fat Cat. The brewery were so sceptical of a new real ale-centric pub in the centre of Sheffield’s decaying industrial district that they refused to deliver to him. So Wickett drove a van up to the brewery in Keighley and picked it up himself. When he was back a day or two later for more, they started to believe in him.
Kelham Island’s flagship was – sorry, is! – Pale Rider, a pale blonde ale with pronounced citrusy hop aromas. It won Champion Beer of Britain in 2004 (the year everyone thinks Greene King IPA won – it actually came second.) But Pale Rider’s significance was far greater than that.
Wickett was a stubborn maverick who didn’t suffer fools gladly. He acknowledged that he wasn’t always easy to work for, and there was a steady revolving door of brewers in and out of Kelham. The thing is, when they left – either fired or storming out after being unable to work with Wickett any longer – they’d often go just up the road and open their own brewery. Grudgingly or not, they still wanted to brew pale, citrusy cask ales in Sheffield’s now post-industrial heart. There was a cloud of small, independent brewers around Kelham Island years before they started spreading across the country. And that pale rider-inspired blonde ale has become Sheffield’s signature brew.
The birth of British craft beer
Exact recollections of events vary between him and some of the people he worked with, but here’s how he told the story to me.
By the early 2000s, Kelham Island was struggling to keep up with demand. One day Wickett was visiting his mate Jim Harrison, who had recently moved into the magnificent but then run-down Thornbridge Hall in Derbyshire. They went past an old stable block in the grounds and Wickett (everyone called him Wickett, never Dave) joked that it would be a perfect spot for a small brewery. They talked some more, and agreed that Thornbridge Brewery could be a handy overflow for when Kelham Island needed extra capacity. Instead of hiring some seasoned old cask ale brewer, Wickett interviewed two young men just out of brewing school, Stefano Cossi and Martin Dickie.
Neither was especially wedded to the Sheffield cask pale ale tradition. They were excited by new hops from America and New Zealand, which at that point had hardly been seen in Britain. Thornbridge began brewing British cask ales with American hops, used American style. Their flagship, Jaipur, went on to win just about every award possible, and Wickett ended up having to build a new brewery for Kelham Island instead. In 2007, Martin Dickie left to do some kind of start-up brewery in Scotland, and Cossi left soon after. But the Thornbridge blueprint was established.
Family saves the day
I don’t know too much about the other people involved in the consortium, but I do know Tramlines now defines Sheffield as much as the brewing tradition Wickett began. But it feels so right that Thornbridge is part of this move. Without Kelham Island, there would be no Thornbridge. Now, without Thornbridge there would be no Kelham Island. There couldn’t be a more perfect end to what started out looking like a tragic story.
Writing this has made me think a lot about the time Wickett invited me to the Fat Cat to do a talk about my second book, Three Sheets to the Wind, back in 2006. I had been invited to meet Thornbridge the following day, and they were putting me up at the hall that night. As Wickett took me out to the taxi, he said, “I’m jealous of you.”
“Because you’re going to Thornbridge.”
“But you’ve been loads of times!”
“Yeah, but you’re going for the first time. You can never get that feeling again.”
Welcome home, Wickett.