Only a Northern Brewer

David Pollard, 1977.

This is the story of a first-wave British microbrewery that came and went, and of which little is remembered more than 40 years on: Pollard’s of Stockport, in Greater Manchester.

A handful of small new breweries opened in the early 1970s, and the Campaign for Real Ale had come into existence, but it was only after 1975 that a kind of chain reaction seems to have been triggered. CAMRA membership kept climbing, hitting 30,000 by March that year, and specialist pubs sprouting across the country to cater for ‘the real ale craze’. New brewers began to appear in ever greater numbers, too, and among the original set was Pollard’s of Reddish Vale in Stockport, run by a towering man with a drooping moustache and thick sideburns – David Pollard.

Pollard left school and went straight into the brewing trade in 1950, working alongside his father, George, as an apprentice at Robinson’s in Stockport. He went on thereafter to take jobs at various breweries across England, finding himself repeatedly shunted on as, one by one, they fell to the takeover mania of the Big Six. He became increasingly angry and frustrated, as expressed in a 1975 article in the Observer:

The accountants and engineers had started running things. All the big firms wanted were pasteurised, carbonated beers with no taste or character.

In around 1968 he started his own business – a small shop selling home brewing equipment and ingredients, on Hillgate in Stockport. Until 1963 home brewing had needed a license but when Chancellor of the Exchequer Reginald Maudlin removed that requirement, a small boom commenced. Newspapers and magazines were filled with recipes and how-to guides, and Boots the Chemist began to sell brewing kits to a new band of enthusiasts. Amidst all that excitement, Pollard’s shop was a success, and soon moved to larger premises on nearby Buxton Road.

Therapeutic as home brewing might have been for him, however, what he really wanted to be doing was making beer for sale in pubs and clubs. Buoyed by the rise of CAMRA, and perhaps aware of the recent small brewery openings in Litchborough and Selby, he bought £5,000 worth of new brewing equipment, and invested a further £5,000 in premises and ingredients. The site he chose, largely because it was cheap and the water was good, was a small unit in the recently-opened Reddish Vale Industrial Estate in the countryside south of Manchester, where the low, red-brick buildings of a substantial 19th Century printing plant had been converted into workshops.

Pollard's Brewery, 1979.
Pollard’s Brewery in 1979 via The Reddish Vale Country Park history website.

As well as new equipment, Pollard also pushed the boat out when it came to selecting a strain of yeast. Whereas other small brewers were supplied with buckets of from the back doors of bigger regional breweries, or used dried home-brewer’s yeast, Pollard approached the Brewing Industry Research Foundation at Nutfield in Surrey and arranged to be supplied with a pure sample of one of the strains preserved in their culture bank. Yeast is such an enormous contributor of flavour and aroma in brewing that this decision must surely have gone a long way to ensuring his beer stood out in the local market. Had he arranged with Robinson’s to use their yeast, as might well have been tempting given his family connections, his beer would almost inevitably have been very like theirs. His mission was clearly to do something different — to give consumers some real variety.

Another sign that he was part of a new brewing culture was in the formulation of his recipes. Like Martin Sykes at Selby, Pollard made much of the quality of his ingredients, brewing with malt only rather than adding sugar to boost the strength, as was common in larger breweries. Sugar has been used in British brewing for centuries not only to increase alcoholic strength while saving on raw material costs, but also to thin the body of the beer (to make it more ‘drinkable’); to add colour, in the case of dark sugars; and to add a range of often subtle flavours. Nonetheless, this was to become an important distinction between big, old-fashioned brewers and those that were smaller and more youthful in their outlook. Pollard, like many who followed, wasn’t heeding the call of the SPBW to make beer as it used to be, but rather making beer as he wanted it to be, and as he thought the market desired. That is, wholesome, and pure.

He began brewing test batches of John Barleycorn (JB) best bitter in the summer of 1975, with launch scheduled for August. With a team of four working every day of the week, Pollard expected to produce the equivalent of around four casks a day, to be delivered in a dray which was actually a repurposed milk float. The venture was in immediate success.

He arrived, uninvited, at CAMRA’s first national beer festival at Covent Garden in London in September 1975 with a cask of ale in the back of his Mini. After some negotiation, the team running the festival agreed to take it even though it hadn’t been ordered. As it happened, the bar selling it was mobbed, and every drop sold out ‘literally within hours’, according to a contemporary report in CAMRA’s newsletter, What’s Brewing. Drinkers were desperate for something, anything, new.

The following month, a pub in Hyde, Greater Manchester, owned by CAMRA’s new pub company, CAMRA Real Ale Investments, began selling Pollard’s JB and reported that it was shifting almost as well as similar beers from better-established local breweries, Boddington’s and Hyde’s. It seemed people liked the opportunity to drink something different and, perhaps, to support an underdog.

By 1977, Pollard had expanded the brewery once, and had plans to do so again, up to a 100 barrel plant, to meet huge levels of local demand for his beer. The ‘micro-brewery’, as this type of set up would soon come to be known, was here to stay, even if Pollard’s itself would cease trading in April 1982, foreshadowing the Great Shake Out to come.

A version of this piece was first published on the Greater Manchester Ale News website and revised for inclusion in our short e-book Back of a Beer Mat in 2015. Many of the details here come from either ‘David Pollard makes his pint’, The Observer, 22 June 1975, p.14, or ‘Sweet But Bitter Taste of Success for a Takeover Victim’, Michael Hardman, What’s Brewing, April 1977, p.5. We also referred to A History of Stockport Breweries by Mike Ogden, published in 1987.

