Something’s brewing

Categories: Features

Against the odds, Borough Market has managed to create a beer with hops grown right here in the heart of London. Nomadic brewer Daniel Tapper takes us behind the scenes of this one-of-a-kind project

Words: Dan Tapper
Images: Orlando Gili

I first saw it three years ago. It was a two-storey-high wall of shoots and leaves towering incongruously over Borough High Street. Intrigued, I approached, pilfering some of its swollen green flowers and rolling them between my hands. An oily green resin that smelled faintly of lemon, tea and churned soil coated my palms. These were English hops. But what were they doing here in the centre of one of the world’s largest cities? I began to make enquiries.  

I had inadvertently stumbled upon one of the UK’s first urban hop-growing projects, it transpired. The bines had been planted by Borough Market six months earlier and would soon be used to create a beer with genuine London terroir. It was a commendable and audacious idea, I remember thinking, but one that would probably come to nothing. Hops, after all, are a notoriously difficult crop to grow even in their natural habitat.

As it turned out, they thrived and the resulting beer, Barrow Bitter, was a huge success. Critics lauded the ale for its unique sense of place and the batch sold out in a matter of weeks. Buoyed by their triumph, the Market repeated the project a year later. This time, however, they brought 15kg of in-season damsons into the mix, imbuing the beer with delicious winter fruit flavours. My conversion was now complete, and I waited with bated breath for the following year’s offering. But sadly, it never came. Though hops were planted again in 2016 my worst fears were realised when the entire crop mysteriously failed.

Hops sign BM

No ordinary batch  
The hops, as ever, were having the final laugh. Undeterred, the Market re-established the project earlier this spring. As well as being a food writer, I run a nomadic nano-brewery called The Beak, and I was honoured to be asked by the Market if I’d like to create a new beer recipe. This would be no ordinary batch: if the hops decided to grow, we would include in the brew two additional ingredients sourced from Borough Market traders. What’s more, profits from the beer would be donated to its Trader Support Fund, which provides financial assistance for those affected by this year’s terrorist attacks.

My first port of call was the Market’s gardener, Jay, who had been tasked with growing the hops—not an enviable job considering the previous year’s calamity. “The Market Hall could be classified as an extreme urban environment,” he warned me. “There are a lot of factors at play here. The main thing is to keep on top of the basics like watering, drainage and feeding. There’s also a big risk of a red spider mite infestation wiping out the lot.”

Jay’s fears, of course, were not unfounded. But if he could pull this off, we’d be rewarded with our very own harvest of fuggles, a classic English hop variety famous for displaying delicate but complex flavours of mint, tea and marmalade. Less bitter and intensely fruity than their New World counterparts, these delicious flowers lend themselves extremely well to malt-forward beers like best bitters, old ales and porters.

Deep roots
After some discussion with the Market we settled on the latter—a style of beer with deep roots in the area. Pioneered in 18th century London, porter was the first ale in Britain to be made in industrialised quantities, making it an abundant and affordable choice for the Market’s workers, particularly its porters. More recently, the style has enjoyed a big local revival spearheaded by Bermondsey-based breweries like The Kernel and Brew By Numbers.

The defining feature of porter is, of course, its colour. The word ‘black’ is believed to come from the Old English word blæc, meaning ‘dark’ or ‘ink’. Dig deeper and you find that the term’s ancient root is the Latin word flagrare: ‘to blaze, glow and burn’. This offers some indication of how these beers are made: unlike pale ales, they are produced with roasted malts kilned to extremely high temperatures. For this beer, I opted for six malt varieties in total, which would lend the beer distinctive notes of coffee and chocolate.

Not content with using malt to achieve these flavours, a decision was made to incorporate a generous dose of real coffee and chocolate. So as Jay tended to the hops, I set to work sourcing the best I could.

Jay harvesting hops

Beer and chocolate
The obvious choice for the chocolate was Borough Market’s Rabot 1745, a restaurant that specialises in dishes made with high-grade cocoa. Fortunately, the eatery’s head of innovation, Adam Geileskey, was no stranger to the concept of beer and chocolate. He’d previously helped to develop two cocoa-inspired ales, including an IPA and a porter, both brewed with cocoa shells and pulp. However, this was the first beer he’d been involved with that was made with actual chocolate—and perhaps for good reason.

