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Dorset lives — A glass half-full

For 28 years Eldridge Pope benefited from the skills of Denis Holliday, and his service to the community is longer still. Michel Hooper-Immins has been to meet him.

Denis Holliday outside the disused Dorchester Brewery, whose frontage will be retained in the redevelopment

Thomas Hardy’s Ale is famous throughout the world. The strongest beer brewed in the UK at the time, the iconic Eldridge Pope nip bottles are still lovingly stored in many cupboards, traded on eBay and appreciated worldwide. Denis Holliday created this unique brew, one enduring memorial of his 28 years as Head Brewer at Dorchester Brewery. His skills brought Eldridge Pope ales – much missed in recent years – great acclaim and a loyal following throughout Dorset and elsewhere.

Thomas Hardy had died in 1928 and the late Cecil Pope conceived the idea of a special commemorative ale to mark the 40th anniversary. Denis invented the recipe – 13% alcohol by volume, over three times the strength of IPA. ‘Brewing that strength of beer is not easy. The strong alcohol kills the yeast, so you have to keep adding more as the ale matures in a tank over six months,’ he says. Launched in 1968, Thomas Hardy’s Ale became an immediate success. It was last made at Dorchester in 1999. In the 1970s, Denis revived Royal Oak from an old recipe book, a high-quality draught ale and this writer’s own favourite of the superb EP stable.

I meet one of Dorchester’s most active nonagenarians at the Junction pub, within sight of the disused Dorchester Brewery, which awaits the new development in and around it. Tragically, no Royal Oak – nor indeed any Dorset beer – is available, but we enjoy a pint or three of Brakspears Bitter from Oxfordshire as we talk. Many souvenirs from the old Eldridge Pope museum are about, including the neat gold-lettered board listing all eleven Head Brewers, beginning with Edwin Pope in 1871. Denis Holliday is shown as the longest-serving.

Born at Great Yarmouth in 1917, Denis found work after leaving school as a pupil pharmacist in Lowestoft, ten miles away by cycle, but he didn’t enjoy the work. Talking to a family friend who worked at Greene King, Denis realised that brewing would be much more interesting. He travelled to Southwold one day in 1938 and, after a chat with the Head Brewer at Adnams, was taken on as an apprentice. Denis spent two years learning the fascinating art of turning water, hops and malt into good ale. In 1940, he volunteered for the Royal Navy – ‘I always enjoyed sailing’ – but the Medical Officer couldn’t overlook his poor eyesight. Having asked what Denis did for a living, the M O declared, ‘You’ll be much more useful making beer for the troops.’ Having moved to Tollemache in Ipswich in 1942, Denis joined the local ARP – ‘Brewing all day, firewatching all night,’ as he remembers it.

In 1954, Denis discovered that Eldridge Pope needed a Head Brewer. He came to Dorchester to meet directors Cecil and Philip Pope, who made the wise decision to appoint him. Denis Holliday would transform EP’s real ales and make his mark on the company. He set about improving the cloudy, unreliable beers, instituted a massive clean throughout the elderly brewery and refined the four main beers then being brewed: Best Bitter, IPA, Mild and Stout. The old wooden casks were prone to infection, so he led the 1959 change to metal casks: ‘A great improvement,’ he says.

Denis Holliday, characteristically with pint glass in hand, at the Junction pub, surrounded by Eldridge Pope memorabilia. Next to him is the gold-lettered board listing EP’s Head Brewers, rescued from Dorchester Brewery before it closed.

Dating from 1900, the Dorchester Brewery desperately needed modernisation. Most operations were carried out by hand. Denis supervised the building of a new bottling plant, a keg plant and latterly a lager unit. Invited to join the EP board, Denis became Production Director and the superb reputation of the Dorchester-brewed beers increased all the time, not only in the tied estate but throughout the free trade. In June 1972, Eldridge Pope won an unprecedented seven International Brewing Awards, the ‘Oscars’ of the beer industry. As President of the International Brewers’ Guild, he travelled to Kenya, Nigeria and to every part of Britain. Retiring in 1982, Denis became a consultant, touring EP’s 200 pubs to check on beer quality in cellars and talk to landlords. ‘It was a wonderful job – free beer and free lunches,’ he chuckles.

Twenty-eight years of retirement certainly haven’t mean stagnation and Denis has always helped others. Back in Lowestoft, he had joined Toc H, taking the elderly on day trips. In Dorchester, he joined the Rotary Club and was one of the founders of the Cheshire Home in Hawthorn Road. President of Probus, Vice-Chairman of the Tall Ships Trust, a member of Weymouth Sailing Club for fifty years, part of the 41 Club of ex-Round Tablers, he still offers his help willingly at events like Weldmar fêtes, litter-picking and Weymouth Carnival. His large garden takes a lot of work, but keeps him fit.

His proudest day was at Windsor Castle in December 2008, when the Queen invested him with the MBE awarded for services to the community. ‘What’s your favourite task?’ asked the Queen. ‘I really like taking the elderly to their club at Age Concern,’ proudly replied Denis.

In 1951, Denis married Devon-born Louise, whom he met at Salcombe while sailing. Tragedy struck in 1973 when their 18-year-old son, Guy, was killed in a traffic accident. Daughter Kate lives in Wimbledon and has given Denis three grandchildren.

The brewing industry has changed radically. In the early 1930s there were 500 big breweries. Now there are only 67, but some 700 micro-breweries, many of them one-man operations. Eldridge Pope is no more. ‘The beginning of the end came in 2001, when they stopped brewing their own beers,’ says Denis. ‘The brewery struggled for business and closed suddenly in July 2003. It was a great tragedy for the town and for EP’s customers.’

Having lived in the county town for 55 years, Denis has seen Dorchester grow in population from around 11,000 to 16,000. ‘When I first came, most of the shops in South Street were family-owned, now there are very few. Dorset is wonderful, and I’d love to have been born a Dorset man, but I count myself lucky to have lived so long in such an attractive county.’

Denis Holliday examines the latest brew in the tap room in 1977

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