Top of the hops

Harvesting beer’s magic ingredient in the home of hops

Weaving between the towering green corridors, I’m surrounded by flower cones sticky with pollen and glistening in the morning sun. The air is perfumed with their scent and it’s sending my tastebuds into overdrive. Sweet, sour, citrusy, floral, it’s the tang I usually associate with a pint of great Czech beer.

I’m reminded of that line from Rime of The Ancient Mariner, paraphrased by Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka: “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink”. Only this aroma is of something far more exciting than water. I’m walking along row upon row of a raw material that makes many of the world’s finest beers: fresh green hops, perfectly ripe and ready for harvest. It’s 7am in Strkovice and, thanks to this intoxicating wake-up, I’m already dreaming of a cold beer. But the tasting will have to wait. Right now there’s work to be done.

    Strkovice is deep in the fields that surround Žatec, historic home of hop growing for over a thousand years. For those in the know, it’s still the place you need to go to find the finest hop in the world. Known as Žatec, Saaz or the ‘Noble Hop’, these green wonders have a rare balance of bitterness and aroma that lends itself perfectly to traditional Bohemian beers, and many others besides. I’m here learn more about them at the farm of Vlastimil Florian, a man with the telltale tan that speaks of years in these fields growing hops, potatoes and the many other crops that love this fertile soil and its perfect moisture content.

    ‘Florian’ – as he calls himself – has agreed to let us follow his team of hop-pickers around on one of their early morning gatherings of this green bounty. The first thing that strikes me is the sheer height of the crop; these ambitious plants grow in long terraces up to seven metres tall. Anchored by their roots at the base they stretch up to the sky on thin wires. Then, at the tops, they weave around further lateral wires, developing rapidly through the summer growth season. Hops are voracious climbers, growing in bines, rather than vines. The difference being that they shoot an ever-growing helix ahead of themselves where vine plants pull themselves up with tendrils, like little hooks. This process allows them to be incredibly efficient and grow faster than other plants with the same amount of energy. The visual effect at harvest time is something like grape vines on steroids. And walking through them is an all-encompassing, 4D experience.

    Florian and his team are picking hops the old way. One man runs ahead to cut the plants and wires either side of a row at their base, before a tractor trundles past and a group of local men and women on the trailer at the back rip the plants loose from the wires above and lay them at their feet. It’s hard physical work, but it’s a beautiful late-summer morning and spirits and jokes are running high. The team makes impressively quick work of the first row. Replace the tractor with a horse and cart and the techniques have hardly changed here in a millennium.

    It’s not the same everywhere. Many hop fields in other parts of the world have become over-mechanised, leading to the unpleasant side effect of unwanted refuse being dragged into the harvest by machines. If the hops are being pulped for hop pellets or essence then this can make it in to the final blend. There are stories told of cigarette ends, crisp packets and worse. Nothing like that here though; when the tractor pulls up to the edge of the field it’s laden with only beautiful whole-cone hops on their bines.

    “These are the semi-early red-bine hops,” explains Florian, grabbing a handful and breathing in their smell. “The best of the best.” He’s right, of course; red-bine are known for their exceptional level of purity and possessing a perfect balance of acid, oils and tannins that make them a brewer’s delight.

    We climb into the back of his pick-up and drive through the fields back to the main farm where a well-organised line of workers is waiting to process the plants in a set of old barns. First the vines are hauled up whole to form a curtain again, before being passed through a series of sifting machines, with each stage checked carefully by hand. Once the team is sure only the hop cones remain, they are all raked through large dryers.

    Passing through these the smell intensifies to an almost narcotic level. I catch up with Florian in the bagging room, a beautiful old wooden loft, where the finished product is baled and compressed into large sacks before being shipped out to a network of breweries, home and abroad. Florian is a man of few words, but he’s clearly pleased with the day’s work. As we leave I catch him standing on the balcony of the drying room, smiling as he watches the trucks ferrying off freshly packed bundles of green gold.

    At the brewery

    In amongst the beautiful copper brew kettles I find head brewer Adam Brož, breathing in a handful of just-picked Saaz hops, fresh off the truck from Žatec. This is a man with more knowledge of these plants than most, and he is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a huge fan. “Hops are kind of a magic plant, vital for each beer.” He says. “It’s very important for both the flavour and the aroma of beer, and it’s the most important ingredient for the final taste.”

    The room is soon busy with workers moving sacks. The freshness of the newly harvested hops has brought all of us here. This is the one day a year that green hops are ferried from fields like Florian’s and used to create an extremely limited batch of a beer: the Fresh Hopped Imperial Lager. Unlike other breweries of its size, Budweiser Budvar only uses whole-cone hops for all of its beers, but today the fresh green hops, just picked from the vines, take the place of their usually dried counterparts.

    I watch as the cones are tipped into a kettle. The result vividly captures the same heady aroma I’d breathed in all morning in a different way to normally brewed beer, as Adam explains: “With these fresh hops, we are able to add more aromatic compounds and slightly turn up the bitterness. It is only possible with fresh hop cones as they have a really full dose of those aromatic compounds.”

    Fresh Hopped Imperial Lager is a very difficult beer to make because of the volatility of these hop compounds, and the timing required to bringing them to the brewery while still ‘live’. Adam looks relieved when he finally screws the cover tightly back on to the last kettle. It’s been a long day all round.

