Saint Brendan - Patron Saint of Hops
Last Updated : 09/07/10
ome people leave a legacy far in excess of their physical stature whilst some leave nowt worth talking about despite ceaseless trying. Some change the world with their actions whilst some labour for nothing. Some are mould-breakers, some mould-makers.
That’s enough allegorical chat, surely you get the idea by now; this is a piece about how one man (along with a certain Sean Franklin and a very few others) changed the British beer market forever and, to quote the old phrase, “turned the world upside down”.
How it all began.
Brendan Dobbin, brewer at the now legendary West Coast brewery in Manchester, is one of the few people – along with, for example, Louis Pasteur, the Whitbread family and the bloke who first imported hops in the UK during the Middle Ages – who can lay claim to fundamentally altering the beer scene in these islands. Brendan didn't do this by science like Pasteur or by industrialisation as did the Whitbreads but has a lot in common with my third example, the first importer of hops into the UK, in that he used the sticky green bracts of the lupulus plant as his weapon of choice: his weapons were the pungent, citrussy, way-out-there, IBU-laden, tropical fruit-flavoured, zesty and exotic hops from foreign lands which – compared to the safe, dusty bland UK hops in use at the time – were a revelation to those beer lovers lucky enough to sample his creations.
For those beer drinkers who don't remember the early 1990's this may seem strange; after all, Cascade-hopped golden beer has been around for ever, right? Wrong! I began my beer scooping career in 1988 amid a sea of brown, toffeeish, malty, vaguely dry and un-hoppy regional beer, a world which – in the space of a few short decades – has almost inconceivably vanished to be replaced by the brave new world of hundreds of micro-brewers making, by 1988 standards, amazingly hoppy pale ales. Not all is rosy in the garden these days, but this isn't the place to set the world to rights on the subject of UK brewing; this is about how one man – and a few honourable colleagues – changed the UK beer world from the aforementioned sea of hop-less brown swill to the flawed yet fascinating hop-led scene we now have.
My first taste of hop heaven.
I remember my first taste of Brendan's hop onslaught – a beer which was to shake every opinion I held on beer to the core – vividly. The year was 1991, the place was the Beer House and in my hand I held Dobbin's Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (a name which he would be forced to change just in case his beer, distributed in tiny amounts around Manchester, got confused with the stuff from thousands of miles away on the USA's west coast) and little did I know my beer drinking life was about to be irrevocably changed for ever.
For the benefit of any youngsters still reading, here's some homework; before you read any further go to your nearest pub and drink a few pints of the standard bitters you'll find there: the omnipresent Pedigrees, London Prides, Greede Kerchings and Banks’, then imagine that all beer is like this, every single beer – with very few exceptions – in the UK tastes of toffee, malt and not a lot else. Dreary scenario, isn't it? Welcome to 1991!
I raised the glass to my mouth – there was no point in sniffing beer back then as all it smelt of was caramel – but here, rising from the glass in sticky green tendrils, was a bouquet of something very different, something I’d not experienced before, and I was intrigued. I took a long sniff and was astonished by aromas I'd never imagined a beer could possibly possess prior to this moment, aromas suggestive of pineapple, lemon, grapefruit and a hundred things my still-young tastebuds hadn't experienced and therefore couldn’t match a name to as yet.
I took a sip. The aroma may have been good but that first taste still ranks as one of my “life-changing” moments, clichéd as that may sound, and I still remember thinking that I'd never tasted anything remotely similar, anything so different than any other beer I'd drunk thus far, anything so downright gorgeous with it's bitter, fruity, citrussy and indefinably complex mouth-puckering flavour. I’d be the first to admit that, reading this back with 20 years of hindsight, this sounds trite and contrived but it’s honestly what I thought at the time; stood there in my favourite pub, clutching my glass of beery awakening, I knew that I’d tasted what I wished all beer could be like and I needed to search out more like this although I never dreamed that this quest would take me all over Europe and, eventually, the world in search of similar hop monsters.
