Keeping it local: how UK brewers are tapping into provenance and terroir

By James Beeson

- Last updated on GMT

From the vine: some brewers are growing their own hops to give a unique terroir to their beer
From the vine: some brewers are growing their own hops to give a unique terroir to their beer
The 21st century drinker wants a product with a story behind it. In response, breweries are increasingly turning to locally sourced ingredients, and embedding themselves in the communities in which they are based.

In many ways, the idea of provenance in beer is not a new one. From the famous lager producers of Pilsen to the pioneers of IPA in Burton, brewers have long been taking advantage of their local environment to produce beers that are uniquely of the place in which they are brewed.

In broader circles, the term ‘terroir’ is more commonly associated with products of the grape rather than the grain, but that does not mean the location of the ingredients that make up our pint are sourced from will not impact on the flavour of the final product. For instance, a New Zealand-hopped pale ale will taste very different to a British one, and a beer that uses Belgian yeast will be unrecognisable from one that uses an American ale strain.

To those that brew, distribute and sell beer, none of this will be new information. However, what has changed is that consumers are now more interested in where their beer comes from, and what ingredients are used within it than ever before. According to data released by YouGov last year, more than 60% of drinkers care about where their beer is brewed, and over half state they like drinking ‘local craft beer’.

In response to growing demand for products that have a story behind them, breweries are increasingly shouting about and promoting their links to their local area. One such brewery is Wild Card in Walthamstow, north London. Last year, the brewery worked with the local council to brew a beer with wild hops foraged from Walthamstow Wetlands.

Owner Jaega Wise believes consumer demand for locality and authenticity is part of an antidote against the increasingly digital nature of day-to-day life. “It’s not just beer – you’re seeing it in a whole host of sectors,” she says. “People want to know who is making the products they consume, and they want to engage with it.

“We spend so much of our life on our phones, so it is nice to reconnect to your local environment and know exactly where something is made, and know that it is from less than a mile from your house.

“People want to connect and we spend so much time ‘virtually’ that it is nice to be able to know your local brewer or your local baker.”

15% of the hops used by Hogs Back are grown on site
15% of the hops used by Hogs Back are grown on site

Growing your own

Other breweries go even further in the pursuit of the local. In Tongham, Surrey, Hogs Back Brewery grows 15% of the hops used in its beers on the farm site – including an historic local variety not grown anywhere else in Europe – and sources a further 50% from within three miles of the brewery. Managing director Rupert Thompson argues that using locally grown hops is the best way to give Hogs Back beers a unique terroir.

“Hops contribute to flavour even more than the malt and the water,” he says. “Water can now be treated to give it the characteristics that are desired, so the biggest differentiation is hops and they absolutely reflect the terroir of the area.

“A hop grown in a different area will experience a different soil type and a different micro-climate and all of those things will make a difference. It is just like wine in that respect.

“Even if it is hard for the average consumer to taste the difference, they will understand the general principle that natural products grown in a particular area will take on a unique set of characteristics, and that is a concept I can see becoming increasingly popular in the future.”

There are also a number of newer breweries in the UK utilising the farmhouse concept. In Cornwall, Harbour Brewing Company has bought a 15-acre site near Bodmin for a purpose-built farm brewery, growing its own fruit and foraging local ingredients such as sorrel and sea buckthorn. 

Harbour has changed its packaging to emphasise its Cornish roots
Harbour has changed its packaging to emphasise its Cornish roots

Desire for provenance

Harbour was not always so keen to emphasise its roots, however. “When we set up around six years ago we wanted to be anything but Cornish,” explains founder Eddie Lofthouse. “A lot of breweries have sold themselves as Cornish in the past, but we didn’t want to be tourist beers. On our first load of bottles we never had Cornwall on there at all.

“As the market has developed and people want to know more about the beer and where it comes from, playing on our location has become more and more important, as has sourcing our ingredients as ethically as possible.”

The brewery will also be taking inspiration from the lambic producers of Belgium, harvesting wild yeasts and bacteria from the local environment to ferment its beers spontaneously using a device called a coolship. Lofthouse explains this was born out of a desire to create beers that take on the character of the environment in which they are brewed, and tell the customer a story about the brewery.

