It all started with a conversation over a beer at a community food growing event in South London, recalls Ann Bodkin, co-founder of the Grow Beer movement.
“What could a lot of people with a tiny bit of land come together and collectively do in a single unifying action? If we all just grew one hop each, would it be possible to produce a professional beer?”
That chat led to a call out on social media, to which around 60 people responded. The next step was sounding out the capital’s independent brewers at an event organized by the London Brewers Alliance. Bodkin and her co-founder, Helen Steer, explained the concept of their “patchwork hop farm” and asked if anyone was interested in brewing with them.
They were indeed, with one brewer even offering to buy their entire harvest. Bodkin and Steer didn’t hesitate in turning him down.
“We flummoxed them all,” Bodkin says, a hint of pride in her voice. “That's not the project. We're not interested in money.”
But the pair found a kindred spirit in Peter Haydon of A Head in Hat, a microbrewery based at a pub called The Florence. Haydon was keen not only to brew with what was then known as Brixton Beer, but also to get involved in the hop-growing itself.
That was in October 2011. Bodkin and Steer researched the most suitable hops for the growing conditions and by Easter 2012 there were Prima Donna plants growing in 60 gardens, allotments, and window boxes across South London. The harvest and hop weigh-in took place in September and, one month later, the Brixton Beer launched its first green-hopped ale at a local beer festival.
“It was the fastest selling beer that they'd ever sold,” says Bodkin. “All the pubs sold out within about two hours.”
Having proved the concept, Bodkin and Steer decided to widen the net. “We were very against it being perceived as an ‘only for the locals’ sort of thing,” Bodkin explains. “It was about a replicable model of the right scale.”
By year two there were three other groups involved. By year five that had risen to 12. Today, Grow Beer has 24 projects worldwide, with groups growing hops and working with independent breweries to make their own beer in Germany, Ireland, and all around the UK.
Although Steer is no longer involved in the project, Bodkin remains a supportive presence for those setting up and leading hop groups. But Grow Beer is a decidedly non-centralised, non-hierarchical affair. As long as they stay true to the movement’s central tenets, groups are encouraged to make the project their own.
Hops should be native to the place they’re grown, an idea originally born of a desire to highlight the potential of British hops. With American and New Zealand hops being the go-to varieties for British craft breweries at the time, Bodkin and Steer “just wanted another storyline.”
The collectivist, community-focused nature of the project is also crucial. “The power is with the collective,” says Bodkin. “The success of a project relies on an amount of hops being grown and then it all coming together at the right moment.”
Growers club together to buy hop rhizomes at a discount but the relationship with the brewers works on a mutual aid basis. No money changes hands.
“We donate our hops to them,” explains Stephen Wakeford, who leads the Deal Hop Farm, in Kent, the historic home of British hop growing. Time & Tide Brewing then donates free casks to the group’s social events and a free can to each grower. Members can also buy direct from the brewery at trade prices.
“We create a local market for their beers, buy it from our local pubs, and tell the story,” Wakeford goes on. “Great for the local economy and the climate crisis: local food, less food miles, local manufacturer, local jobs in brewery and outlets. Happy community.”
The team at Time & Tide are happy too, excited about the opportunity to brew and experiment with traditional English-style beers for the hop farm alongside their regular portfolio of more hoppy, American-style brews.
“There is definitely a place in the market for both, and the hop farm members have been wonderfully open-minded when trying the cans and cask beers that we’ve produced,” says Kerry Campling, the brewery’s director. “It’s been wonderful to meet all those involved in the project and to see the positive impact it has.”
That positive impact is being felt more and more widely as the Grow Beer movement grows, with new groups coming together up and down the UK, from Arbroath in the north to Reading in the south.
Bodkin is delighted to see so many people embracing hop growing in their local communities but strongly resistant to any discussion of participant figures. “I'm a civil servant—that’s my day job—and I know that as soon as you start putting numbers on things, it kills everything.
“This project is not about the numbers, it's about the success factor at a local level.”