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.
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.