The most famous hop growing area in the world? The Hallertau. The best time to explore the region? During the hop harvest in early September. At that time you can try fresh green hop beer in rustic Biergärten, watch the hop farmers at work and discover a whole new world of culinary delights. All with the scent of hops hanging in the air. Text and photos: Thomas Linkel
Pleasure trip not only for beer lovers
A stooping figure moves between the rows of hop poles. Every now and then it disappears against the hills of the Hallertau. In the blue light of a September evening, the hop fields extend to the horizon. But here, a little west of Mainburg, the hop harvest is already complete. The seven-metre high frames tower up out of the landscape, bare and stark. Then the figure emerges onto a path between fields.
The old man introduces himself as Hans and points to a hamlet in a nearby dip. That’s where his farm lies, and today he has finished the harvest on his five hectares of hops. Now he no longer has to make daily trips to the field: “From spring to harvest, the hops want to see their master every day!”
He wanted to stop a long time ago, he says, but hops are his life and when he dies, he’d like it to be in the hop field. In the west the sky is turning a delicate shade of red as Hans goes on his way to the hamlet.
Hallertau or Holledau: hops for the world
The Hallertau - or “Holledau” in the local dialect - is the world’s largest contiguous hop growing area and lies around one hour’s drive north of Munich. Almost 38 percent of global hop production comes from the region between Landshut, Pfaffenhofen and Kehlheim.
Wow! 38 percent of the world's hop production is from the Hallertau region
Hops have been cultivated here since the 8th century. Today, the hop fields are cultivated by ever fewer but ever larger farms. However, the village landscape is still characterised by the tower-like kilns where the hops are dried.
Opposite one of these kilns, hop grower Elisabeth Stiglmaier sits in her boiler suit surrounded by fragrant hop bines. Once every second she pulls the end of a hop bine from the tip of the glowing, green heap and feeds it into the conveyor system of the hop harvester.
The bine is pulled up towards the ceiling of the barn, where it dangles seven metres above the ground before disappearing into the deafening machinery. The harvester rattles and jerks, leaves and dust swirl up and around. A belt conveys the stripped hop cones across the yard and into the kiln.
The whole process runs seamlessly, says Elisabeth. Her 20 hectares of hop fields are distributed around the village of Attenhofen, so the hop harvester and the kiln are able to process the hop bines as soon as they are delivered there by tractor. They are able to harvest one hectare a day; physically demanding work, at the end of which the moisture content of the hop cones has to be reduced from around 85 to 8-9 percent.
“I’ve been working with hops since 1978,” says Franz, “so when I hand over to my son next year I’ll be able to stay on the sofa every now and then. But it’s been a good time, I’ve got no complaints, and after all I’m still the mayor.”
Schlossbrauerei Au: traditional brewery since 1590
In Au in the Hallertau, a lot revolves around hops. It is home to the large buildings of the hop processing plant, which produces hop pellets, but there are also hop-related technology companies and the Auer Schlossbrauerei, whose brewing and ripening coppers are built into the castle complex, surrounded by old deciduous trees.
Brewery director Michael Beck, Freiherr von Peccoz, is the sixth generation of his family to run the company that produces 50,000 hectolitres of beer each year. In 2018 he sold it to a Chinese investor, who also takes the vast majority of the exports. “The Hallertau hop is the soul of our beer,” says Beck, standing underneath the portrait of his great-grandfather, who looks rather like Bismarck, and pouring a green hop beer.
Green hop beer: speciality beer at harvest time
This beer is only brewed at the hop harvest; unlike conventional beers the raw, freshly picked hop cones are thrown directly into the boilers. The result is an unfiltered, clearly hoppy, very refreshing, almost sparkling beer.
“I have been inhaling the art of brewing for as long as I can remember,” explains Beck, “and it’s not just a matter of technical expertise, but also of passion. In the end that’s what determines the quality of the beer, so cheers!”
Craft beer in line with the Purity Law
There is a special fragrance in the air here during late summer. As you travel through the villages, you are surrounded by the aroma of hops. The closer you get to the picking machines in the barns, the stronger the lemony-tangy smell gets. “Hops have a very intense smell.