    Because this brew is a one-off it also changes year-on-year to reflect conditions, climate or, to borrow a term from the wine world, ‘terroir’ of the exact fields the hops were grown in. Adam very much believes that this beer is like a wine for that reason. Where consistency and tradition is rightly everything to the taste of Budweiser Budvar’s other beers, with Fresh Hopped Imperial Lager there is a bit of room for change. That change continues in the brewery’s hallowed cellars, where we finish up the day with Adam.

    The ‘Imperial’ part of the name comes from its strength, weighing in at around 7.5% ABV and dating back to a time when beers like this were built to last through the cold winters. To achieve the higher alcohol content and additional aromatic compounds requires longer in the tanks, usually a massive 200 days. Over that time the beer has a chance to really develop in complexity. Few other beers in the world are matured for as long.

    Finally it’s time to taste some of last year’s batch. Adam pours us a couple of chilled glasses straight from the tank. It’s a delicious dark gold in colour and a full hit of those hop aromatics on the nose takes me straight back to Florian’s fields. A heavier malt profile than expected offers a great counterpoint, and there’s this wonderful, almost honeyed sweetness from the higher alcohol content. It’s truly a special beer made even more so by its individuality and changeability from year to year. Every discerning beer drinker and hophead should look out for it in spring when it’s released in limited quantities in the UK.

    The next morning I head back to Žatec, this time to explore the city proper just as it opens its doors for Dočesná – the huge annual festival celebrating the hop harvest. Žatec is a stunning old place; streets clustered with fine-featured architecture are perched high on a hill with views over miles of farmland below. Hops remain the majority industry, but the architecture reflects a time when this was a world capital for the ingredient. Everywhere are statues and murals; crests and symbols adorn Baroque façades; all speak of the city’s illustrious and wealthy past.

    My first stop is The Hop Museum, the largest of its kind in the world. Museum director Vladimír Valeš fills me in with a little more history of the place: “Here in Žatec we have been growing hops for over 1000 years, and even before that wild hops were here. It’s perfectly placed between three rivers and gets just the right amount of rain and sun, exactly what the hops need.”

    As we stroll through his archive of old agricultural machinery, and recreations of hops terraces from days gone by, one exhibit really catches the attention: a wall of stamped bags showing all the places the hops are shipped to. I pick out Boston, Sao Paolo, Osaka and London.

      From a commanding viewpoint up on the roof, I can see pints being drunk from countless beer stalls as Dočesná gets in the swing. A folk band is playing; announcers on stage regale the massing crowds with the day’s events. Up here it’s peaceful though, and Vladimir points out a series of old warehouses. “In the 1920s there were over 160 hop traders and 80 warehouses like these for hops in the city.” He says. “The price was set here for the hops across the whole of the face of the earth.”

      Inside one of those warehouses I catch up with Jiří Vent, director at the Temple of Hops, a counterpart to The Hop Museum, situated just next door. It’s an impressive complex with modern glass architecture jutting up against beautiful old buildings and home to even more exhibits, a café and its own microbrewery.

      We take seats in the bustling courtyard and order a round of the house lager, which is light, fresh and beautifully balanced. It makes it dangerously drinkable. Outside of bars with tank-beer installations, this kind of fresh experience is hard to have in the UK or almost anywhere else in the world. Mass produced lagers just don’t come close to delivering that pure hop flavour. I ask Jiří why that is. “You must understand that this is just beer to me. All beer should taste this way. What you get from those big European breweries…that isn’t beer.”

      I ask him if there are any exceptions. “Until the 1960s hops were like an art form, the art of conservation. After that, the bigger breweries started using pellets or hop essence. With one exception…Budweiser Budvar from České Budějovice. They still only use whole-cone hops from this town. And you can really tell.”

      Tempting as it is to stay and sample more of Jiří’s beers, the largest hop festival in the world is erupting out in the streets. Winding down into the beautiful old part of town, I’m immediately handed a hop crown by a slightly lopsided reveler. It’s only midday but the party has clearly started. Breweries from all over the Czech Republic are here but I can tell from the Japanese sign that there others have come from further field.

      In the town’s main square the atmosphere is raucous. Beer stalls are dotted everywhere; there’s a fairground at one end and what looks like a living terrace of hops at the other. Closer inspection reveals it to be exactly that; I arrive – pint of Budweiser Budvar in hand – just in time to see the annual hop-pulling test where men and women showcase their prowess with a sharp knife and some brute force, pulling the waterfalls of green down in friendly contest. We’re showered in the stuff. Hurriedly, more garlands are made and I’m handed a giant hop necklace and matching hat.

        Afternoon soon turns to evening and the madness and hop-scents intensify. So when people arrive on horseback dressed as ambassadors to the ancient king Přemysl Otakar II they fit right in to the increasingly medieval atmosphere. As the sun goes down and the music and dancing ratchets up, I wander happily back to my hotel accompanied by that same bittersweet scent that has followed me throughout this entire trip. The harvest is done; the fragrance of hops drifts on the breeze and I’ve a cold beer in my hand. Life seems suddenly wonderfully simple, and wonderfully good.

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