Hops and glory

Categories: Features

Market Life finds out what makes Borough Damson Porter the ultimate British brew

Words: Daniel Tapper

Britain doesn’t have a written constitution. But if it did, it might well outline “the right of the people to keep and bear beer”. With a unique brewing tradition stretching back an estimated 2,000 years, the country is considered one of the world’s great brewing and beer drinking nations.

Indeed, according to some studies, beer is second only to the royal family in the list of attractions that tempt tourists to our shores.

The irony is that Britain’s most patriotic drink is also one of its most international. Two of Britain’s most famous beer styles, for example, were invented for foreign markets, including imperial stout (a strong dark beer once exported to the court of Catherine II of Russia) and india pale ale (a highly hopped ale that fared well on the long voyage to colonial India).

International ingredients
What’s more; British brewers have long been making use of a whole host of international ingredients, including German and Belgian malt, and Slovenian and American hops, all four of which have been incorporated in British ale for the best part of 150 years. In the last 10 years, growing numbers of brewers have begun incorporating ingredients from Japan, China, and New Zealand.

It is precisely because of British beer’s willingness to embrace international ingredients that the drink is generally not considered to demonstrate the same sense of place (or ‘terroir’) as, say, wine, which is primarily made with grapes grown in one location. Of course, some British beers do demonstrate local characteristics.

Beer from Burton-On-Trent, for example, is world famous for its crisp, clean finish and bright hoppy aroma, which is all down to the town’s high sulphate water. But the fact remains: most British beer, traditional or not, is made with ingredients sourced not only from every corner of England but, increasingly, every corner on earth.

Urban gardeners
A team of brewers and urban gardeners from Borough Market set out to challenge the idea that British beer couldn’t be made solely with local ingredients, by producing a beer with British malt, English fruit and—crucially—hops grown in the Market itself.

The project was established in collaboration with Tap East, an acclaimed pub-come-brewery in Stratford and the brainchild of Mike Hill and Richard Dinwoodie, stalwarts of the British beer scene who have been trading beer at Borough Market for more than 15 years with beer shop Utobeer and renowned bar, The Rake. Tap East also boasts the talent of Jonny Park, one of the capital’s most promising brewers.

This isn’t the first time the Market has teamed up with Tap East. Last year the brewpub used Borough Market-grown hops to produce Barrow Bitter, a traditional English ale that Jonny describes as a “good black sheep”. He is being modest—the entire batch sold out in weeks.

A stone’s throw
This year the team have opted for something a little more adventurous: a damson porter. It is an apt style of beer for a central London market that’s a stone’s throw away from the Thames. Though world famous now, porter is thought to have emerged in the capital during the 1700s when publicans and later breweries would blend aged, brown beers.

But Tap East’s damson porter is connected to the local area by more than just history. To add another dimension to this classic style of beer, Tap East has brewed the beer with 15kg of in-season damsons sourced from Borough Market trader Ted's Veg, a family-owned farm situated in the heart of the Lincolnshire countryside.

Jonny opted for English pale malt, which provides a nice biscuity backbone; crystal malt, which adds pronounced toffee-like notes; and a small amount of chocolate and roasted barley, which contributes flavours reminiscent of freshly brewed coffee.

A traditional variety
The star ingredient, however, is a traditional variety of hop known as fuggles. Cultivated in Kent by Richard Fuggle in the mid-1880s, this English hop is revered for its delicate minty, grassy and slightly floral aroma.

Though traditionally sourced from Kent, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, the hops used in this year’s damson porter were grown in Borough Market’s Market Hall by Veronica Perez Diaz, a former make-up artist who now works as the Market’s urban gardener.

“It’s been an extremely steep learning curve,” admits Veronica. “We actually planted the hop bines three years ago but didn’t realise that the only usable hops come from female plants. Ours were all male, which meant our first harvest didn’t produce a single usable hop.”

A crossroads
This isn’t the only problem they’ve faced. “Hops grown in city centres tend to be more vulnerable to pests, so we’ve had to be vigilant and tend to them very carefully. We’re also located on a crossroads, which means some of the hops are in direct sunlight while others are in the shade.”

But despite these teething problems, Veronica is very happy with this year’s harvest. “In March we planted over 40 hop bines and all grew to around 20 feet in height by October.”

After harvest, almost all hops used in the beer industry are kilned within 24 hours, to prevent them from rotting and developing vegetable-like flavours. Many are then pelletised to further improve shelf life. However, with Tap East just a short journey away from Borough Market, this year’s hops were shuttled over to the brewery within a matter of hours in their wet, fresh state.

Once a year
For obvious reasons, beers created this way can only be made once a year, around the time of harvest, making them one of the beer world’s most sought-after seasonal products. This year’s damson porter is all the more special due to the fact that most ‘wet-hop’ beers are produced using American varieties of hop, which in recent years have dominated the beer industry.

In recent years, British craft brewers have tended to opt for punchy New World hops with more exotic aromas of grapefruit and pineapple, something legendary beer writer Roger Protz has compared to French winemakers importing grapes from abroad—a scenario that few could imagine. By incorporating fuggles, Jonny hopes to reignite consumer interest.

“Subtler-flavoured varieties have fallen out of fashion,” he says. “The good news is that beer drinkers, like everybody else, get bored of drinking the same thing again and again, which is why we’re now seeing a revival of more traditional beer styles that rely on more reserved English hops.”

Across the pond
Surprisingly, this trend is already taking off across the pond. “Finally, international brewers are steadily realising that English hops are unique and have their own special attraction. In fact, demand is so high that a lot of American brewers are struggling to get their hands on English hops.”

Unfortunately for our American cousins, this year’s damson porter is unlikely to leave the M25. Fewer than 1,000 bottles have been produced, all of which will be sold by Borough Market, apart from a few limited edition casks destined for The Rake and iconic Borough Market boozer, The Globe. All profit will then be channelled into next year’s project.

The good news, if you live in London, is that the beer will be launched to coincide with Borough Market’s annual Evening of Cheese. But don’t be late; it might just be the most British beer you sample this year.