When we made our green hop beer recently, the whole brewery turned into a hop cloud,” says a slightly apologetic master brewer Andreas Weber in a nondescript low-rise building on the industrial estate in Wolnzach. Not only is the town home to the German Hop Museum, which tells the story of hop cultivation in its architecturally striking building, but it also boasts the “Urban Chestnut Brewing Company”.
A craft beer in the heart of Bavaria? “We comply with the Purity Law and use the term ‘craft beer’ to refer to a hand-crafted beer. We get our beer flavour solely from hops and malt and not from any added flavourings”, explains Andreas Weber.
From St. Louis to Mühldorf
Urban Chestnut was set up by Mühldorf-born master brewer Florian Kuplent as a start-up brewery in St. Louis, USA. Because he buys his hops from the Wolnzach region, in 2015 he jumped at the chance to buy the brewery.
"Sauschwanzl" is the name of the tapping device on the beer tank
“We produce a mere 5,000 hectolitres and only supply Wolnzach and the surrounding area,” says Andreas Weber. That’s their full capacity, and that’s also the idea of “Urban Chestnut”. They don’t make aromatised beer, but unfiltered, typical Bavarian specialities.
Okay, with one exception: Pale Ale
If you serve beer here, you have to offer good quality and satisfy the regional taste. The only concession they make to more recent beer varieties is the “Zuagroast”, a form of bitter Pale Ale, with a relatively high hop content. Even so, they enjoy experimenting - storing beer for several months in a former barrel from Bavaria’s Slyrs whisky distillery, or testing various hop varieties.
“Most people want a light beer,” says Andreas Weber, “but light doesn’t mean that it doesn’t taste of anything, which is why we use significantly more hops than is usual or necessary.” Then Andreas turns the “Sauschwanzl”, a tap on the beer tank shaped like a pig’s tail, and the shimmering golden liquid runs into the glass.
Finnish-style relaxation in Bad Abbach
A much darker liquid runs through the Natural Moor healing baths in Bad Abbach’s “Kaiser-Therme” spa. The organic substances and special properties of the moor that enable it to slowly release stored heat provide long-lasting muscle relaxation for those looking for relief.
If a dip in the “black gold” is not enough, you can choose between an organic apple, mountain pine or herb sauna. The Finnish-style kelo sauna is a more classic experience. Here you sweat at 85° Celsius behind panoramic windows with views of the lush scenery.
The hop pickers in years gone by would probably have loved to treat their tired limbs to a spell in Bad Abbach after the harvest, as the first mechanical harvesters didn’t appear until the 1950s. But when the last load of hops had been dried and packed, at least they were always able to enjoy the traditional Hallertau hop pickers’ feast: noodle soup, crispy roast pork with beer sauce and a potato and endive salad.
Slow food with hoppy flavours
Not quite so hearty but rather more refined, chef Stefan Spitzer in the village of Osterwaal uses hops as seasoning in his slow food dishes. A perennial favourite on the menu is his Hopfenzupferbrot, or hop pickers’ bread, made of crispy potato dough with a tart-bitter hop flavour. It may only be a regular Thursday lunchtime but it’s all go in the kitchen at the “Gasthaus Spitzer”. There’s a lot of sizzling, chopping and frying going on. Kitchen assistants fetch vegetables from the chiller, the sous-chef tastes a sauce, further back the Pâtissier adds the finishing touches of poppy seed ice cream and malt to a platter of plum dumplings.
In this culinary pressure cooker, Stefan Spitzer stands and surveys a delivery of fresh broccoli. “When the team is working happily and things are running smoothly, that’s when I love cooking.”
Spitzer spent many years abroad working for the Marriott Group. At some point he decided it was time to come home. Together with his life partner, Gitti, he took over his parents’ inn. They modernised it and extended it so that guests can now look out through panoramic windows to the village of Osterwaal down below.
The grassy scent of home
“For me, the smell of hops is the smell of home,” says Stefan, and braises some black salsify with white port, lemon juice, lemongrass and ginger. At the same time, he mixes a pinch of hop powder with breadcrumbs and fries a veal steak.
Working with hops requires great finesse, as it is so bitter, he explains. It took them several attempts to perfect their hop brittle, and it makes a difference whether you use dried hop cones or pellets. The hop flavour is rather like the people of the Hallertau: down-to-earth and honest. With a bit of a positive kick.