Imagine stepping into a room chilled to just above freezing to find yourself surrounded by thousands of kilos of freshly picked Czech hops.
It’s a lupulin uppercut that literally makes your eyes water. It’s like dunking your head into a swimming pool filled with lemons and freshly cut grass as a hundred bottles of Double IPA simultaneously explode in rapture around you.
I was in the warehouse of one the Czech Republic’s most prolific hop producers when it happened. By delirious co-incidence I was also in hop heaven.
This hop sensation – for it was far more than a singular sensory experience – was utterly intoxicating. I recall thinking I had the same sort of ridiculous smirk on my face as I had when I was eight and took my first illicit sip of the frothy pint my Dad had absentmindedly left on the dinner table as he went to check the roast potatoes.
The only thing I could focus on was the colour green. If colours could have their own smell then green would choose hops. Spicy, herbal, resiny freshly harvested hops from the fertile red soil of the Žatec Basin.
The smell was so omnipotent, so ‘sticky’, that I could still smell it clinging to my clothes when I checked into my hotel in Plze? several hours later.
But this was the beginning of the end of the journey for these towers of individually weighed and numbered 50kg bales of hops destined for the kettles of breweries across the globe.
To understand why these humulene-soaked strobiles are such a vital part of the Žatec region’s past and future and how they’ve coloured the character of many of the beers you may have tried we really need to rewind a few centuries.
The first recorded use of hops in beer dates back to 1079 in Germany and records show around the same time hops had started to become an economically interesting crop in the Czech Republic. Under the reign of the Emperor Charles IV (1346 –1378) hop yields expanded dramatically, production was concentrated into favourable growing areas and the entire growing process was more closely regulated.
The big hop boom came under the watch of Joseph II (1764 – 1790) as the reputation for the quality of Czech Saaz hops spread. Saaz hops are named after the town of Žatec (which is Saaz in German) and are one of the four noble hops* of Central Europe famed for their restrained bitterness and big aromas.
However hops are fragile, delicate things and in more modern times the area around Žatec has fallen on harder times as a result of increased pressure for land, diseases and pests and, somewhat ironically, our seemingly inexhaustible thirst for high alpha hops with less balance but far more bang.
Which meant the news that greeted us as we sat in the offices of one of the country’s most prominent hop producers and traders was particularly gloomy for fans of Czech hops.
“How would you describe this year’s harvest” I asked the company’s vice-president enthusiastically.
“A disaster” came the blunt reply.
*The other noble hop varieties are Hallertau, Tettnanger and Spalt.
In part 2: I discover how breweries play the hop market, why we’re only one more poor harvest away from a crippling hop shortage and discover I’m probably the world’s slowest hop picker.
Transparency Statement: This post is the first in a series of articles about my recent trip to Pilsner Urquell as a guest of the brewery. Together with Pelle from Allt om Öl we were the first Swedish beer writers to participate in the brewery’s ‘Origins Tour’ – an immersive two day experience during which we were given a unique ‘behind-the-scenes’ look at how one of the world’s most famous beers is made.