Dave Wickett died. Bastard cancer.
|This award-winning, iconic Sheffield pub would not have existed without Wickett
Wickett gave cancer more than it bargained for. When cancer said, “You’ve got six months,” Wickett replied, “Fuck you,” and went off and planned and opened a new brewery, and carried on living life to the full for another two years.
Dave Wickett died, aged 64, on 16th May 2012.
He’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer in January 2010.
How’s that for six months?
|The much-loved 2004 Champion Beer of Britain would not have existed without Wickett
Beer is a tight-knit community. If you’re reading this blog, you may well have met Dave Wickett. If you didn’t, you probably know someone who did. And if you don’t think you did, I promise you you’re more closely connected then you might think. You’re probably no more than two – at a maximum, three – degrees of separation away from one of beer’s singular heroes.
I knew Wickett (everyone just called him Wickett) pretty well. Not as well as his close friends and colleagues, but pretty well, because I was supposed to be ghosting his autobiography. To my shame I didn’t get as far with that as I wanted to before he died – not by a long way. I hope it will eventually reach fruition, but that discussion is for some time later.
Wickett grew up on the outskirts of London in the swinging sixties. He saw England win the World Cup at Wembley in 1966 (football was his great passion before beer ever was), and off the back of that, in a somewhat unlikely fashion (the story of his life) ended up in Sheffield – a city he much preferred to the UK’s capital. That, in itself, is a big clue – here was a man who saw things differently.
You’re probably familiar with the story of how CAMRA came to the rescue of British cask ale in the 1970s. You may be less familiar with what Wickett did. He never threw himself into committees and mock funerals for closing breweries. He had little interest in the politics of the organisation. But he read and absorbed, and used the fledgling Good Beer Guide like a bible. But as a Polytechnic Economics lecturer, he also balanced passion for real ale with objective business nous – which brought him to the same place as his passion. So he bought a run-down freehouse pub in a derelict area of Sheffield, named it the Fat Cat, and set out a stall consisting of a decent real ale selection and a food menu that always had a veggie option, winning heaps of awards over the next 30 years.
|This brewery would probably never have happened without Wickett
In order to make the pub work as he wanted it to, Wickett challenged the declining 1970s real ale brewers to change the way they did business. They had to, if they wanted to supply him – and this new business arrangement would change the fortunes of countless other pubs.
In his lectures, he used real ale as a case study to prove how big business was distorting the ‘principles’ of the free market by using anti-competitive measures to deny choice to the consumer – something even Margaret Thatcher would have objected to – and when the Tories did object, and created a guest beer rule that freed pubs from a 100% brewery tie, Wickett opened his own brewery, Kelham Island in Sheffield. Kelham Island Pale Rider was Champion Beer of Britain in 2004, an early example of the golden ale that has now come to dominate Britain’s cask ale revival.
He’d been busy in the day job too, and had taken on responsibility for an innovative student exchange/placement programme that saw some of his Sheffield business students going to Rochester, New York, to run the first proper English pub in the US – the Old Toad, which helped pioneer cask ale in America.
|The brewer on the left was hired for his first job in brewing by Dave Wickett
Wickett was never in it to make a high pile of cash. He wanted to live a comfortable life doing what he loved. He often compared himself to J D Wetherspoons’ Tim Martin, who opened his first pub in the same year Wickett did. Wickett sometimes pondered if he should have gone down a more aggressive, chain-building route, and was often asked why he didn’t do that. But he was always happy with his choices – he preferred running what he had, and taking on new challenges as and when they interested him.
So while Wetherspoons expanded with a fixed format across hundreds of branches, Wickett decided to open Champs, a sports bar in Sheffield. Then he decided to invest in and guide the development of a tiny new brewery called Thornbridge. He hired the two young brewers – one of them being Martin Dickie, who would later go on to co-found Brew Dog. But when Thornbridge wanted to grow at a greater rate, Wickett pulled out amicably, wished them well, and looked for new projects.
|Sheffield is the real ale capital of the world thanks to Dave Wickett
After he was diagnosed with cancer, he opened another new brewery, Welbeck Abbey, as part of the School of Artisan Food. It’s still in its infancy, but as part of a brilliant set-up that teaches people about great food and drink across the board, offering lessons in disciplines such as baking and butchery, with the makers of Stichelton cheese also included as part of the set-up, it’s another innovative operation that will help take serious beer appreciation onto a broader foodie stage.
Meanwhile, back in Sheffield, the ripples of Wickett’s actions were extraordinary. Wickett wasn’t always an easy taskmaster, and over the years various brewers fell out with him, felt frustrated with his direction, or weren’t good enough to keep their jobs. The extraordinary thing is that just about everyone who quit or was fired from Kelham Island went on to start a brewery of their own, often less than a couple of miles away. Kelham is now at the centre of a dense cloud of microbreweries, and Sheffield has more cask ales on tap at any one time than any other city in the world.
Dave Wickett leaves an extraordinary legacy to the beer world. Not just from his own actions, but from the people he inspired and who have imitated him. The ripples of his brilliant life and career will continue to influence the beer world for years to come.