Obituary: Brian Cowie

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The Independent Culture
IN A decade that has seen the number of long-established regional breweries fall rapidly, Brian Cowie and his fellow joint managing director, Bob Wales, managed the seemingly impossible and bucked the trend to save and reopen the Tolly Cobbold Brewery in Ipswich.

Britain's second oldest surviving brewery was established in 1723 when Thomas Cobbold built his first plant in Harwich, Essex, being forced to move to the present Cliff Brewery site on the river Orwell in 1746 when the Harwich water became brackish. The brewery stayed in Cobbold family hands, having merged with fellow East Anglian family brewers the Tollemaches in 1957, until the late 1970s, when it was bought successively by Ellerman Lines, the Barclay brothers and, finally, Brent Walker.

It was under Brent Walker that Cowie joined Tolly's as sales and marketing director, aged only 35, after 14 years in the trade with such firms as Allied and Scottish and Newcastle. George Walker's own well-publicised financial difficulties meant that the writing was on the wall for the Cliff Brewery. It was closed in July 1989 and production of its Suffolk Ales moved to Hartlepool.

However, during his brief time at Tolly's, Cowie had developed a deep passion for the Ipswich brewery, and together with Bob Wales set about trying to prevent its demolition and to finance a reopening. They were fortunate in having strong allies in the local population and in Ipswich council, who listed the brewery buildings once they heard they were to be demolished and the site developed. Cowie and Wales worked with the council to make the brewery an accessible feature of Ipswich's impressive Victorian docks.

The protection offered to the buildings forced Brent Walker to reconsider their plans and look for a buyer, and a management buy-out became a real possibility. With certain assistance from Brent Walker themselves, as well as support from the Cobbold and Tollymache families, local publicans and businesses, Cowie and Wales managed to raise the necessary finance and the brewery was saved. It was on 14 July 1990, a year to the day after the brewery had closed, that the chairman of the new company, the Hon Peter Strutt, a member of the Tollemache family, raised the company flag over the brewery once more.

Having saved the brewery and a considerable number of jobs, Cowie then had to secure its market, in what were very difficult years. The brewery needed investment; supply deals to Brent Walker pubs were complicated by that firm's financial difficulties and ownership of many pubs passed to the Pubmaster group. Cowie firmly believed that the route to success lay in producing top-quality cask ales using the best ingredients, and, after successfully negotiating supply deals with Pubmaster, Carlsberg- Tetley and others, was able to apply that philosophy to the full.

Eventually the brewery was able to buy back the Tolly Cobbold brand name for use on its pub estate, which now numbers 10 pubs, up from the one brewery tap and visitors' centre they had in 1990. The visitors' centre was another Cowie project; it houses Britain's largest collection of bottled beers and has received over 50,000 visitors to date.

Born in Glasgow and educated in Paisley and at Strathclyde University, Cowie would seem an unlikely local hero for the people of Suffolk, but his energy and enthusiasm, not only for the brewery, but also for local charities and sports clubs, endeared him to the local population and made him an important Ipswich figure. This year Cowie raised money for the RNLI's 175th anniversary with an RNLI Celebration Ale and in March the brewery produced Daffodil Beer to raise money for Marie Curie Cancer Care.

In 1992 Cowie came to the attention of a wider public when the brewery featured in the television series Troubleshooter, with Sir John Harvey- Jones. This appearance prompted Cowie to launch what is now one of Tolly Cobbold's best-known brands, Tollyshooter. Harvey-Jones later wrote that he had enormous admiration for Cowie, who had managed to turn a dream into reality without losing sight of the harsh truths of running one's own business.

Brian Cowie, brewery manager: born Glasgow 27 October 1951; married (one son, two daughters); died Ipswich 24 May 1999.

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