“In a crowded marketplace, if you have a product that genuinely can’t be made anywhere else and that takes in the terroir of where it is made, people are going to want to buy it,” he says. “We can’t just open our doors and let half a million people have access to our brewery straight away, so we have to tell our story in a different way.”

“The fact we have land and space gives us the ability to produce products that other breweries can’t, so it’s about playing to your strengths, and making beers that can’t be replicated anywhere else.”

Harbour is also building a dedicated farmhouse brewery
Harbour is also building a dedicated farmhouse brewery

Engaging with the community 

For breweries without the space or funds to grow their own ingredients, or the ability to harvest wild yeast, promoting local provenance and credentials can be more of a challenge. One approach taken by a number of breweries in urban areas is to engage with the community and get involved with local projects.

The recently released Brewers in the Community​ report by the Society for Independent Brewers illustrates how important independent breweries are to communities across Britain. The report states 82% of independent breweries have supported a charity in the past 12 months, and 45% of the breweries donating money to good causes chose to support a local or village charity.

Wild Card runs two community-focused taprooms in Walthamstow, and also helps to run events that raise money for a local foodbank charity. “We’ve always worked really hard to make sure our events are tailored to the local area,” Wise explains. “We think hard about our local community first in almost everything we do.

“We do get a lot of craft beer fans coming to our taproom but the majority of our customers are local people, so much so that we know most of them by name. It’s just like a local pub, and when the card machines were down the other week we didn’t panic because we know where most of our customers live!”

The Five Points has worked to support local business and charities
The Five Points has worked to support local business and charities

Charitable causes

In Hackney, The Five Points Brewing Company is another brewery committed to supporting a range of charitable and community projects in east London. In January, the brewery announced details of a annual charity partnership scheme, working to support two local charities by donating beer for fundraising events and organising its own events to raise money for Hackney Winter Night Shelter and Headway East.

So far this year, the brewery has also sponsored more than 30 arts and community launches and events, including the East End Film Festival and Stokey Lit Fest, has given all of its staff members an extra day’s paid leave to work on a charity or community project of their choosing, and recently took over the running of its local pub, the Pembury Tavern.

“It was important to us that we based our brewery in the heart of the local community,” explains founder Ed Mason. “We didn’t want to be in an industrial estate in the middle of nowhere, and so it has always felt natural that we should give something back to the community.

“From being the first brewery to be an accredited living-wage employer, our apprenticeship training, and our charity partnerships we have always strived to give something back.

“Running a business isn’t just about the bottom line, although that is incredibly important. We recognise we have partners and stakeholders, not just our staff and our investors, but neighbours, the local community and our drinkers.

“Taking over our local pub will enable us to do even more in the local community and have a base where we can engage directly with our local drinkers.”

Away from London, the picture is similar, with breweries working alongside local businesses to promote their brand but also to foster a symbiotic relationship with those who consume their beer. In Great Alne, in the West Midlands, Purity Brewing Co sponsors a range of companies, from high-level sports clubs to local arts projects and hospices.

“Working with local charities and businesses helps build trust with the consumer, especially with a fast-growing company,” says the brewery’s managing director Paul Hasley. “It shows that you are putting something back into the community. Purity is about our value set. It’s not just about money, it is about supporting causes that we believe in.”

The London brewery has also recently taken over a local pub
The London brewery has also recently taken over a local pub

Lines of communication

Of course, all this effort by breweries to promote their local credentials and links to the local area are in vain if that message is not communicated to the final drinker in the pub. Hence, it is of vital importance that breweries have good lines of communications with the venues serving their beer.

“The most important person is the person serving your beer, working the bar,” says Wild Card’s Wise. “When the customer comes up to them and asks what to order, you want them to pick your beer, so you want them to know what they are talking about.”

How brewers can create a good relationship with bar staff? Wise has a simple solution: “It’s basically just about going to the pub, isn’t it? You need to be seen at the pub and make an effort with them.

“We work hard as a team to make sure that our customers can come and brew on our site or come for a tasting, just to make them feel involved with what we are doing. We always try to go to the Chequers in Walthamstow, and they know the brewery staff by name because we will all go down there and have a drink.

“Beer is a social, community-based drink, and that extends right down to the bar staff serving it and the customer drinking it.” 

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