Octoberfest is the world's largest celebration of beer and it coincides with the end of hop harvest. It is also a celebration of traditional Bavarian culture in which hops, food and excellent quality beers are an important part. Hops, like the grapes used for wine, bear a distinct flavor and aroma and are characteristic of the area in which they are grown. This alluring aroma, the crisp bittering balance to malt's rich sweetness, and the anti microbial qualities that help combat spoilage in beer, make hops interesting to beer lovers. The lupulin in the Hallertau hops creates tropical fruit, elder flower, lemony citrus and herbaceous aromas. The beer brewed for Octoberfest is an easily quaffable version of the rich, strong, German style known as Märzen. Traditionally it has been a requirement that Octoberfest beer be brewed in Munich. This may seem strange to Americans, however we readily understand that wine bearing a label e.g.; champagne, Bordeaux, burgundy, Abruzzo, Toscana, Sonoma or Napa, must come from that region. Embrace the tradition and enjoy trying a real Munich Octoberfest beer like Paulaner, Spaten, Augistiner, Hacker-Pschorr or Lowenbrau. Americans also produce Octoberfest style beers. Try Sam Adams Octoberfest, Brooklyn Octoberfest, Sierra Nevada Octoberfest, Firestone Walker Oaktoberfest, and on the hoppier side, Ballast Point Dead Ringer or Rogue Dead Guy (American hop profile - think grapefruit and spruce).
If dealing with natural phenomena, facing hardships, overcoming logistical obstacles, rates of production and yield are any gauge of achievement there is a crucible for success each year that plays out in the hop fields of the Hallertau region. The intense beauty of tall trellises overflowing with lush cone filled hop bines serenely stretching for miles across rolling hills belies the intensity of human endeavor put forth to bring those hops to market. As the Hallertau enjoys the last scorching days of Indian summer hop farmers put forth a tremendous effort to harvest the mature plants.
A few weeks before Octoberfest commences the hop farmers of Hallertau begin an arduous period of harvesting. Hop growing has been a tradition in Hallertau for more than 500 years. Hops are a high value crop – a value determined by quality. Hops are prone to pests, disease and fungal attack. The amount of hops a farmer can grow is directly proportional to how many plants he can harvest during a brief window as ripeness is critical to quality and over maturity destroys value.
Hops grow on thin bare steel wires anchored in the ground and affixed on the top to miles of barbed wire 27 feet off the ground and spanning acres of trellises. The hop rows are spaced at 3.2 meters or about 10 1/2 feet apart. Mounds of earth covering the base of each row further reduce the clearance between rows. Farmers use diminutive high-horsepower tractors fitted with complicated harvesting machinery to sneak between the rows for harvesting. Each bine (spiny tendril) is systematically cut off at ground level and pulled tight enough to break the wire at the top such that it drops into a wagon pulled behind the tractor. Wires and bines are spaced at 1.5 meter intervals in the rows. That's just less than one every five feet. Every few rows telephone pole sized supports for the trellises are interspersed between the plants. Watching the farmer intently negotiating the space between rows while swerving around trellis supports gives one an immediate appreciation of the skill required for harvesting. Driving any farm equipment for hours on end requires a dogged determination and noteworthy physical toughness.
The intensity of endeavor required to harvest hops is possible because of skilled Polish seasonal workers. Nearly 1,200 family farms each employ a handful of skilled farmers. Some of these men drive more than 900 kilometers from Eastern Poland to reach the Hallertau. The Polish workers on the farm I visited were raspberry farmers who had completed their own harvest many weeks before. These men maintain a network of skilled farmers who met as boys working for hard-to-come-by cash mending cobblestone roads. Tough hardworking men indeed. Farmers from that part of Poland receive less than 25 cents a pound for raspberries so they are more than happy for the chance to work for German wages harvesting hops.
As temperatures soared during Indian summer in 2016 harvesting went on 24 hours a day for nearly a week in a mad rush to harvest the rapidly maturing hops. Over maturity destroys value. Hop farmers plan the varieties they plant and the orientation of planted fields based upon maturing rate of the hop plants. This is done to receive the longest possible window for harvesting. Hallertauer Mittelfreüh matures earliest while Mandarina Bavaria is one of the latest maturing varieties. Each farmer grows several varieties out of necessity.
Hops must be kiln dried within a few hours of harvesting. Prior to drying the hops must be put through a picking machine to separate leaves, cones and bines. To add to the complexity of this endeavor there is a maximum rate that hops can be sent through the picker, and kilning of the hops requires a defined pace. Hops are composed of delicate flower petal like bracts creating little lupulin filled chambers around a central core. These plant parts dry at different rates. Too much heat will steam the cones and drying too slowly or not drying enough could destroy the treasured lupulin.
Drying takes place in the kiln and hop farmers often tend their kiln up to 20 hours per day. When loading the kiln it is critical to spread the hops in an even layer. Their are three layers and the top level receives the warm air escaping through the lower two levels for a specified amount of time before dropping down successive layers. Kilning time is dependent upon the outside air temperature and humidity. Clever Germans devised an interesting means of monitoring the moisture level in the kiln. Measurement of the electrical conductivity of the hops in the kiln determines when it is time to empty it and load the next batch of freshly picked hops. After kilning, different parts of the plant have different moisture content so it is necessary to cool the hops on a wooden floor then move them into a "conditioning chamber" – room sized wooden bins. At the end of each day fresh air is blown through the conditioning chamber to allow the moisture content to become totally homogeneous. The next morning the conditioning chamber is emptied into the bailer.
As sometimes happens in families, everyone helps out at busy times. One industry expert explained that sometimes a wife or daughter-in-law helps out. When hops become ruined in the drying process its normal for the farmer to tell the brokers that the grandfather made the mistake even if it were his wife or daughter-in-law. Someone has to take the blame and farmers know the old man has run the farm before. They also understand that if their son's wife were to be blamed it would be a bad thing because the son will always choose to keep peace in his home so his labor would be lost if the wife were ever blamed for any mistake.
After all this effort the dried cones are tightly packed into bales, inspected by regional authorities, and sold to hop brokers.
Are the mystery and fascination with hops and the struggle of the people who grow them real, or just the musings of a beer nut? This season a highly skilled and ambitious veteran hop farmer with an expansive farm met with disaster. With no family, other than his wife to support him, the farmer was faced with torrential rains in June and an extremely hot growing season. The logistics of spraying that large farm, in the face of unseasonably large amounts of rain, required spraying at night when the plants were wet with dew or immediately before rain showers. All the moisture reduced the effectiveness of his spraying efforts. The unprotected plants fell pray to a host of pests including spider mites, downy mildew, powdery mildew and fusarium wilt. An entire year’s work for an extremely skilled, well-experienced, hard working family became nearly worthless. While in Hallertau I asked a Miami woman and her well raised, well educated, well traveled 22 year-old son what they thought about the place and the people. Her response, "Oh my god I love it. I want to buy a house here. I understand why you visit often. How can you ever bear to leave this place?" Her son's response regarding "Sjef" (boss in German), the retired hop farmer 45 years his senior, who had turned the farm over to the new generation floored me. The hip young urbanite pronounced a tough, intent country farmer "totally cool."