Tim Hampson's Beer Blog

The quest for the perfect beer

Dave Wickett remembered – An extraordinary pub owner and brewer

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Dave Wickett loved to tell the story of how he bought his first pub in 1981, the same year that the pubco J D Wetherspoon was founded. Thirty-one years on Dave still had one pub in the UK, and “Spoons” has more than 830, but arguably his influence and legacy are the most profound.

When he bought the closed Alma pub much of Sheffield was rusted to the core. Its heavy industry was in decline, the town’s once proud brewing heritage was already showing signs of structural failure and many of its pubs were neglected and offered little choice to customers, especially one who was a vegetarian.

As an economics lecturer he was determined to put his business principles into practice. He wanted to see the pub operate as a true free house. It should offer a wide selection of changing real ales and have a simple food menu, diverse enough to satisfy everyone from the ardent carnivore through to a committed vegan.

News of his venture spread far and wide and on the day the pub reopened as the Fat Cat, he was astounded to find a queue of people outside waiting for the door to be unlocked. One of the first beers on sale was Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, from its seemingly faraway homeland in Keighley, West Yorkshire. At first the brewer wouldn’t deliver to the pub as it was outside its trading area, so Dave had to go and collect the first 18 gallon barrel. The brewery changed its mind, when a few days later he rang to order three more as the first had already sold out.

Though, Dave did say that not everyone was happy with Landlord being served. On opening day, one customer called him outside the crowded pub and proceeded to pour a pint of Landlord into the gutter saying he only drank beer brewed in Sheffield. In 1990 Dave took another significant step in opening the Kelham Island Brewery in a brick shed behind the pub. The disgruntled first day customer who had poured his beer away might have had a smile on his face that day. For some time there had been no other brewers in Sheffield. Bass, Whitbread and Wards once bastions of the Sheffield brewing industry had shut in the intervening years since the Cat had opened. Dave had restored the tradition of brewing to the steel city.

A long-time member and supporter of the British Guild of Beer Writers, Dave, when on one of our trips to a brewery would often buy a firkin or two of beer for sale at the Cat. He also, brewed, at the behest of guild member Sue Novak, a Saffron flavoured beer for drinking at one of our awards’ dinners. He regarded it as one of the finest beers his brewery had ever produced. Though he did once concede, because of the cost of the spice, it was probably his most expensive.

The last time I saw Dave was a few weeks ago in Sheffield. He was due to hand over a cheque for £6,000 to the Cornwall Hospice Care. The money had been raised when Sharp’s head brewer Stuart Howe decided to brew a beer called honouring Dave. Stuart was inspired to brew the beer when last year, Dave’s son Ed was on work experience at Sharp’s in Rock Cornwall. Stuart learned that Dave was battling bone cancer and he decided to brew a special beer, DW, with the proceeds going to a charity of Dave’s choice. In a typical display of his abundant altruism Dave said he wanted any funds raised to go to a charity local to Sharp’s rather than one in Sheffield. Sadly he felt too poorly to attend the event, but Stuart and I went to see him in his home. Despite his obvious illness, his mind blazed with optimism and ideas for future projects.

Dave’s enthusiasm for beer and brewing had also seen him help setup a bar in New York State, the Thornbridge and Welbeck breweries, a course on brewing at Sheffield University and numerous other ventures. Today, the Fat Cat is still busy. It is still selling a wide range of real ales, more than 7,000 since it opened and it still has a food menu which should satisfy all. While, the Kelham Island Brewery has provided the inspiration and training for a generation of brewers who have gone on to found their own breweries not just in Sheffield but around the world. That’s quite a legacy.

I have a bottle of the DW beer which was brewed by Stuart Howe. The unfiltered and bottle conditioned beer at 9.5 per cent ABV brew is late hopped with Hallertauer Northern Brewer, Perle, Willamette and Cascade, it is then dry hopped with Amarillio. Perhaps it is the time to open it and say cheers to a great man.

Pictured: Dave Wickett receiving a life time achievement award from Nigel Evans of the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group.

David Mark Wickett, brewer, born 24 May 1947; died 16 May 2012

Written by timhampson

June 7, 2012 at 4:13 pm

One Response

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  1. Only drinks beer brewed in sheffield 🙂 Keep up the great workand raising funds for charity. Even if it means rasing a glass or two as well, lets just hope the tax isn’t going to be raised as high as the news is reporting!


    November 28, 2012 at 4:30 pm

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