25 thoughts on “Only a Northern Brewer”

    1. It is — sold off at around the time the brewery folded, we gather. Astonishing, really. Still looks to have a very 1968 frontage, too, from Street View.

  1. Fabulous. Whenever I hear the “+/- thirty years” argument about US brewing I remind myself that it’s “+/- forty years” since the UK brewers triggered the revival / preservationist movement. Much more acknowledged in the northeast where disciples of the UK brewers brought the open square method still used in some spaces. If I were to ask to join you in a research project (as if I haven’t badgered you) it would be to trace the 1963-1980 home brewing players, Amateur Winemaker columnists and the Dave Line effect. I have a bit of that stuff having homebrewed in the mid-80s buying my stuff from shops, sourcing their equipment and guides from Britain. But not enough. I’d love a crack at the AW archives. Have you come across a source of old issues?

    1. Alan, a “+/- fifty years” argument might be more precise in dating the start ofAmerica’s “revival / preservationist movement.” Fritz Maytag purchased and ‘craft-ified’ Anchor Brewing in 1965.

      1. 1965 is also coincidentally (?) when brewing was revived at Traquair House in Scotland. But I think Alan is fundamentally right — those are outliers and what came to be known first as microbrewing, then as craft beer, *was* up and running earlier in the UK.

        1. I’ll defer to you on beer things U.K., but to call Fritz Maytag’s Anchor Brewing (and its seminal influence upon the U.S. ‘craft’ revival) an “outlier” is, at gentle best, revisionist indeed.

          1. But it wasn’t a new brewery. I think that’s an important difference. I’d liken it more to a small British regional brewery that had dodged takeovers and retained an interesting product. More like Youngs than Pollards.

          2. My working theory is multiple foundations for US craft: Euro-imports, Austin and the surviving regionals like Anchor and Yeungling plus the Canadians. East coast and west coast were not really speaking to each other in 1979-1981 so grew up spontaneously based on individual interest. The current trend of awarding a gold star to one influence or a few founders is both revisionist and a sign of the poor research that plagues US beer.

          3. What happened between Maytag’s purchase of Anchor and New Albion starting up in 1976? If nothing much else happened in those eleven years, then yes, Anchor is an outlier, however important and seminal it may have been in other respects.

  2. I wonder if the Reddish industrial estate mentioned is the same one Thirst Class Ale currently reside on. Not sure but would be a nice footnote to the story to have a well respected local micro brewery on the same spot all these years later.

    1. No it’s not the same one I’m afraid. This is an interesting piece – as far as it goes. The first (and as it turns out only) Pollards tied house, the Gloucester Arms on Regent Road in Salford, was a right old dump and couldn’t have helped the brewery much. What happened later is interesting too with David Pollard going off to the USA and then returning to Stockport with plans for a brewpub which came to nought.

      1. Would be interesting to hear more. We’re drawing a blank on any sources after the early 1980s, except for an email we got today from someone whose family had dealings with Mr Pollard containing a fairly grim account (unverified, as yet) of what became of him after the brewery folded.

  3. A cracking straw-coloured beer. Loved going into the pub opposite the Piccadilly concourse ramp (Coach & Horses ???) that always used to have it on in the late 70’s and early 80’s

    1. Yes, the amazingly grotty Coach & Horses always sold it – later a rare outlet for Winkles Saxon Cross Bitter too.

      1. And a rare outlet to the West of the Pennines for Taylors Landlord in the early 1980’s ?

  4. I don’t think you’ve got it right about sugar. Its principal functions seem to have been flavour and colour, especially in Mild. That it wasn’t particularly about cost is demonstarted by the fact that brewers continued to use sugar even when it was more expensive than malt. And the invert and proprietary sugars usually used in brewing aren’t 100% fermentable, either, so don’t necessarily make a nbeer thin.

    1. It’s possible we’re over-extrapolating from the world of homebrewing where crap kits are bulked out with cane sugar. Certainly by the 1970s people like Pollard did seem to view it as a nasty corner-cutting additive rather than an integral ingredient, for whatever reason.

      1. Depends on the sugar. I have long considered Orval possibly the world’s finest beer, and that includes candy sugar. Certainly some have been used for colouring and flavouring purposes, but there’s no doubt some breweries were using it on an industrial scale to reduce costs at one point, as the Americans used maize and the Chinese used rice.

        1. I’ve never seen brewing records where sugar was being used that way. Flaked maize or grits filled that role. If sugar was just being used as a cheap fermentable, thay’d have used it in its cheapest form. But they didn’t, they used relatively expensive specialist sugars.

          1. Quite right Ron ,
            Incidentally, flaked rice also crops up in an early Magee’s P.A recipe from 1903 , the sugar is the devil incarnate idea, apart from being equine odure; probably does stem from the severe lack of BREWING sugars available to the homebrewers of the 70’s & 80’s.

        1. Well, it could be the other way around. By the mid-70s Dave Line is writing guides to how all malt beer can be made easily at home. Perhaps its not so much sugar is evil as sugar is not necessary.

          1. Except sugar is necessary to get some British beer styles right. David Line may well have gone all malt simply because the right brewing sugars weren’t available to home brewers. They still aren’t, for that matter.

          2. [Trying to respond to Ron… Not sure it will line up this far down the thread…]

            Good point. Resources were quite limited. Must check with the Big Book of Brewing to see if he has an invert recipe.

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