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Borough beer: a new take on terroir

Categories: Features, Product stories

Against the odds, Borough Market has created a one-of-a-kind beer made with hops grown in the heart of London. Nomadic brewer Daniel Tapper takes us behind the scenes

A sense of place

A wild-fermented ale aged over organic cider lees. An imperial porter matured in just-emptied English red wine barrels. An IPA infused with fresh juniper berries and smoky lapsing tea. As a nomadic brewer, who spends much of the year creating beers in collaboration with chefs, food producers and other brewers, I have the honour and privilege of creating all manner of eccentric brews.

But few assignments excite me more than developing and brewing Borough Market’s annual beer. For those not familiar with what I consider to be one of the UK’s most exciting craft beer projects, each year the market creates a one-off seasonal brew using ingredients sourced from some of its finest traders. Better still, these are combined with fresh hops grown in the heart of the market itself. The resulting beer is one of a select few that can claim genuine terroir.

For a brewer who doesn’t enjoy rules very much, my remit is tantalisingly open-ended: to dream-up a beer that displays a unique sense of place, not only through its ingredients but also its history. As such, in 2015, more than 16kg of market damsons were added to the mix to create a deliciously juicy traditional British bitter. Last year, we settled on a chocolate and coffee imperial porter, a style of beer with deep historical roots in the area.

Hops growing in the Market Hall

Beyond Bermondsey
The inspiration for this year’s beer, however, has come from beyond Bermondsey. During the 19th century, thousands of tonnes of Indian and Chinese tea passed through London’s docks each year, much of it landing at Hay’s Wharf, just a stone’s throw away from Borough Market. In this same era, Borough was the epicentre of the UK hop trade, with a huge array of varieties arriving at Southwark Street’s hop exchange each day, a significant proportion of which were cultivated in Belgium.

In a bid to reflect this heritage, this year we decided to create a saison, a Belgian style of beer traditionally brewed by farmers in winter for their migratory workers. Though few brewers can agree what exactly these beers tasted like, it is generally accepted that they were dry, golden and effervescent. And in years when hops were scarce, they were likely substituted with herbs and spices, imbuing it with subtle flavours of clove, coriander, pepper and lemon zest.

As with most traditional saisons, we settled on a combination of pale malted barley and flaked wheat, which would give the beer its vivid yellow hue and cloudy appearance. However, not content with making a straightforward interpretation of the style, a decision was made to add a generous amount of tea—no ordinary tea but a deeply aromatic earl grey blend from Borough trader, Organic Life, which specialises in leaves sourced from a single estate in the Uva district of Sri Lanka.

“The tea carries a noticeable sweetness that pairs exceptionally well with its other ingredients, which include organic bergamot oil and lime peel,” says Organic Life’s Tessa Varner. “The resulting blend, therefore, has prominent citrus and floral notes that are crisp and fresh on the palate, much like a saison.”

Beak Brewery

Six months in the making
The star of the beer, of course, is the Borough Market-grown hops, which were established three years ago in Market Hall. Using a combination of recycled rainwater, biological pest control and “a lot of patience”, market gardener Jay managed to grow an impressive 12 bines in total, some of which are two storeys high.

Hops are notoriously difficult to grow, especially in urban environments. Intrigued, I asked Jay what kind of problems he had to overcome to produce such a bumper crop. “I’m not one to dwell on the negative,” he told me, rather stoically. “It’s just great that people will no doubt get satisfaction from the end product and I’m glad that I played a part in getting that product to them.”

His hop of choice for Borough was fuggles, a classic English variety famed for producing gentle, earthy flavours of tea, mint and marmalade. Unlike traditional hops, which are harvested and kiln-dried, these were painstakingly hand-picked the night before the brew day and then added to the beer in their fresh natural state, making it one of only a handful of ‘green-hopped’ ales produced in the UK each year.

The brewery tasked with transforming all of these amazing ingredients into 6,000 bottles of beer was Partizan, an award-winning Bermondsey-based brewery widely considered to be one of the UK’s best saison producers. On their recommendation, the tea was cold-brewed before being added to the beer, a process that extracts maximum flavour with minimum tannins.

Two weeks after brew day and the beer was ready to sample, fresh from the fermenter—a moment we had been eagerly anticipating. After all, it’s not every day you get to try a Belgian beer made with Sri Lankan tea and London hops. “It’s got a really vibrant colour and all the trademark characteristics of a classic Belgian saison,” says head brewer Mikko Saurio, sipping on a frothy glass of the beer. “But there’s a massive citrusy twang that you don’t usually find in this style. It’s almost as if the hops and tea were always meant to be together!” I couldn’t have agreed with him more.