Vivaldi, pizza, and hops farming

What do Vivaldi and authentic Italian pizza have in common? They both have four seasons – one has them play out on the violin, the other on pizza. So far so good?

There is another place where spring, summer, autumn, and winter play out even more clearly, for instance, in farming. The climate and the seasons determine what needs to be done and when and how all year long. I recently met with a hops farmer to find out just what that means. I chose a hops farmer because I like hops and beer – and because we had an opportunity to visit Eugen Kirzinger’s hops farm at harvest time. I took the opportunity to ask how things look the rest of the year.

Reawakening at winter’s end

When the new year begins, the harvested hop garden (or hopyard) lies empty, looking rather desolate. Only the tall, tell-tale poles extend up towards the winter sky. They form the structure for the trellis wires along which the hops will later grow. But the wires aren’t up yet. They are being strung up now, in the bitter cold, the ground frozen solid. The farmers and workers are out with cherry pickers, preparing the hop garden for the growing season. This is not a job for the cold sensitive.

A hops plant is a true survivor. On Eugen Kirzinger’s farm, the same plant will be harvested year after year for 15 to 20 years. A single hops plant could actually live even longer than that, but the market changes constantly, demanding different hops varieties. And so, the hops vine greens out each year and is pruned back right around the end of February each year – some varieties earlier, some a bit later. Eugen Kirzinger says it’s like growing roses: You prune them back regularly to encourage healthier, well-trained growth.

Vigorous spring growth

When the ground begins to thaw and dry out, it’s time to fix the trellis wires in the ground and do the first big pruning. As Eugen Kirzinger explains, this involves driving a tractor through, pulling a device with spinning steel tines that clear out the prior season’s debris and “centre” the vines. This process prevents too much lateral growth and tangling. After all, the hops are supposed to grow upward, towards the sky. The hops have, literally, a long way to grow. Hop farmers want to see the vines up in the top of the trellis by midsummer. So, the vines have to grow almost seven meters by late June.

The farmer gives them a leg up by selecting the three strongest shoots from each vine and wrapping them clockwise around the wires by hand at the end of April or by early May at the latest. “We’re training the plants to grow properly.” This process of cleaning out and wrapping up is the most difficult and labour-intensive part for Eugen Kirzinger. He has to kneel down to each vine and take each individual shoot in hand.

No such thing as a summertime lull in the hopyard

As the hops continue to grow and thrive, the farmer’s work continues. All summer long, the farmers are busy with maintenance and monitoring – a little more here, a little less there, depending on the weather. If the wind blows the shoots off course from their wires, they have to be brought back and wrapped around the wire – each one individually. The farmer also has to monitor for disease and, if the weather calls for it, irrigate the hopyard throughout the summer.

Autumn’s bounty

The harvest begins in late August or early September. Now it’s time to see if all of the hard work of the growing season paid off – with the right quantity and quality to call it a good year. Huge mountains of hop vines (which are actually called “bines”) are harvested. In the end, it’s all about the tiny yellow grains, the lupulin glands, that are nestled inside the green flower cones. Lupulin contains alpha acids, which impart bitterness and essential oils that give beer flavour and aroma. Are these little grains really worth all the trouble? A sip of good beer is the best and quickest way to answer that question.

After the harvest, the four seasons of the hops year are pretty much over. It’s on to equipment maintenance, replacing any structural poles that need replacing in the hopyard, and then just recuperating. There’s an old German football saying that goes, “After the game is before the game”. In other words, as soon as a game is over, it’s already time to prepare for the next game. In this case, it’s time to prepare for the next season.


Of course, it’s also possible to grow hops on a much smaller scale. For example, for specific beers or for craft brewers’ own use. If any of our readers has personal experience with growing hops, we would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment or send us a first-hand report on smaller-scale hop farming. 🙂

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