What Brendan had done was against the grain of every other brewer in the UK at the time apart from a certain Sean Franklin whose Franklin's Bitter had been baffling and delighting Northern drinkers in equal measures for a few years already. In itself, using American hops was nothing revolutionary as hops from Oregon had been used by UK brewers for decades, but this was the first time (apart from Franklins) that American varieties had been used in such quantities and with such blatant intent to cause tastebud trauma. This was the first time I'd tasted the lemony, bitter and zesty character of the Cascade hop and I was hooked; this was what I wanted to drink, beer that tasted of exotic fruits, citrus and other things I'd not yet tasted! I wanted my beer to challenge my tastebuds not bore them; I wanted it to leave my mouth dry from the bitterness and hop oils not sticky from crystal malt and caramel. In short, this was my calling!
But it’s not just me…
I honestly feel sorry for those scoopers (and even drinkers!) who weren't around at this seismic moment of UK brewing; anyone who didn't taste West Coast beers at the pinnacle of their excellence in 1991-92 missed out on something very special which, for a brief moment, lit up the grey, boring UK scene with the bright green light of American hops and, in doing so, changed it for ever as those who tasted Brendan's beer wanted more of the same and so demanded it wherever they went – and in some cases started brewing it themselves. It's reminiscent of the story about the band Velvet Underground in that they didn't sell that many records, but everyone who did buy one started a band themselves; in this parallel scenario, everyone who bought a pint of Dobbin's spread the word throughout the country or started their own brewery!
Gratifyingly, it's not just me who feels like this was a turning point in both UK beer and their drinking career; Brian Moore, the top scooper in the world, holds Dobbins to have brewed his favourite beer ever and many others who were around at the time grow all misty-eyed when the name West Coast is mentioned: there aren't many brewers who can claim to have influenced a generation of beer drinkers and changed the world but, looking today at the myriad of pale, hoppy beers loaded with Cascades and other West-coast hops, I see the influence of Brendan Dobbin in all of them and know that, without him, the UK beer scene would be a lot less interesting – and a lot less hoppy – than it is today and for that I'm eternally grateful. I’m not denigrating Sean Franklin’s immense contribution to lupulous appreciation, but I’m not sure Roosters would have had the success it did without the pioneering evangelism of Mr Dobbin.
Over the next few years West Coast produced some absolutely stunning brews and continued challenging palates and attitudes to beer; Brewdog portray themselves as rebels and “out there” today but Dobbin beat them to it by almost 20 years! Much as Brewdog do today, West Coast experimented with things not previously seen in the UK such as his infamous Chinese Pale Ale which, allegedly, he brewed with hops brought back in a suitcase from a visit to China! Whether this is an urban myth or not doesn't really matter – although I'd love it to be true – but what does matter is that this beer is mentioned by many people who remember West Coast as the best beer he ever brewed and, in my opinion, it's the best beer ever made in the UK, although Marble Dobber – tellingly, a brewery set up by Brendan – comes a close second and I'd love to do a side-by-side taste test to see just how good it really was!
And then, just when I thought I'd tasted it all, he did it again – but this time with New Zealand hops! The Crown in Stockport was one of my regular haunts in the early 1990's but the day I drank a pint of their new house beer, brewed with New Zealand Green Bullet hops, was yet another seminal moment in my beery education and I marvelled at the polar difference between the soft fruit-tasting, citrussy American hops and this leafy, skunky, gooseberryish but above all bitter pint of hop juice which left me speechless: and that's not something which happens very often! Here was a beer almost raw with bitterness and hop oils yet, somehow, everything came together on the tongue to give a wondrous mix of flavours which was far more herbaceous and leafy than US hops yet, in a different way, a thing of great beauty.
A metaphorical doffing of the imaginary cap.
In it's all-to-brief lifetime West Coast brewery had an influence massively out of proportion to it's size and, both directly and indirectly, influenced the staid UK brewing scene to turn it’s back on bland UK hops and embrace the diverse, characterful palette of those from around the world; old-fashioned beer writers may hate these upstart “Mid-Atlantic” new-world hoppy pale ales but they're the ones people are seeking out more and more at the expense of dull, amber-coloured UK regional bitters.
So, the next time you buy a pint of citrussy, bitter, hop-forward beer, look very closely into the glass as the head settles and you may just see the spirit of Saint Brendan, the saint of hops, in his natural environment... or is merely the swirling foam playing games with your mind?
You'll just have to decide for yourself, but I know what I believe!