The hop whisperer

Categories: Expert guidance

Each year, Borough Market grows its own hops for a special beer. As this year’s crop nears harvest, Market gardener Jay explains what it takes to grow this flavoursome ingredient in such challenging circumstances

Interview: Dan Tapper

What is your official job title and how did you become involved with Borough Market?
I’ve been contractually appointed as a horticultural consultant, although I’m sure the term ‘gardener’ is generally used. I’ve worked for a couple of traders in the Market for about a decade, while working my way through a string of Royal Horticultural Society qualifications, so when some gardening work was needed a conversation happened and here I am. This is my first year working on the project, but it began in 2014 when the Market Hall was officially opened. My role involves looking after the hops and doing everything I can to get a decent harvest.

Did you have to give yourself a crash course in all things beer and hops?
I did, and I’ve extended it beyond the crash and into a steady uptake of information. The plants have a life cycle and I’m learning and observing as that cycle completes. I’ve found the British Hops Association to be a valuable resource, alongside numerous growers’ forums online, and I’ve had some very helpful reassurances from people involved with the project in the past. I know a few people who know a bit too, which has been helpful. As a gardener, I’ve focused more on the growing side and not so much on the brewing, although I do find it a fascinating process.

What are some of the challenges associated with growing hops in an urban environment?
Unfortunately, I believe there was a red spider mite issue last year and possibly an irrigation issue, which contributed to no harvest. I’m also aware that some hop varieties are susceptible to a disease known as verticillium wilt, so I’ve been a bit nervous about that. Beyond this, there’s the obvious issue with pollution and issues that go with any containerised plant, such as watering, drainage and feeding. Consistent light levels can be hard to achieve as well. Ultimately, Borough Market is an extreme urban environment—right beside a very busy road, near a railway line, in a roofed, semi-exposed, glass-walled public space which doubles as an event space.

Hops growing in Market Hall

How is this year’s crop doing?
We’ve got an abundance of lateral growth healthily sprouting all over each vine. I’m doing everything I can to prevent any pest issues. I’ll be extremely happy if and when I start seeing some cones.

What variety are the hops and what kind of flavours do they boast?
The variety is fuggles, which is delicate, minty and grassy with a slightly floral aroma. In terms of its bittering characteristics, the variety is well-rounded and classic. The words ‘green-tea’ are used often to describe it.

When do you expect to harvest the hops and what quantity are you hoping for?
We’re looking at some time in September-October. I’m hoping the yield is similar to the last successful harvest, which was around two kilograms.

Hops are sometimes said to demonstrate a sense of terroir—can the same be said for these hops?
I think it can be said for any plant, because environmental factors will always affect a plant’s characteristics. I’m only just starting to work out how to quantify how the sum of the effects of the local environment (geography and climate in particular) are affecting these particular plants, if at all. I am sure that the core genetic make-up of fuggles and its revered status as the classic English aroma hop are connected to its Kentish origins. I suspect that these characteristics will hold true. Whether or not these particular plants are being genetically affected by their current growing conditions and environment is something that interests me a great deal.

What other Borough Market projects are you currently working on?
I’m trying to find suitable culinary plants that can thrive in the Market’s Cookhouse. I’m also trying to find some long-term planting solutions in other areas of the Market Hall. I’ve got a couple more stages of fully rejuvenating some olive trees, too, and am attempting to designate some roof space for propagation.