Gazza's "Hop Heroes" of the UK
Last Updated : 05/05/08
his piece is, I think, long overdue in extolling the virtues of how a courageous few brewers changed UK beer from the bland, boring, malty fluids of pre-1980 containing undersized portions of bland British hops to the fresh, zingy, citrussy and refreshing pale ales of today. This conversion was due to several factors which I will hopefully delve into in detail during the rambling prose below, but then again I may just get sidetracked in blind worship of my “heroes of the hop” and simply gibber inanely… we shall see. It is tempting to call the time before the 1980 (when Franklins started brewing) as Before Hops, or BH, but that seems mildly sacrilegious… so what the hell, let’s call it that!
My formative years in real ale.
I began drinking “proper” beer in 1988 after my pre-legal days were spent consuming crappy industrial cider, as are those of most youngsters, and remember well traipsing all around the country trying beers from the local regionals as that was what scoopers did in those days; most cities still had their own brewery and invariably most of the pubs in the place were tied to that brewery – Mitchells of Lancaster, Brakspear of Henley on Thames, Morrells of Oxford, Hartleys of Ulverston – all long since closed, the breweries demolished or turned into “luxury duplex penthouse apartments” (whatever they are) and the ownership of the pubs a closely guarded secret with the much-loved local beers either a distant memory or bastardised into parodies of the originals at a factory hundreds of miles from their ancestral home.
In my memory which, obviously, is somewhat sketchy after 20 years, I fuzzily recall that 95% of the regional beers I drank tasted remarkably similar and there being only four main beer styles, mild, bitter, best bitter and strong ale, although other regional oddities did exist such as “Pennine” mild or the occasional extremely rare cask stout. Early on in my drinking “career” I loved the sweet fruitiness of mild and supped a worryingly large amount of Greenalls, Wilsons, Burtonwood and Theakstons during my formative years back home in Cheshire plus Brains and Buckleys whilst at Poly in South Wales, but didn’t really get into bitter that much as it was almost all the same; a dull fluid, ranging from golden to brown in colour with a malty taste, and – if you were lucky – some bitterness to balance out the sweetness plus, if you were exceptionally lucky, a touch of dry hopping to break the malt and toffee monotony!
The only nationally famous hoppy beer was Boddingtons and already this company had been sold down the river by the owning family into the rapacious hands of Whitbread with a corresponding plummet in quality of the beer which, tragically, meant the scrapping of their unusual dark mild. On the upside, the early 1990’s was the beginning of the second micro brewery revolution in the UK and many small companies were starting up, although most seemed to be copying the regionals recipe-wise with very few going out on a limb with anything too interesting in the taste stakes. There were exceptions to this overall blandness, however, where some of the more forward-thinking or downright bolshy brewers ripped up the rule book which dictated that English bitter had to be bland and made with English hops, giving rise to today’s renaissance of citrussy and bitter pale ales, and it is these men who are described below.
Hero No.1 – Sean Franklin, hop pioneer.
Two which stand our were the Oak brewery of Ellesmere Port (which transformed into the excellent Phoenix of Heywood, see entry under “honourable mentions”) and Franklin’s of Yorkshire (which was almost impossible to find and most people said tasted “weird” – this was Sean Franklin of Roosters’ first brewery) but apart from these it was mainly wall to wall malty mundanity. Franklins was an interesting brewery in that it was set up in 1980 by Sean Franklin to recreate as closely as possible, in a beer context, the aroma of the wines he worked with (he worked with Louis Latour in Burgundy and studied Oenology under the famous Professor Emile Peynaud at Bordeaux) and was the subject of various disparaging comments by the majority of those who tried it which, it has to be said, wasn’t that many people as it was incredibly difficult to find.
