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A Magazine for Sheffield

Return of the Pale Rider: Fat Cat pub celebrates Kelham Island Brewery rescue

After a short closure in May, the independent real ale mainstay has risen again, with locals enjoying a pint of the brewery's flagship beer at the first pint pouring session last week.

Fat Cat pub with Kelham Island Brewery signage.

Kelham Island Brewery was founded in 1990 by Dave Wickett, the first new independent brewery in the city for over 100 years.

Steel City Snapper

The Fat Cat in Kelham always feels a little bit like home. The gently worn red velvet barstools, the small ungainly rooms and the lit fireplace in the autumn all make it feel like stepping into someone’s living room, rather than a public house.

Last Wednesday, it was also a homecoming. From noon, the sound of lively chatter spilled onto Alma Street. Inside, each new customer performed the same ritual as they made their order: putting one palm face down on the bar and, grinning like they were about to perform a magic trick, saying: “One pint of Pale Rider, please.”

It was the first pint pouring of a Kelham Island Brewery beer since its closure was announced in May.

The brewery was originally set to shut after “a whirlwind of problems” hit during the pandemic, according to former owner Ed Wickett. The news was a massive blow to the community. The brewery was a pioneer for the indie beer scene, but there was something else about it that seemed to froth up strong emotions.

A pint of beer with a Pale Rider logo.

Pale Rider is Kelham Island Brewery's flagship ale and was named Champion Beer of Britain in 2004.

Steel City Snapper

“It was definitely a bit of philanthropy,” says Dom Metcalfe, Pale Rider in hand. He’s the sales director for Thornbridge, where the beer is now being brewed.

“We’re obviously not trying to turn it into a world export – it was about keeping the brand alive.”

For Thornbridge, the sentimental value goes hand in hand with the decision to get involved with the rescue. Ed's father, Dave Wickett, was instrumental in the emergence of many breweries in Sheffield and the surrounding area including Thornbridge, according to its co-founder Jim Harrison.

But the connection goes beyond brewery lineage. Eyes twinkling above his perfectly twiddled handlebar moustache, Harrison remembers Wickett as a “sometimes cantankerous” but “brilliant" man. From recruiting students from Sheffield Hallam for his bar in New York to the way he adapted to using a wheelchair as a result of cancer towards the end of his life, Wickett was a big personality with a lot of local connections.

For Harrison, it’s clear that the brewery rescue is about more than a brand – it’s about legacy.

Even for those not involved in the brewing industry, the closure always felt close to home. “In the pandemic, we lost some breweries and pubs, but this one felt more personal,” explains local photographer Dave, known as the Steel City Snapper, sipping his Kelham beer next to the Fat Cat’s hearth.

He remembers rushing out to the brewery’s closing sale after he heard the news, even picking up some bar towels and T-shirts. “It just felt like, people are going to forget this now”.

Dave also points towards legacy to explain the big reaction to the closure and rescue. “[Kelham Island Brewery] always felt like the governor – there’s such a community feel around it. We all feel a bit of ownership towards it.”

Dave has frequented the Fat Cat since 1999 and says the brewery and its pub – both originally owned by Wickett, and inseparable from him to many – were the driving factors behind Kelham’s gradual transformation into one of the world’s coolest areas, according to Time Out.

As well as nurturing a generation of beer lovers and brewers, the brewery’s name has stood at the centre of a city-wide community of local artists, musicians and socialites. Bottle labels designed by Jim Connolly, Tramlines performances hosted on the roof of the Fat Cat, a Jarvis Cocker mural and regular appearances at beer fests have all contributed to the sense that Kelham Island Brewery is an irreplaceable part of Sheffield pride.

“It is a shame that it won’t be brewed on the island anymore,” Dave notes wistfully.

Nonetheless, the general feeling in the pub is one of quiet jubilation and satisfaction. In our current times of flux, at least the taste of Pale Rider in the dinky rooms of the Fat Cat remains the same.

Learn more

Pale Rider is best enjoyed at the Fat Cat, but is also available at The Gatsby, Picture House Social, The Coach and Horses and many others.

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