As the earth warms, the days grow longer, and the sun shines upon a series of rolling hills in Germany, there is a wondrous convergence of life, history, tradition, enterprise, and culture. At the center: a proud, resilient, dedicated people who use the experience of generations to grow a fragile, temperamental plant with a worldwide reputation. The plant is hops, the people are Bavarians, and their home is the Hallertau.
Every spring lush growth spreads over the agricultural district of Hallertau, a riot of natural beauty that fans out over small settlements filled with ancient whitewashed terracotta-roofed farmsteads. There are verdant greens of lush wheat, pastel lime of tender leaves on mighty oaks and the stubble of freshly mowed hay. Each farm is dotted with white, pinks and reds that deepen to magenta from the pear, apple, cherry, crabapple and lilac trees in their dooryard gardens. Yet something seems grossly out of place. Among all this beauty and lushness jut the tall poles and wires of trellises that announce: this is hop country and hops is the preeminent crop.
In early spring, the hop fields look anemic, yet hop growing is a tradition in the Hallertau dating back to 736 AD. Hops are the major crop in the region. Nearly 1,200 family farms make Hallertau the most productive hop growing region on earth. As the last gasp of winter blows one last storm, dusting rooftops with snow, several thousand telephone calls are made to Poland to inform a small army of migrant workers to hold off a few more days; the hops are behind because of the weather.
Hardship is all in a day’s work for a Hallertau hop farmer. Hop farming is an intensely difficult endeavor. Hop farming is so demanding that, merely to make a decent living, a hop farmer must be: totally fearless, an excellent agronomist, a logistical wizard, highly skilled mechanic and metal fabricator. He must have the support of a strong family network and be willing to gamble the welfare of that entire family. The intensity of purpose required to succeed creates a tradition of stoic integrity. Many of these farms have been in the family for more than 600 years. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot or German Beer Purity Law. The Reinheitsgebot limited ingredients for beer to malt, water and hops (once yeast was discovered it was included) and paved the way for Hallertau to become the hops-growing region it is today. So these farmers have a centuries-old family tradition in Hop growing. In this modern era of sound bites, video clips and short attention spans, hop farmers are the modest soft-spoken superheroes who make decisions daily that will affect future generations. When hop farmers speak of sustainability, it’s a serious aspect of their lives. Sustainability for these hop farmers is on a personal, family, property, and community level. The fir, pine and beech trees in every farm’s woodlot have been tended for centuries by the same family. When a new highway slices through a wooded area, every farmer feels the burden of maintaining that woodlot’s reduced acreage for the building needs of future generations. As the sawyer at a local lumber mill that can saw 48-foot-long timbers nears retirement age, the whole village frets about his replacement. Every centuries-old farm in the village has a barn or a home with beams over 40 feet. This interdependent web between land, family, and business means that family succession of the hop farm is a serious responsibility. The tradition runs so hard that the greatest fear of hop farmers is likely to be whether the younger generation loves the life or has enough interest to take over the farm. It’s usually clear when someone loves the farm enough to take over.
This tradition leads to close relationships between fathers and sons that most American men would envy. This closeness is possible because of mutual respect, integrity, trust and thousands of hours of working together and supporting each other in an arduous undertaking. There is also an enormous responsibility for the son taking over the farm to perform well and make the venture profitable. Each generation must innovate, modernize and adapt to ensure the farm’s survival, while also avoiding imprudent spending that might endanger the farm’s future. That’s where the older generation comes in: Full retirement for a hop farmer who has turned the farm over to his son means about 60+ hours of work per week, not including a great deal of coaching on conservative values and practices. The current younger generation in Hallertau is likely to have at least one degree in agriculture and, now more than ever, a full-time job away from the farm. Hop farming requires intensive cultivation and use of machinery. It’s customary for young hop farmers, all of whom are good mechanics, to have full-time jobs at Audi or BMW. When asked what types of jobs these farmers could do at Audi or BMW, industry experts laugh and insist that any hop farmer could do any job at the Audi or BMW factory. But many work the assembly line so that they can work the night shift – which gives them more than 12 hours of daylight every day, all season long, to work on the farm.