The most common critique of Franklin’s bitter was that it “smelt strange” and had a “weird taste” which, I now see, came from 99.9% of beer drinkers being used to bland, malty and generally hop-less brews and the floral hoppiness of Franklins was just too much for them to comprehend… I don’t think that the majority of people didn’t like the beer but it was simply the case that they just didn’t understand it and so, it could be argued, Sean Franklin was the UK’s first real Hero of the Hop being way ahead of his time in producing beer which defied the arbitrary boundaries of the time and pushed hop appreciation to the fore for the few who tried and appreciated Franklin’s bitter.
As Sean says on the Rooster’s website, “The Timothy Taylor's Landlord of my youth was one of the most exciting taste experiences I have ever had. Citrussy grapefruit overlaying bitterness with a tangerine aromatic on top; Allan Hey's Landlord was Leonardo stuff. … If Taylor's hadn't been there perhaps we at Rooster's wouldn't have tried to make the beers we have. Good beers are a thing of wonder”. I’ve never had much time for Landlord, thinking it a fairly harsh and unintegrated mess, but if Sean likes it then I will take his word that it used to be a top beer although I don’t consider it to be one now.
Franklins was sold in 1985 and Sean went back to taxi driving for a while but, thankfully for all of us who love hops, he was back in the fold during 1993 with Rooster’s brewery and almost immediately their beers began to win awards – with good reason. Sean’s idea was to brew beers which would showcase the hops with as little malt and/or yeast flavour as possible to get in the way of pure lupulin appreciation, and I remember from the very first time I tried one of his brews – Rooster’s in July 93 – that Sean was setting out his stall in a very different way than almost every other brewer of the day in that the maltiness present in almost every other UK beer was notable by it’s absence from Rooster’s and in it’s place was a huge, booming hop character with aromas and tastes I’d never before experienced in beer; rose petals, pineapple, lemon, lime, grapefruit… this wasn’t how British beer was supposed to taste, but I liked it – a lot – and it confirmed to me that my love affair with hops wasn’t a brief thing but was there to stay… but little did I know how it was to blossom into a fully-fledged lupulin obsession!
Over the years Sean has made well over a hundred beers under the Roosters and Outlaw labels – 95% of these have been pale, hoppy beers – with a myriad of hops having been used along the way including such classics as Amarillo, Cascade and Slovenian Goldings to name but a few and I’ve sampled 165 of them over a 15-year period such is my enthusiasm for Sean’s brews. Roosters have moved to a larger 25BBL brewery recently and it seems as if the famous Roosters hop character has mellowed in the last few years, but nevertheless they are still good beers and I’m happy to drink them whenever I come across any and, when I do, I always raise a glass to Sean Franklin who is one of my heroes of the hop and a much undersung figure in the UK brewing industry.
As a footnote to this piece, I tried Outlaw Wrangler at the Reading beer festival during May 2008 and it seems the beers have returned to something of their old form if that was anything to go by; floral and fruity in the aroma with juicy peaches prominent, it had little in the way of bitterness yet managed to balance the malt’s sweetness with a tangy marmalade note which was very, very impressive…
Hero No.2 – Brendan Dobbin, hop experimentalist.
How the West Coast brewery lasted as long as it did, being situated in one of the dodgiest parts of Manchester, will always be a mystery to me although I’m very glad that they managed to do so as Brendan Dobbin produced some stunning beers and, along with Sean Franklin, was foremost in introducing foreign hops onto the staid, boring UK beer market – but not just American hops, oh no – Brendan was one of the first UK brewers to realise that there were hops in far-flung lands such as the Pacific rim and Australasia which he unleashed with lip-puckering effect upon an unsuspecting populace.
