DAVE Wickett was stood in the dressing room of a run-down social club the night he realised just how much he loved his pub.
In there with him were his boyhood idols, Buddy Holly’s band The Crickets.
The owner of Sheffield’s legendary Fat Cat pub and Kelham Island Brewery, in Alma Street, Kelham Island, had just put the band on at the now defunct St Phillip’s Social Club, in Shalesmoor.
Post-gig, as he sat with the three-piece sharing round his brewery’s ale and asking about their songs, Jerry Allison turned to him...
“It was a pinch-yourself moment,” recalls the 64-year-old, today in his pub’s beer garden. “I was like a kid with them because these guys were my heroes.
“And then Jerry then says, ‘Well, Dave, these are the worst changing rooms I’ve ever been in but this is the best beer I’ve ever tasted, and that makes it a good night’. I couldn’t believe a Cricket had said that. It almost brought a tear to my eye.
It is 30 years this month since Dave, a then lecturer in economics at the old Sheffield Polytechnic, opened The Fat Cat.
Today that little pub, and the Kelham Island Brewery which followed 10 years later, is credited with both kick starting the city’s much lauded real ale renaissance and with inspiring the regeneration of the former steel factory neighbourhood.
In those three decades it has won so many awards the pub has run out of wall space, has made special beers for the likes of David Hirst and Tony Currie, and has been toasted in Parliament.
“The secret?” muses Dave today, a father-of-one of Fulwood. “It’s just a good honest place.”
The variety helped.
At a time when most pubs in the city had just one beer available, The Fat Cat started life by offering a selection of at least 12.
But there was more to it than simply good choice.
This was a bar that offered a near-revolutionary experience when it came to an evening out.
It was only the second pub in the whole country to have a no smoking section, refused to have music playing or game machines installed, and prided itself, above all else, on conversation.
“Our soundtrack is of people talking and laughing,” says Dave.
If its furnishing, meanwhile, is described as shabby chic, that’s exactly what Dave wants - the only real make over the place has ever had came after the 2007 flood left the place three foot under water.
“I’ve thought about changing it round sometimes,” says Dave. “But my philosophy is if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. People love the place the way it is. There was a guy came in recently who hadn’t been here for 20 years and he said the place hadn’t altered a bit. He said it with a huge smile on his face.”
It is perhaps with that kind of joyful customer reaction in mind that, in 1991, Dave did three things.
He quit his day job as an economics lecturer at Sheffield Polytechnic - “my wife Helen was pregnant with Edward, our only child, but she was supportive,” he says.
He opened a small brewery in The Fat Cat beer garden.
And he founded a twin pub in Rochester, New York.
Quite a 12 months, in other words.
“I was busy,” he laughs. “The New York thing was the idea of an American friend, and I agreed to be his partner. We called it The Old Toad, and it’s still going strong today.
“Americans love it because you really can’t get real cask ale out there. And we let placement year students run it. They’re always bright and full of ideas so we just let them go for it.”
Perhaps more significantly was the establishment of the Kelham Island Brewery - at first housed in a specially built unit in the pub’s garden.
Today, it’s success is well documented.
It has since moved out of that garden premises to a bigger adjacent site, it brews beers that are sent as far away as Australia and the US, and its most popular creation, Pale Rider, was named Champion Beer of Britain 2004. Indeed, with the collapse of Wards, Whitbread, Stones and Smith’s, it is now the biggest brewery in the city.
But back then...
“That first year it made £93,” says Dave. “But as I said at the time, that’s £93 profit.”
Meanwhile, encouraged by Dave’s success and apparently unlimited expansions, a range of other boozers were springing up in Kelham Island, an area which, with new government offices, student apartments and artists studios, was quickly undergoing something of a renaissance.
Places like The Harlequin, in Nursery Street, The Riverside in Brown Street and the Kelham Island Tavern in Russell Street all owe much to the trail-blazing pub.
“Does the competition bother me?” ponders Dave. “Not at all. I think it’s great.
“This place is now known as the Valley Of Beer. We get tourists from all over the country coming and doing pub crawls because it’s got such a great reputation.”
Even when the neighbouring Kelham Island Tavern won the CAMRA National Pub Of The Year in 2008 and 2009, he says The Fat Cat benefited.
“People assumed that our Kelham Island Brewery was in some way linked to the pub so we had dozens of new orders on the back of that,” he laughs.
And for the future?
Dave admits he has bleak days after a tumour of the spine left him paralysed in February but he is determined he will not let the illness get him down.
“It’s hard,” he says. “Some days can be very black but I keep busy.”
He’s not wrong. He’s just opened a Kelham Island Brewery gift shop and a completely new brewery at Welbeck Abbey.
And he’s been recognised in Parliament for his contributions to the ale industry.
Just last month he was presented with the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
“I was sat at the annual dinner down in Westminster and I was wondering who they were talking about,” he laughs. “Then about four sentences in I realised it was me. It was a huge honour.”
Oh, and there’s the small matter of that 30th anniversary party to organise, which will take place on from August 18 - 21.
“I think people would have said I was mad if I’d told them I’d still be going 30 years later,” he laughs. “And maybe they’d have been right.
“But I’ve loved every moment.
“Someone once wrote me a letter after trying out the first ever Kelham Island Brewery beer. He said ‘Drinking is never going to be the same again, it’s the nicest beer I’ve ever had’.
“I’ve still got the letter. It’s things like that which make you think you’ve done alright.”