No Bitterness Here: Craft Beer Boom Boosts Spain’s Hops Growers

RealClear Staff

            

     Once upon a time—we’re talking way back (shortly after World War II)—Villanueva del Carrizo ran into an import problem. Because Germany was jacked up from the war, this tiny town (on the banks of northern Spain’s Órbigo River) was unable to obtain the crucial beer-brewing component—hops.

[A Spaniard farmer holds hops in his hand. | Photo: Lauren Frayer/NPR]

This crisis called for a meeting among area farmers—Spain’s small, beer industry was up in arms and at a loss. But miraculously, brewers discovered wild hops growing along the Órbigo River and hoped it could flourish on farms too.

“Nobody knew what it was—this plant with flowers,” Carrizo-local Bernardo Llamas said. He was only eight years old back then. His father was one of the first to switch from wheat to hops.

“It was a gamble,” Llamas said—he’s now 73. “But it turned out to be profitable.”

Indeed, it was the perfect play—15 or 20 times more profitable than wheat or corn, according to local farmers. The hops harvesters got rich—Spain’s budding, beer industry was then bolstered.

Skip 66 years to today—the craft-beer boom has blown the Spanish-hops demand to epic proportions. While Spain’s a safety for the wine world, it once faired only a few beer brands—mostly lager. But with artisan ales erupting everywhere (150+ brands and boosting ever upward), Villanueva del Carrizo (“Carrizo” for short) has become the master of mash—it grows 99 percent of Spain’s homegrown hops.

[Aerial shot of Villanueva del Carrizo]

Apparently, there’s still only one production factory, which handles the entire region’s hops—a whopping one-million kilos a year!

“This factory was founded in 1945,” facility-director Ignacio Nicolás Campillo said. “Our area of Spain has plenty of water and low humidity. It’s the perfect climate for hops.”

If you’re cool with Campillo, he might take you on a tour of the very machines that compress the hop-flower powder into little pellets. Once those pellets penetrate the beer, they give it that sharp, sour flavor foamers have fallen in love with.

As it turns out, the factory’s not fast enough to meet demand—craft-beer production pumped up 33 percent last year in Spain. To accelerate their efforts, Hopsteiner, an international hops firm, came aboard and bought a serious stake in the factory—with 10 more varieties of hops.

Before the Germans did the ironic twist and inserted themselves (fortunately), to meet those demands, the Spanish brewers had to supplement with multiple millions of kilos of hops coming from the Czech Republic (as well as Germany).

Kadabra Brewery is definitely part of that demand—not far from Spain’s hops fields. A group of Carrizo kats opened it in 2014.

[Kadabra beer, in the brewery warehouse in León, northern Spain | Photo: Lauren Frayer/NPR]

“I grew up in these hops fields, and there was never a local brewery nearby,” co-founder José María Vazquez said. “So one night, over beers, my co-founders and I decided to make our hobby into our profession.”

Kadabra keeps it local when it comes to ingredients—the first in Spain to do so. The hops fields actually border Vazquez’s backyard!

“It was the moment to do it. Craft beer is so in style right now,” he said. “Spain is in a craft-beer boom.”

Kadabra may be Spanish suds, but all their labels are in English—they’re aiming for a hoppy American-style craft beer.

In order to actually harvest these hop fields, foam farmers have to use lengthy, bamboo rods to rustle up the flowers that grow more than 20 feet high. That’s more than a hard-day’s work, but there are still a few farmers who’ll forage for the sake of suds.

“It’s easier to drink beer than to grow its ingredients,” Farmer Bernardo Llamas laughed.

While Llamas and fellow hops-farmer Benito Paz Fernandez work their fields, they balk at the shortage of new blood to take over these rigorous responsibilities. The kids know there’s no fun in farming, Fernandez said.

“It used to be all hops growers here. But now, all the younger people have left for university or jobs in the city,” Fernandez added. “So we're all that's left—a bunch of aging hops farmers!”

However, these Spaniards keep a close watch for new farmers who’re heavy into hops—like them. Without the farmer, the foam flowers would surely cease... What then would happen to the hops-heavy industry?

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