Hops, a relative of cannabis, are intriguing. Hops provide an alluring, aromatic, spicy, zesty, refreshing characteristic and a bittering balance to the bold, rich, sweetness of malt in beer. Hops were selected for brewing because of these qualities and the antibacterial effect that subdues undesirable microorganisms but leaves brewer’s yeast alone. Hops are fragile, susceptible to disease and pests. The tips of the tender shoots are like candy to deer. Many varieties have difficulty in climbing. In spite of these weaknesses, they are vigorous and need to be thinned and trained on wires to grow properly. Their need for tending provides a major industry for several thousand Polish migrant workers who annually descend on the Hallertau to train the young hop bines. Bines dangerously brittle in cold conditions and too short to be able to adequately train within weeks can become hopelessly entwined medusa-like masses as temperatures soar. Migrant workers battle the unruly plants by kneeling over, or sitting and bending over, a mass of growth and guiding the three most vigorous bines to train up the wires of the trellis. A member of the nettle family, the hop plant uses prickly hairs or spines to help it climb and cling to the wires. The bines are at once capable of scratching one’s skin and also brittle enough for the tip to easily snap off. An ideal Hop trainer exhibits strength, drive and pain tolerance, and also has exceptional dexterity and sensitive fingers – if the tip snaps off the bine is useless and needs to be cut away. After training three dominant bines upon each wire, the remaining mass of growth is plucked out or cut off at ground level. And then, workers get up and shift four feet to the next set of wires, kneeling down to train the next plant. A mere day for the newcomer will leave every muscle in one’s neck, back, hand and wrist screaming. Part of the integrity of purpose of being a hop farmer includes working longer, harder, faster and better than the migrant workers. The workers know when it’s time to wake up when they hear the farmer in the morning several hours before the 12-hour day of hop training commences. There is a development of character in the individuals who live this life that makes one feel that a hop farmer friend is someone you could trust your life to. Some hop farmers make every effort to treat the migrants who have been working for them for more than 25 years as family by sharing meals at their own table and providing decent housing, decent meals, and refreshments – which in Bavaria include soft drinks, mineral water, coffee, tea and of course copious amounts of beer.
The hop farms need support beyond the fields. When father, son and family, plus nine farm hands, are working intensely, it requires a great deal of food to keep that intensity of work going. Traditionally, preparing nutritious meals has been handled by the farmer’s wife. There are, of course, farmers with wives that have full-time careers away from the farm, and there are women with non-farmer husbands who take over their family farm and do all the field work themselves. The norm, however, is for wives to perform the traditional role even if they have a full-time job. Americans tend to value education that leads to earning potential or scholarly academic studies. In Bavaria, however, it is expected for women to take Home Economics as a college major. However, the logistics of running a farm household and feeding farmhands, and the importance of the preservation of cultural heritage of traditional Bavarian cuisine, leads one to readily appreciate a person with a Master’s degree in Home Economics. This is likely a topic that Americans could stand to broaden their horizons on.
Hops are a highly regulated commodity and in Hallertau there are 13 “sealing districts” or different communities that administer the region, each with its own stamp to certify the authenticity of the hops shipped from the region. Multiple governmental authorities ensure a chain of custody and quality determination of all hops. As Americans, we tend to embrace freedom and resist regulation. One of the good things about the conservative policies in the Hallertau is that they regulate so much that there are limits to how drastically the historical landscape can be altered. The ability to change hedgerows, tree rows and ditches is restricted. Field size is set according to the historical usage of the property. This and many other regulations work to protect family farmers from agribusiness.
Hops are an intensely cultivated high-value crop. Growing hops is filled with difficulties. Globalization of breweries leads to heavy-handed tactics to ensure favorable pricing and guaranteed availability of hops for the brewing giants. Yet Hallertau is filled with exceptionally skilled and capable farmers who work hard, efficiently and with frequently remarkable results. The logistical requirements, machinery-intensive nature of hop farming, and the industry expressed by hop farmers provide a strong case for considering these relentless high achievers superheroes.