Product, Service & Design Innovation
UK Startup Turning Enterprising Beer Lovers Into Urban Farmers

Some breweries in England are increasingly sourcing their hops from New Zealand and the US instead of buying closer to home, which generates a bigger carbon footprint. While chatting about beer over a pint at an Incredible Edible Lambeth event in the fall of 2011, Helen Steer and Ann Bodkin started thinking about how to engage a larger range of people in locally sourced food and drink. From that conversation, Grow Beer — a project to crowdsource hops from personal and community gardens for use at local breweries — was born.

The venture began as a small community gardening and local crowdsourcing project in London’s Brixton district called Brixton Beer. Through social media and word of mouth, the program attracted about 40 growers to sign on during its first year, and expanded to more locations and growers the following year. Now in its third year, Brixton Beer is now part of a larger patchwork of projects that make up Grow Beer, encompassing eight different groups across the UK as well as one in Germany.

The premise of the project is simple: In the spring, growing groups purchase kits (£20 for the first, £10 for each additional) to start cultivating hops. Each kit includes a hop rhizome, all necessary hop planting materials, and instructional videos. In the fall, all of the hops are harvested and sent to local breweries — such as Florence Brewery — with which the growers have agreements; the breweries then sell the beer and most set aside some complimentary barrels for the growers to enjoy.

Co-founder Helen Steer, named to this year’s prestigious list of London Leaders for her work with Grow Beer, is also director of City Farmers — a social enterprise that uses data, mapping and micro-enterprise to create change — and director of Mission:Explore, a startup that designs games for social and educational purposes. Steer believes that the benefits of the projects go beyond environmental impact. The best part, she says, is “getting people who aren't the usual foodie and activist types excited about local food and appreciating our farmers. Also, free beer.”

“Another positive we’ve witnessed is that people are having conversations about where our food and drink comes from (often sparked by people noticing brews with hops imported from New Zealand or America) and how difficult it must be for a farmer to make a living (often sparked by pest or weather woes),” Helen explains on the website. “These conversations are really important and I love how they happen naturally without us being preachy or having ‘an agenda’.”

Despite the momentum, the enterprise has encountered a few obstacles along the way but has quickly adapted to overcome them. When some hops orders didn’t get picked up, they sold them to others and implemented a pay-in-advance system the following year. When a batch of beer failed because of overproduction of ethers, they bottled it and used it in cooking with recipe-sharing. And since the growing season now culminates in a harvest party, any groups whose hops die or produce beer that is less than delicious still get to share with others and drink from batches that were more successful.

While Steer wants to focus on the current model this year, she says she sees the program propagating and spurring new microenterprises in the near future.

“The program could easily expand to encompass other things: One group is planning to run home and hedgerow brew classes, one is bottling their beer and selling it themselves to raise money for their community.”

She is also working on building the resources to allow for anyone to replicate the project for free, as long as they give Grow Beer credit.


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