Oliver Fozard: Quite a Bashful Chappie
At the end of last year, the Guild of British Beer Writers announced its annual awards, among them the award for Brewer of the Year, sponsored by the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA). That award went to Oliver Fozard from the Rooster’s Brewery in Harrogate. I’d interviewed Ol last year about his work to raise awareness of mental health issues, so I was keen to catch up with him in the light of this award.
In some ways, Ol could be said to be Yorkshire brewing royalty. His father, Ian Fozard, was active in the Campaign for Real Ale from its earliest days, going on to manage a group of local pubs with friends, before creating the famous Blind Jack’s bar in Knaresborough. Ian took on the Old Bell in Harrogate and built up its parent company, Market Town Taverns, into a successful group. Ol and his twin brother Tom were teenagers at this time, hoping for paid work in the pub kitchen, but there were to be no favours: “He just handed us an application form and told us to return them to the manager, and see how we got on.”
In time, Tom went off to university, and Ol went to look for work. “I think I went to the Jobcentre on a lucky day,” he says. “There was a job going at Daleside Brewery, and they sent me for an interview. There were two of us, and I was put on production.” Having learnt his trade at Daleside, Ol moved to another brewery, whose head brewer had previously worked at one of the big, industrial breweries. He brought with him a “big business” focus on consistency, something Ol admired and has tried to emulate ever since.
In 2011, Ian Fozard was approached about buying Rooster’s Brewery. Under Sean Franklin, the brewery had established itself as a leader in modern British brewing. Sean was looking to retire and needed someone to take Rooster’s forward. Ian suggested his sons join him in the business. Today, Tom works as Commercial Director while Ol manages the production side of the brewery as Head Brewer. Since taking over the brewing in 2011, Ol has continued Rooster’s tradition of producing innovative, aroma-driven pale ales, while also gaining a solid reputation for amber ales, stouts and porters.
Awards are by no means new to the brewery, and the tap room foyer is filled with framed awards from every year of production. This one is different, however. It’s a personal award to Ol, sponsored by his peers and voted for by expert writers in the field. James Calder of SIBA said: “I can think of no more fitting recipient of this prestigious award. Oliver's talent of absolutely nailing a diverse range of beer styles in varying formats is second to none and the work which he has done over the last twelve months to raise awareness of mental health issues is hugely commendable and necessary. The industry is lucky to have him.”
Although quiet, Ol can be very articulate. He is able to explain the very technical side of brewing – the effects of different yeast strains, brewing temperature and the characteristics of the hops he chooses – without leaving you feeling lost or ignorant. He’s a skilled communicator in his field.
It was his work around mental health that first brought Ol to my attention. I had interviewed him about Mind Games, the brew he created with others in the industry in an effort to trigger some positive conversations about mental health and raise funds for Mind, the mental health charity. In April 2019 one of Rooster’s customers took his own life. Ol hadn’t known him but was struck by the fact that he’d spoken to no-one about how he was feeling. “I kept reading posts from people saying they wished he’d spoken about it to them, or that they never realised something was wrong, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ve never spoken about it, either.’ I put something on Twitter that night.” Ol was surprised to get an immediate and positive reaction. Friends, colleagues and strangers all responded, either with messages of support or to share their own story. I ask if it felt like a brave thing to do, and he brushes off the question. “I never considered it.”
To talk to Ol is to be drawn out of your own self. He is brutally honest about his fight with anxiety and how it has affected him and his relationships, and this honesty makes you want to trust him. Although I was interviewing him, I still found myself sharing stories of my own mental health difficulties. This wasn’t a miserable conversation by any means, though. There is a humour about Ol and the way he describes his situation that made the time pass quickly and enjoyably. Sharing a laugh about our respective experience of side-effects, weird dreams and intrusive thoughts felt good. His openness makes you feel normal about the strangest things.
Ol says his own problems with anxiety came to the forefront when he first became a dad. “Suddenly you’re not just your own person. You have someone else to look after and worry about, who can’t do anything for themself, and you wonder if you’re going to be good enough as a parent. Around the same time, we’d bought the brewery… I’d worked in brewing for a while but this was my first time managing other people. And I was placing orders for thousands of pounds, too, and had to make sure I got it right. It was all down to me.” He started to notice physical symptoms – headaches, pressure on his chest and disruption to sleep – but he never considered there could be an emotional or psychological cause. He assumed his worrying, his irritability, even his darker thoughts, were just a “normal” part of becoming a parent and manager. Working in brewing means you have ready access to alcohol and people who want you to try their latest brew, and Ol admits he has used alcohol more than he should to get him through some tough times.
About four years ago, Ol put the radio on in the car and caught the tail end of an interview with Anna Williamson, the TV presenter. She had published a book called Breaking Mad, in which she discusses her struggle with general anxiety disorder. “She was talking about her own life, but it was what I was going through. Exactly. I was supposed to be heading back to the brewery but pulled over and just sat and listened to the end. I never realised what I was feeling had a name, that it was an illness and I could get help with it.” Ol doesn’t make the link explicit, but I can’t help thinking that this experience, of seeking help as a result of hearing someone else’s openness, informed his own decision to speak out on Twitter, a couple of years later, when he heard about his customer’s death.
Ol’s openness has gained him many friends on Twitter, including the actor Reece Dinsdale. Reece, too, has spoken about his experience of mental ill-health. Both down-to-earth Yorkshiremen, two men have hatched a plan to do “something” together in the future to promote better mental health, especially among men.
Unfortunately, work and Covid have prevented them making any firm plans for now, but they’re hopeful of having more to say soon.
On the subject of Covid, Ol is all concern for others. He points out what a difficult time licensed hospitality is having. “Pubs, wet-led (ie., not serving food) especially, have had it tough, and that goes back up the food chain to us, to our suppliers and to the farmers and growers.” During the crisis, Rooster’s has had to close its Taproom, furlough staff and even waste stock. Breweries can’t simply pour beer away because that can have severe impact on the environment. Ditching stock involves carefully monitoring and recording water acidity levels, volumes of beer wasted and the frequency it is done, and as every family knows, all waste is costly. They have had to adapt the way they serve in the Taproom as well as being keenly responsive to customer demand. Ol was in the brewery on Christmas Day, working to make sure there would be adequate supplies after the holidays. He speaks appreciatively of Rooster’s customers. “It’s been reassuring and humbling, the support we’ve had through the webshop. At what’s been a hugely trying time for everyone – mentally as well, and that’s something that’s going to last – yes, it’s been very humbling.”
Ol says he was pleased to be nominated for the SIBA Brewer of the Year award but didn’t expect to win. Three others had been nominated, and Ol says it was a boost simply to be on the shortlist, “alongside such talented people. It’s something that gets your tail up.” The awards this year were presented via Zoom, and Ol found it strange to be sitting in his kitchen with so many people looking at him on screen. It seems entirely in keeping with his habit of deflecting praise and his care to acknowledge the help of others, such as his Brewing Team Leader, Stu, that he describes the nomination as “more than I’d ever envisaged,” and never considered the possibility of winning. Commenting on the win, he says, “The people I have around me at work, and further afield, are particularly important to me and have kept me going throughout the year,” so I ask if those people – Ian and Tom, Stu and other friends in the industry - were surprised at his win. “I haven’t asked them, to be honest.
I’m quite a bashful chappy, really.”
Writing as The Aperitif Guy, Paul Fogarty maintains a popular food & drinks blog, which can be found at blog.theaperitifguy.co.uk
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