The stranger on the phone said he had studied the science of wine-making in Bordeaux, under Emile Peynaud, and now wished to do some research in the American north-west. Did I have any thoughts? "Interesting Pinot Noirs," I replied, "but I am more concerned with north-western hops." To my surprise so was he. Better still, I thought I detected a Yorkshire accent – a man from God's own county.
Sean Franklin may have inherited his Christian name from an Irish forbear, but he was born in Leeds. At the Turkey Inn, in the hamlet of Goose Eye, near the village of Layock, not far from Keighley, he encountered the light on the road to Damascus. It was a shaft of sunlight, refracted through a pint of ale. A moment, a mood; such are the turns in life. "A cool, spring morning. The beer was well served and refreshing. It was made on the premises. From that moment, the idea that I could make beer gripped my imagination. It became an obsession."
Can wine be upstaged by beer? For some of us, it can. Either drink can be merely a means of ingesting alcohol, or it can have flavours that tempt us to the chase. Hunting flavours, in all their complexity, finding their origins is an intense preoccupation for Sean Franklin.
He found a Pinot Noir that especially excited him in the American north-west, but it was in the heartland of hop cultivation in the US, the Yakima Valley of Washington state. Franklin also developed a passion for the valley's best known and famously floral hop variety, the Cascade.
Recently, more than two decades of conversations, arguments, letters and e-mails after our first phone conversation, he recalled his travels around that particular meeting point of grapes and hops. (There are similar rendezvous for eclectic drinkers in Kent, Sussex, and northern France; the south of Germany; Bohemia and Moravia.)
"Grapes can show great individuality, but hops are capable of more," Franklin concludes. He still finds himself matching grape and hop varieties to explain aromas and flavours. Even people who don't aspire to connoisseurship have heard of grape varieties; hardly anyone outside the brewing industry can name a hop. Wine presents itself as being worthy of knowledge, and therefore respect; the lesson should be learned by beer, much more popular, but far less valued.
One of the most obvious lessons is the marketability of varietal wines. Franklin makes a varietal beer, but does not identify it as such (marketing is not his strong point). It is called Yankee, and is hopped entirely with Cascades. Like all of his beers, it is available only on draught, cask-conditioned. Almost all of his beers are brewed exclusively from pale malts with soft flavours, so that the assertive hop can dominate. His use of the hop always emphasises aroma first, then flavour, rather than simple bitterness.
In the Cascade hop, Franklin finds the robust citrus of the Muscat grape and the lychee character of the Gewürztraminer. The Chinook hop reminds him more of the "cat's pee", gooseberry and blackcurrant of the Sauvignon Blanc. And the newly fashionable Liberty hop? A little hesitation here, then he settles for the raspberry aromas and flavours of Cabernet Franc.
All of these are Washington State hops. Franklin has led a trend among small British brewers toward the robust, aromatic, varieties of Washington and Oregon. A side effect has been to encourage fresh thinking on the ways in which the aromas and flavours of any hop variety are orchestrated in brewing.
This is bringing new approaches to the use of the more subtle, complex English varieties, too. You can taste the result in Sean Franklin's newest beer, though you may have to hunt for the product.
Franklin's name lingers on a brewery that he in no longer owns, in Harrogate. He sold that in order to expand, brewing for several years in the same town, under the name Rooster's. He has just expanded again, moving Rooster's to a hangar-like building by the river Nidd, in nearby Knaresborough. With splendid incongruity, he is currently fitting a second-hand kettle that I first saw in the Crooked River Brewery, in Cleveland, Ohio.
The English hops come neither from Kent or from the Worcester-Hereford growing region. They recall a time when transport was more difficult, and hops had to be grown locally, even if the plants fared less well. These are Yorkshire hops, grown by Trevor Nicholson, the head gardener for the Harewood House Trust.
The Lascelles family's Palladian house, with contributions by Robert Adam and Capability Brown, is a tourist attraction. It has a beautiful walled garden, educatively featuring plants traditionally used in clothing, food or drink. When a wall was denuded by the dismantling of a crumbling glasshouse, Nicholson wanted to soften its appearance with a climbing plant that would not damage the brickwork. He fancied hops, but thought the brewers' varieties more handsome than those sold for decoration. The sheltered garden and south-facing wall have proven warm enough to crop this far north.
Nicholson went to enormous trouble to improvise equipment to dry the hop cones and pack them tightly, so that they would not oxidise or shrivel. His version of an oast house involves blow-heaters under a long table, its top replaced by mesh. His counterpart to hopsack "pockets" are sterilised baked-bean cans kept under weights.
Franklin was still pondering the contribution of the Harewood hops when I visited his brewery recently. The varieties include Fuggles, which to my nose has a hint of aniseed; Mathon, which I find cinnamon-ish; and the minty Early Bird.
He was also pondering a name for the new beer, which will be available this weekend. I suggested Noble Hop, the term used in the brewing industry for the most aromatic varieties. Franklin was hoping that he would be permitted to refer to Harewood House in the name. Chateau Lascelles, perhaps?
Under the Rooster's Brewery name, Sean Franklin's beers are featured at The Maltings, York, and 80 pubs in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Merseyside, with southern outposts such as the White Horse, Parson's Green, LondonReuse content