Brendan used hops from New Zealand, Australia and, in one of the most famous pieces of brewing folklore, brought a suitcase of hops back from a visit to China and with these luscious bracts produced what is probably the finest beer I’ve ever tasted, his Chinese Pale Ale. Maybe this is an urban myth, maybe not, but wherever the hops came from that beer will forever remain with me as the pinnacle of UK craft brewing and very little comes close. According to one landlord who sold Brendan’s beers (and confirmed by a top brewer!) he is now growing bananas in the west of Ireland in a wind-powered banana farm; all I can say is if he grows bananas as well as he brewed beer then these are fruits worth finding…
My first contact with Brendan’s beer came in the Beer House, Manchester, in August 1991 when I sampled Best Bitter and Guiltless Stout which, even allowing for my youth and inexperience in beer, were obviously quality beers, but it was the following week when I tried his Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (later re-named Yakima Grande Pale Ale under the threat of legal action from the Sierra Nevada brewery of California!) which changed how I thought about beer and also changed my palate forever… here were citrussy flavours, almost lemon-jelly like, along with such bizarre (for beer) flavours like mango – plus plenty I couldn’t even begin to describe – yet with a razor-sharp dry, citric bitterness which both blasted my tastebubs into submissive delight and confused me at the same time. I’d never tasted a beer like this, anything remotely like this, and being just 21 I didn’t really know what to make of it although, as I progressed down the glass, I knew that this was my calling in beer, to find ales with a similar flavour to this holy grail which I’d just tasted.
I sampled as many Dobbins beers as I could over the next four years and I can honestly say that until the end, when all manner of iffy beer appeared, I never had a bad one and that the consistent quality and – above all – hoppiness remained intact. Some favourites included Kangaroo XXXX, possibly the first UK beer to be made with Australian hops, and the dark yet massively hoppy Yakima Grande porter, but what is probably my fondest memory of Dobbin’s beer occurred at the Crown, Stockport, in October 93 when I had the privilege to drink my first pint of their new house beer, Green Bullet.
I’d been scooping around Manchester, Stalybridge and Stockport all day and called into the Crown as a final call before my train home expecting to find one, maybe two, winners but not realising the watershed of my beer drinking career that I was about to experience. After drinking 14 scoops thus far I didn’t really expect to taste a fat lot but, with plenty of time before I had to mountaineer back up to the station and excess beer capacity remaining, I decided upon a pint of the Crown’s new house beer, Green Bullet, which the barman assured me had been going down very well indeed.
There wasn’t a lot extraordinary about the aroma, maybe some spicy, leafy hoppiness, but the first mouthful caused my eyebrows to hit the ceiling; what the fuck was this? This wasn’t beer; it must be some extract of gooseberry and nettles, surely? I don’t think I’d ever tasted a beer so extreme in hoppiness since Brendan’s Chinese Pale Ale the preceding year and so just stood at the bar, slowly drinking and taking in the enormity of this brew. By this point I kind of knew what to expect from American hops with their citrussy, grapefruity bitterness, but these New Zealand varieties were something completely different and possessed a far more earthy, leafy character, full of sour gooseberry-like tastes, which elicited a stunned “Wow!” from me, much to the amusement of the barman. “Told you it was good” he chortled… and he wasn’t wrong!
Tragically, Dobbins brewery suffered continuous vandalism and break-ins, and anyone who visited Chorlton-on-Medlock will understand exactly why this happened; if you didn’t then imagine a post-nuclear wasteland littered with abandoned prams and cars with feral groups of locals prowling around intent on mischief: on one visit to the King’s Arms most of the locals seemed to have Stanley knives in their back pockets… so, sadly, Brendan was forced to close in 1995 to the anguish of local ale lovers, although he did help set up the Millgate up in Failsworth where some beautifully hoppy brews were produced until the pub’s foundations were declared unsafe and brewing ceased the following year.
He then installed a brewery into the Marble Arch in Manchester, whose original beers had that unmistakeable “Dobbins” taste to them, and has also had fingers in the Porterhouse and Maguires brewpubs in Dublin, but to me his finest moments were the Chinese Pale Ale and Green Bullet, beers made with hops from opposite sides of the world in location, but you couldn’t get a rizla between them in character and quality which I believe is Brendan’s legacy – whatever hops he used he magically made them dance to his very special tune and, along with many other beer lovers who had the honour of sampling his beers, I’m so glad he did…
Hero No.3 – Richard Sutton, the carrier of the hop baton.
