How it started

How it started

Helen Steer and Ann Bodkin (@AnnBodkin) started Brixton Beer Co (@BrixtonBeerCo) after a conversation about beer at the Incredible Edible Lambeth Feast in October 2011. We wanted to celebrate beer and growing stuff in a fun way, plus we wanted to find a way to reach beyond the usual food activist types and get lots of people excited about regional food and drink. Also, we were concerned by the growing trend for brewers to use hops imported from New Zealand and America and wanted to attempt to counteract this even in a small way.

We put the word out there to see if there was interest in forming a “patchwork farm” across South London with people growing hops in their back gardens, on their patios and balconies, allotments and community gardens. Using social media and word of mouth, the idea began to spread and we had to start turning people away as we wanted to keep numbers to a manageable 50-ish in the first year.

After we’d proved interest in growing, the next step was to see if any brewers were interested, so we gave a short presentation at a London Brewers’ Alliance. The brewers loved the idea of using locally grown hops, and were particularly excited about the idea of green hopping their beers (as opposed to dry hopping), a practice that is hard to execute in London: hops need to be used fresh within 24 hours to retain their potency. We decided to work with the wonderful Peter Haydon of A Head in a Hat microbrewery for this project: a relationship that proved to be a great decision.

We developed a Grow Beer kit that includes everything an individual needs to grow, plus made YouTube instruction videos and information packs ready for collection day (we chose St. Patrick’s Day). And then we were off! The growing season went by smoothly with people sharing tips and troubles on the Facebook group we set up, and by the end of August we were ready to harvest and brew…

Apart from Facebook posts, nobody knew each other, but we all arrived at the microbrewery in the pub in early September, threw our hops to Peter’s prepared mash tun and watched our collectively grown, crowd-sourced brew come to life. We produced over 1000 pints of green hopped single variety 4.7% pale ale based on an heritage recipe. Our Prima Donna pint was available in a number of local pubs for a very short time – some said it was their quickest ever selling beer!

Year two, saw three other groups start: Hackney, Cardiff and Crystal Palace, with over 350 growers between us. We held a joint harvest party at Beer Rebellion with samples from different groups: a fantastic night with lots of free beer flowing for our growers.

A decade on, and we know 20 or more different groups in the UK, plus others in Germany, Demark and France, have been inspired to do their own Grow Beer version. Helen was named a GLA 2014 London Leaders for her work in sustainable business, including this project. We hope that Grow Beer will inspire others to start groups in their area to celebrate their regional beer and hops.