The terroir of London homebrewing

Over the past few years, I’ve become interested in the concept of terroir, traditionally “the site- or region-specific characteristics of a wine,” as it might apply to beer and brewing, both for environmental reasons — imagine the carbon footprint of beer made as per usual with malts and hops from half-way around the world — and also as a way of getting to know a place better and feeling more at home in it. I know I’m far from the only brewer or beer fancier to feel this way; at least two of the local breweries here in central PA now make a point of trying to use local hops, and I’ve heard about small, regional maltings being developed around the US. [UPDATE: There’s now one right near me in central Pennsylvania!] But in the UK, regional maltings never quite went away, and as for hops, if you’re in London or really anywhere in the southern UK, you’re not too far from Kent, where some of the most sought-after hops in the world are grown.

Chilling and aerating the wort the old-fashioned way (photo by Rachel Rawlins)

This summer, I had the opportunity to really revel in that. I was in London most of the time from early May through the beginning of September, and with the weather deliciously cool except for two, very brief heat waves early on, I was able to do a lot more brewing than usual for this time of year: a total of seven brews, which is a lot for me. Rachel has no cellar, let alone a spare fridge, so lagers are out of the question, but the temperatures were just right for maturing ales: in the 70s (if that), dropping down to the 60s or even the 50s at night.

Or so I would guess; it’s all metric over there! I even brew in metric, except for my trusty brewing thermometer which I carry back and forth in my suitcase. (And I would maintain that Fahrenheit is actually more useful than Celsius anyway, since one doesn’t need to resort to fractions of a degree.) My set-up in London is rather basic, but since I only make 12-litre (~3-gallon) batches due to the limitations of kitchen and kettle size, it’s possible to cool the wort down in a bathtub of cold water pretty easily, for example. I bottle into 500ml (~1 pint) bottles recycled from my favorite, traditional “real ale” UK breweries rather than the smaller, 350ml bottles that are more fashionable now with the craft beer set for some goddamn reason. Being a cheapskate and a bit of a brewing snob I do still use grain rather than extract; sparging with smaller quantities of malt is relatively simple with just a bottomless bucket fitted into a large metal strainer.

And what lovely malt it is! Whether I order online or take the train to one of the few homebrew shops, I mostly buy base and specialty malts from Warminster, “Britain’s oldest working maltings” as they proudly proclaim. Looking at their website just now, I see I don’t have to click too far to find a discussion of terroir.

an old map of Warminster
an old map of Warminster

The best malting barleys in the world are grown in a maritime climate, which beyond the British Isles are few and far between. Within this, the soil type also makes a marked difference, the best soil for barley described simply as “loam over chalk”. Within the UK this can be easily identified as “the Icknield Series”, which stretches south west from Yorkshire right down to the western tip of Salisbury Plain, namely Warminster.

Our maltings sits “among the fields of barley” which can be emphatically described as potentially ‘the most fit for purpose’, and annually forms the backbone of our barley procurement programme.

They go on to say that they can supply commercial breweries with malted barley grown as near the brewery as possible,

creating a truly ‘local’ product, or we can construct individual “appellations” categorised by variety of barley, which include geographical domain, soil type, husbandry best practice, farm assurance and harvest quality criteria, as well as the malting protocols for floor made malt.

Obviously this option isn’t available to homebrewers, but for someone from the eastern US, it’s a luxury simply to be able to brew with anything not grown a thousand miles away, let alone with a base malt as gorgeous as the fabled Maris Otter, “a superb brewing barley, with an outstanding flavour profile which no modern barley even begins to replicate,” as the Warminster website puts it. In addition to all of that, “Warminster Maltings is one of only three UK maltsters with Organic certification.” Which I didn’t even know until this moment. It’s certainly not something they use to try to jack up the price.

As for other ingredients, in recent years I’ve become increasingly interested in using locally sourced herbs and fruit, and this summer was no exception. Rachel has a huge elder tree in her garden which I was able to take advantage of twice: for the flowers in June, an elderflower wheat beer, and then for the berries in August — elderberry wheat beer. Both were delicious, if I do say so myself. In early July, I bought 1.5kg of sweet Kent cherries at the local farmers’ market and added them to a chocolate porter to good effect, and a little later in the month I made a red ale/wheat beer hybrid with a comparable quantity of red raspberries from the same source. I picked and dried some mugwort from along the nearby Grand Union Canal and added them to a couple of brews, including muggle (mugwort + fuggles hops) stout.

My chocolate cherry porter.

Then there’s London tap water. I’ve never been one to treat water for brewing, in large part because of this fascination with terroir. Why try to imitate the flavor profiles of beers made elsewhere when it’s much more interesting to learn what sorts of flavors your own water is uniquely well suited for? London water is famously hard, to the point where lime scale accumulates in the teapot after just a few uses — but tea drinkers such as Rachel’s father maintain that it makes a perfect cup of tea. And the same goes for darker, heavier styles of beer where tannins play a central role in the flavor profile. London was famously the place for porter, and there’s a reason for that. Fortunately, Rachel, my number-one “customer,” loves porter and stout, as do I. But the American-style wheat beers I made this summer turned out fine, too, because I think really the flowers or tart berries were the main thing, and the alkalinity (from that same layer of chalk that makes such good barley) helped balance their flavors.

I’m not ready yet to start experimenting with the most obvious source of true local flavor, the yeast. I still rely on the same two or three, dependable, single-strain dry yeasts. Someday when I feel I’ve mastered the other elements of brewing, maybe it’ll be time to try to capture the local microflora and culture it in a petri dish, as some of the more out-there sour beer fanatics are beginning to do now. But given my rather mixed success this summer with sourdough bread, it might be a while until I get up the nerve. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy capitalizing on other sorts of terroir in my brewing to try to forge an almost mystical connection with wherever I am. Or maybe that’s just the alcohol.

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