With the closure of Dobbins, Sean Franklin’s Roosters was just about the only UK brewery making beer with decent amounts of foreign hops for quite a few years; yes, there were some others who made good beer and even some who made good beer with American hops (such as Phoenix, more later), but by and large the UK micro scene seemed afraid to use enough hops to give their beer a substantial amount of bitterness and hop character, preferring instead to ape the remaining regional brewers (a dwindling species by this time, surely a lesson there?) and used insufficient doses of the less interesting varieties of hop.
Let us wind forwards to April 2000 where a newcomer is on the scene and he means business; Richard Sutton brewed at the Flea & Firkin in Manchester and acquired the ex-Freelance and Firkin of Dundee’s brewery which he installed at the amusingly-named Woodbine Street East Canalside Industrial estate in Rochdale (just how northern is that?) and began producing some excellent brews right from the off as the Pictish brewery, although little did we know what would gestate from these initially very tasty and reasonably hoppy ales.
As the years have progressed Richard’s range of seasonal and occasional beers has been augmented by a huge legion of single hop brews made as and when hop supplies and capacity permit him to do so. These beers are generally around 5%, are very pale to accentuate the hop flavours and bitterness, and seem to be getting hoppier all the while; famous “noble” hops such as Perle and Saaz rub shoulders with modern UK varieties such as Admiral along with new-world classics like Cascade, Centennial and Willamette, whilst the new kids on the block – from all over the world – get a look in too as he’s recently brewed with Nelson Sauvin, Simcoe, Marynka and Pacific Gem. All that I’ve scooped, and it’s sadly not even a half of them, have been fascinating brews, pale and bitter with the hop’s character to the fore, and brewed in such a way that you can almost taste the petals between your teeth!
The Pictish website lists all their beers, even the ones no longer brewed, and amongst the tasting notes comes this classic: “Pale and hoppy, you know, the usual sort of rubbish that I brew”; would we want them any other way? Keep ‘em coming Richard, in my opinion (and others too) you’re the best, most consistent brewer and one of the premier innovators in the UK brewing industry and have, in my opinion, carried on where Brendan Dobbin left off in finding, and then experimenting with, new hops from all over the world with amazing effect; a modern-day hero of the hop if ever there was one.
The three men above have been visionary in their use of exotic foreign hops and, between them, I feel have changed the UK brewing industry forever – much for the better. No longer do we have to put up with bland, malty bitters with a smattering of dusty hops thrown in, now most micros in the UK (and even some of the regionals, Elgoods being a notable example) are beginning to see the magical flavours that hops from around the world can give to beer and are using them in larger amounts and with more success. The current worldwide hop shortage has come at a bad time for this renaissance of the hop but hopefully it’s merely a temporary blip on the ever-increasing discovery and use of foreign hops to produce beers which fascinate the drinker with their aroma and flavour of these magical sticky green cones and has even stimulated the supply of unusual varieties from countries which have, in the times of American abundance, been sadly overlooked.
So, I now call upon all lovers of the hop in the UK to raise a glass of lupulin-laden beer to Sean Franklin, Brendan Dobbin and Richard Sutton, without whom our lives would be so much less interesting – or, at least, our lives spent in the pub would be! Cheers to them all, and thanks for all your pioneering work past, present and future… we hopheads do appreciate it!
Other honourable mentions in dispatches.
Obviously there were other brewers who refused to be told that English beers must be bland and hop-less, and so here I will list a few of the others who have tried to spread a little hoppiness into our lives. I can’t recall all of them right at this moment, so if there are any you think should be on the list but are missing then please let me know and I’ll sort it out! So, in addition to my three “heroes of the hop” above, here are some of the notable runners-up in the crusade to make British beer more interesting…
© Gazza 05/05/08.