Calling time on a long career brewing in Sheffield

When Nigel Turnbull left school aged 16 he looked at jobs that suited his talents in science.

Monday, 6th August 2018, 6:22 pm
Updated Tuesday, 7th August 2018, 5:13 pm
Nigel Turnbull. Picture: Chris Etchells

"One was with the blood transfusion service, which was not much good as I'm not very good with blood, one was with a pharmacy with one of the local hospitals and the other one was at the brewery," he says.

Nigel was taken on by the latter - and after a lifetime in the beer industry, during which he worked for Sheffield's major producers of old and eventually took charge of operations at Kelham Island Brewery, he has overseen his final batch of ale and taken retirement.

"I'm looking forward to it, I suppose," says Nigel, 63, of Gleadless. "I have mixed emotions."

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He has watched fashions shift along with drinkers' tastes and witnessed huge changes in the business of brewing in Sheffield, as independent makers led by the likes of Kelham Island have brought about a craft beer revival following the closure of large factories.

"It was sad to see them go, but it's been replaced by quite a vibrant scene," Nigel says. "The range of beers now you can get from just the Sheffield breweries is fantastic - different styles are coming to the fore. The choice compared to what there was 30 years ago is unbelievable."

Nigel grew up in Wadsley Bridge and went to Myers Grove School, joining Bass Charrington at Hope Brewery on Claywheels Lane as a lab technician in 1971 - when, ironically, he was still too young to legally drink a pint.

"At the time you got a beer allowance, but obviously being 16 I couldn't," he laughs. "I had to wait a few years until I had that privilege."

But, he observes, he knew it was the right job for him. "Even at that stage the fascination was there of making something and experiencing the end product."

Hope was one of the city's 'big four' breweries, which also included Stones on Rutland Road, Whitbreads at Exchange Brewery in the city centre and Wards on Ecclesall Road.

Nigel - a father-of-two married to Marie, his wife of 35 years - remained with the same employer until 2009, when he joined Kelham Island as head brewer. He stayed at Claywheels Lane until 1993, moving into quality control, then just before Hope Brewery closed he went to Stones, also run by the Bass group. He later transferred to Tadcaster for 10 years, leaving when the business was owned by Molson Coors.

Kelham, whose regular beers include Pale Rider and Pride Of Sheffield, was built on Alma Street in 1990 by Dave Wickett, owner of the neighbouring Fat Cat pub who died in 2012 and was credited with driving a resurgence in real ale.

As an expert brewer, what does Nigel try to achieve in a drink?

"It's got to have that taste that will make you want to come back and have a second glass. Some people call it the factor M - the moreishness. It's finding that certain something," he says.

His own preference is a 'nice IPA, pale and hoppy'. "Not overly hoppy, just something with a nice character to it, whether it's floral, spicy or fruity notes. Something that's easily drinkable."

Kelham produces five core beers and two specials every month, to keep pubgoers engaged; these have included fruit-flavoured brews and a ginger stout, but Nigel says: "Being an old stick in the mud I like mine to taste of beer."

Cask varieties, which looked like dying out in the 1970s, have made a comeback and bottled beers, said to be doomed too at one point, are popular again. "It's been interesting to see things come full circle."

Ed Wickett, who took the reins at Kelham after his father Dave's death, says Nigel will be 'massively' missed. "He's the godfather of beer, like a wise old owl. We might ring him if something goes kaput."

Nigel confirms that he'll carry on visiting the Fat Cat, where standards will have to be maintained. "One of my favourite beers was always Pale Rider. I'll be keeping an eye on that."