It varies season to season, region to region, but roughly speaking we’re two weeks away from the hop harvest starting in earnest. It then stretches well into September. So there is still time, in theory—the kind of theory that might never leave your armchair—to plan to see it for yourself, or else to begin scheming with like-minded folks about how to pull it off next year, or someday.
Because more of us should do it. As beer enthusiasts we revere the hop… but how often do we go to pay our respects in person? When traveling we might seek top-flight breweries, bars or festivals, but why not the hop harvest?
I pondered these questions last September as I walked through the market town of Wolnzach, Germany, in the heart of the Hallertau region. Imagine a temperate, breezy, end-of-summer evening, strolling past a spotlit Baroque church with a bell tower that looks like two onions smashed together, and having those unmistakable, sharp, herbal, spicy whiffs of fresh, roughed-up hop flowers filling your nostrils.
It stimulates the imagination. And the thirst.
Arriving in Wolnzach, I was prepared to photograph rows of trellises, talk to farmers and a brewer or two, and do a bit of tasting—or drinking, even.
I was not prepared for the all-out sensual bombardment.
I didn’t have to go straight to the farm to get the point. All I had to do was step out of my hotel and inhale.
You can go to the farms, though. It’s fairly easy. You can contact a hop farm directly (no promises but that’s what I did, and I got the distinct impression that they are used to having visitors that time of year), or contact the local tourist office about the possibility of guided visits. This should work in the U.S., too. Hop farms are popping up in unlikely places these days, even as the likely ones continue to grow to meet demand.
Naturally, that beautiful pungency is more intense on the farms, as the bines fall, the machinery hums, and stray hops crackle underfoot. Yes, you’ll step on hop flowers. Everyone steps on hop flowers, they’re all over the damn place. (As a homebrewer who pays homebrew-shop prices, I found this to be obscene and had to resist the impulse to fill my pockets with them.) Later, you see may see them swept into mountainous piles before they are shoveled into the dryer, called an oast. More aroma.
For hedonists like us, there is a point to all of this sensual stimulation, all this smelling and seeing and hearing and feeling the stuff. It makes our beer taste better. My experience in this is limited—maybe ask Stan—but the hop harvest now ranks very high on my personal power ranking of contexts that can influence how much I enjoy what I’m tasting.
Truthy factoid: Tomatoes taste better if you see the garden in which they’re grown. Why should it be different with hops?
There is beer, of course. The destination of my walk that evening was Zum Bürgerbräuwirt, a pub attached to the local brewery that last year became Urban Chestnut Hallertauer. As I drank a half-liter of Hopfenperle—an aromatic quaffer, only mildly bitter—I thought the scents wafting from the pale golden lager echoed those wafting through the local streets.
But it might have been my imagination, which as I said, was stimulated.
There are other treats, too. While wandering around Wolnzach and its environs, you are likely to encounter schnapps, sausage, cheese, wreaths, and even soap made from hops. They make fine gifts for friends back home. You can keep the beer and the memories for yourself.
Where else you might do this kind of thing? Here are a few ideas.
Yakima Valley, Washington, home to about three-fourths of the country’s hop acreage. Follow the Yakima hops trail, visit the American Hop Museum in Toppenish, or close out harvest season at the Fresh Hop Ale Festival on October 1.
Independence, Oregon, is home to Rogue Farms, where hops are among several crops grown for Rogue beers. There are farm tours but you can drink there, too⏤a shortcut to the end of the brewery’s “ground to glass” concept.
Poperinge, Belgium, is de facto capital of the country’s modest hop region in West Flanders. Visit De Plukker, a hop farm with its own brewery, or else pick the right year to catch the triennial Poperinge Hoppefeesten (the next one is in September 2017). Since we’re discussing pilgrimages, note that Westvleteren is nearby.
Kent, England, The Kent Life Heritage Farm Park hosts a Hops and Harvest Festival that features hop-picking and plenty of local beer and nibbles. In late September, a handful of Kentish breweries host Green Hop Beer Fortnight with a bunch of fresh-hopped beers and an Open Day, when buses roll from brewery to brewery.
But if you go to Wolnzach, which is great, check out these offerings:
Hotel Garni Hopfengold has an appropriate name, clean rooms, and tiny balconies for stepping out to smell the hoppy breeze. But the better beery option is Haimerlhof, whose tavern boasts beers that range from traditional to craft, including the local and the hoppy. Good burgers, too.
The German Hop Museum digs deeply into local hop-picking history and paraphernalia with English audio guides and guided tours available on request. Like all decent museums, it should only kill an hour of your day.
Zum Bürgerbräuwirt is the place to drink German-edition Urban Chestnut beers at the source. Hearty beer-friendly Bavarian food, too, like the Bauernfrühstück—farmer’s breakfast⏤with a big pile of fried potatoes, eggs, bacon, ham and onions that can be eaten any time of day.
Urban Chestnut Hallertauer has labels and branding very similar to that of the St. Louis brewery that owns it, but that’s the only obvious American connection (I sought in vain for a St. Louis Cardinals hat hanging somewhere). Prices are not “craft” premium (nor craft-extortionate) but in the usual range for better Bavarian beers—often about $1.10 per half-liter bottle at the drinks market⏤less than half of what the St. Louis beers cost in their local supermarkets. Locals in Wolnzach appear to have had no problem adopting it as their own.
Hörl is one of several local drinks markets⏤this one is part of a regional chain. The store is on Hopfenstrasse (yes, “Hops Street”) near Urban Chestnut, and stocks their neighbor’s beers at low prices. I found the Hopfenperle space empty until the clerk asked how many cases I wanted to buy, and then went to back to get it. Maybe it’s so popular, they have to hide it.
Seitz Farm is one of the region’s smaller hop growers, a family-run outfit now in its fourth generation. The most recent to take charge is Florian Seitz, who assured me that curious beer enthusiasts are welcome to visit during harvest with advance notice. During harvest at the farm, you might also see a soft-spoken young man in overalls helping out. That would be Florian’s brother Georg Seitz—who also happens to be the brewmaster at Urban Chestnut Hallertauer. Small town.