Hops Heaven

[This is part two of a three-part posting about the author’s five day bicycle tour in the Hallertau region of Bavaria.  Click here for part one.  Click here for part three.]

my bike route in the Hallertau
my bike route in the Hallertau

 

The Hallertau is a hops heaven – no other way to put it.  Located in the rolling landscape of Bavaria north of Munich, it is a distinctly agricultural area dotted with small towns and villages.  With 16,800 hectares  (about 65 square miles) filled with hops farms it is one of the biggest coherent crop areas in the world.

Hops prefer deep soft soils and they need a good bit of water (about 100 mm (4 inches)) per month during June, July, and August for good results.  Day length is also important to proper development of the hops blossoms and a latitude between the 35th and 50th parallels supports this well.  No surprise — the Hallertau has historically had all of the attributes needed to make it one of the most venerable of the hops growing regions.

Hops umbels

“Humulus Lupulus” is the Latin expression for hops which means “little ragged wolf entangling everything.”  People in the area also call hops the “green gold of the Hallertau.”  Inside the umbel (flower cluster) there is a yellow, sticky powder called Lupulin.  Lupulin is the only part of the hops that is valuable. The rest — vines, leaves, roots have no use or value other than their role in producing the umbels.

Early in my ride I had the good fortune to be able to spend a bit of time with Andreas Widmann, a hops farmer whose family operation is near the village of Hull.  I also visited the excellent Deutsches Hopfenmuseum in Wolznach which was a great source for trying to understand “where the hops in my beer come from”.  Of course there are many hops growing regions in the world,  Andreas told me there are 8 hops growing regions in Germany — 4-6 more in other EU countries, and other regions throughout the world.  He told me he had done an exchange to work on a hops farm in the U.S. at a hops farm in the Yakima region of Washington State.  But the Hallertau, served as my learning lab both for learning about hops and learning a bit about the long, rich culture of this particular hops growing region.

Andreas told me that the average hops farm in the Hallertau is about 20 hectares (50 acres).  The number of farms has been decreasing over time.  In 1960 there were more than 7000 hops farmers in the Hallertau and there are less than a thousand today.  He is part of a young farmers association of about 120 farmers mostly younger than 40 years old.  Hops farming is hard work and there are alot of different pressures on the trade including increased global competition and issues created by climate change,   As more hops are grown all over the world it has created oversupply at times and downward pricing pressure.  Summers that are hotter and dryer reduce yields.  Increasing regulatory pressures and other things that affect operating costs (increasing energy costs, insurance costs, etc.) also affect the profitability of the business.  I imagine that this kind of scenario may be familiar to all kinds of farmers.

Hops tops view
Hops tops view

None of that changes what Andreas told me he loves best about being a hops farmer –the smell of hops in the field and during the harvest … and the memories and sense of accomplishment that the scent of hops in a good beer evokes.  He says that the hardest part is the long work days and dealing with regulatory stuff (mostly from EU) that is part of the gig.

As we looked around a bit I asked Andreas what differentiates a hops farm from other types of farms.  Hops are a very different kind of plant with different demands throughout the year.

The hop plant grows from rootstock which remains in the soil and isn’t harvested.  Hops are perennials from root — 20 years life for a healthy root is typical.  New plantings are from parts cut from rootstock called rhizomes. These can be planted in Spring to produce new hops plants.  There are male and female plants. Only the female ones develop umbels from their blossoms. Male hops are regarded as vermin and have to be destroyed.  I didn’t get into how you tell a male plant from a female one.

Hops scaffolding
Hops scaffolding

During winter when the ground is frozen, scaffoldings of poles and wire are built at 7 meters (23 feet) height and it takes about 70 days for the plants to grow that height (I was told that bamboo is the only other plant that grows this quickly). In good weather, hops can grow 25 cm (10 inches) in a single day.  In winter when the soil is frozen the training wires that the plants climb on are mounted to the scaffolding.  When the soil is dry in May the sprouts from rootstock are cut back in a skilled process called “hop cleaning” — the process of culling the sprouts down to three strong ones that are wound onto the training wire – the rest of the sprouts are eliminated.  This is exhausting, labor intensive work performed by seasonal and migrant workers.  The Widmanns hire about 50 seasonal workers – many from Romania.  After that, the training wires are hooked onto the roots.  About 60 to 80 sprouts are typical from each root.  Folk tradition says that hop plants must be up on “Johann” (June 24).

Harvesting barn
Harvesting barn

During the summer months, the soil is cultivated, the growing plants are protected, and the space between the rows is seeded with rapeseed and mustard to minimize erosion and condition the soil.
The harvest usually takes place during the last week of August and first weeks of September.  Once a vine is ready for harvest, there is just a five day window of time to perform the harvest.  Different varieties ripen at different times allowing the harvest to happen over a longer period.  Specialized tractors (smaller to fit between the rows) and specialized spraying (fungicide) and cutting equipment are required.  The Widmanns have a huge barn containing harvesting, drying, and baling equipment that is only used during harvest (a 3 week period).  Vines and wires are processed through a conveyor machine that separates and sorts the umbels from the training wires, leaves, and vines.  The umbels are dried to specific humidities and then pressed into bales for delivery to customers.  Customers then process and pelletize the hops to make a brewing-ready product.

The Widmanns contract to sell their hops to a select set customers.  They grow 8 different varieties of hops on their farm.  Generally, more than 95% of hops are used to make beer.  There are also uses in medical applications (calming attributes and uses as a digestive aid), soaps, candles, lotions, liqueurs.  I asked Andreas about trends in the business.  He does not see much growth in markets for uses other than beer.  He said there are organic hops farms that fulfill a niche, but expressed concern about whether there could be plant disease problems if everything were to go that way.  I told him that I had been impressed that there is a growing base of women master brewers and asked if there were any women farmers in his organization.  He told me there aren’t any so far, but that the group has a project underway to produce a calendar featuring women from hops farming families.

I asked Andreas what his takeaway was from his experience on the U.S. hops farm.  He said that he found the basic routine and processes to be quite familiar, but he was blown away by the scale of the operations in the Yakima.  The farms there are humongous by European standards and norms.

Many thanks to Susan Deckner of Hopfenland Hallertau Tourismus for her recommendations and assistance in planning the e-bike tour.

Click on any image in the gallery below to see it larger, see captions, and open a scrollable slide show view of all of the images.

Hops

Next up in part three — breweries, beers, and other explorations in the Hallertau — subscribe to be sure you don’t miss it!

more stories from travels in Germany

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2 thoughts on “Hops Heaven”

  1. Great follow up and info on hops, Kevin. Good to know when the harvest is, too. Will definitely get up there next year for a hike (I did find one while looking for something to do with you) and that festival. Great insights by meeting the locals but that’s your forte.

  2. Interesting about the shrinkage in the number of hop farmers. I heard similar stories this past spring when I cycled through the Poperinge region in West Flanders, but the story was framed in terms of shrinking acreage. I wonder whether acreage in the Hallertau has shrunk, or whether the farms have just consolidated. I know that, historically, the hop harvest was extremely labour-intensive but didn’t realize that tending the hop yards in the spring and summer months was so intensive that farmers in the Hallertau still hire in migrant labour. Interesting article!

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