“The trouble with chocolate is that it contains cocoa butter,” he told me. “If you’re not careful, this will create a layer of fat on top of your beer. And while it wouldn’t taste bad, I can’t imagine it would look very attractive. Worse still, it might eradicate the chance of a nice frothy head.”

But Adam had an answer: he would send me some extremely high percentage chocolate, which would guarantee maximum flavour and minimum sugar and fat content. Better still, it would be sourced from the chocolate-maker’s 250-year old cocoa plantation on St Lucia, an island famed for producing chocolate with robust flavours of oak and leather—an ideal match for Jay’s earthy hops.

Housing, therapy, advice
As for the coffee, this was sourced from Change Please, a unique social enterprise that teaches homeless people how to roast and serve coffee. Once trained, the baristas and roasters earn the London Living Wage and are provided with housing, therapy, banking advice and support for onwards employment. It has been an extraordinary success with 14 outlets across London, including a mobile coffee van in Borough Market and a small-batch roastery called Old Spike in Peckham.

The secret to the enterprise’s success is that it takes the flavour of its coffee just as seriously as its charitable work. It has direct relationships with some of the world’s finest coffee growers and only lightly roasts its beans, allowing unique single-origin flavours to shine through. This is one of the reasons the roaster recently scooped a Great Taste Award.

“We’ve opted for beans grown by a Peruvian producer called San Ignacio, featuring typica, bourbon and caturra varietals,” said Cemal Ezel, the social enterprise’s founder. “The coffee has really vibrant flavours of raspberry and blackcurrant that will pair beautifully with the dark roasted flavours of an imperial porter. I’m already looking forward to tasting the final beer.”


A bumper crop
With all of the key ingredients now in place, our attention turned back to the hops. Very little had happened for a nail-biting couple of months but by September the bines were flourishing and a bumper crop of buds had emerged. A date was set for harvest. If the flowers were picked too soon then the flavour would be grassy, too late and we’d run the risk of stale-tasting beer. Crucially, in order to avoid spoilage, they would also have to be used within 24 hours of picking.

Fortunately, getting the hops to the brewery would be quick and easy. As with the last two beers, this one would be brewed just five miles away at Tap East, a Stratford-based brew-pub owned by Mike Hill and Richard Dinwoodie, who also run Borough Market craft beer emporiums, Utobeer and The Rake. Helping me to create the beer would be their talented new head brewer, Joshua Walker, a recent recruit from Camden Town Brewery.

The big day arrived and Jay skilfully used a cherry picker to help him harvest the hops by hand. These were stored in a cool (and top secret) location overnight before being collected by me at the crack of dawn. After much deliberation I decided that the quickest way to the brewery was by tube. So, with a sack full of hops I boarded a packed Jubilee line train, eliciting a number of odd looks from my fellow commuters—perplexed, no doubt, by the heady smell of fresh hops filling their carriage.

Nomadic brewing
Nomadic brewing is a strange concept. I own no bricks and mortar brewery and instead rely on the kindness of others to trust me in their brew houses. It’s an expensive way of making beer but there are a number of plus sides: you have no bills to pay and no staff to manage, and you can pick and choose specific breweries to work with depending on the kind of beer you’re making. Tap East, for example, is a brewery with a compact kit that is ideally suited to making small-batches of experimental beers.

The biggest advantage of itinerant brewing, however, is getting to collaborate with new people who can offer fresh perspectives on traditional techniques. This experience was no different. Josh and his assistant Asa wisely suggested mashing our grains at a higher temperature than normal, which would maximise body and mouth feel. Conversely, they recommended adding the coffee, chocolate and fresh hops once the unfermented beer (aka ‘wort’) had cooled. This relatively low temperature would extract less bitterness and more flavour, much like a cold brew coffee.

The final part of the process was bottle conditioning, a process where beer is left to mature and carbonate in the bottle with live yeast. And at a heady 7.2%, this beer would require a minimum of eight weeks to reach its full potential. Aware that we wouldn’t get to experience this unique beer’s true flavour until the end of November, a decision was made to sample some of it straight from the fermenter. I inhaled deeply. And there it was: coffee, chocolate, molasses and liquorice, but also the unmistakeable smell of English hops—the very same smell I had inhaled in the Market Hall three years earlier.

Borough Market’s Coffee and Chocolate Porter is available at the Market’s merchandise stands and information office from 30th November. £2 from every purchase goes to the Borough Market Trader Support Fund.