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TOP OF THE HOPS: Saaz hops, Czech beer and the 'hop-lover's Glastonbury'

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Published on Apr 21, 2017

Like what you see? Read the full story here: http://www.czechstories.com

In this film we join Florian and his team at hop harvest time in Žatec. Then we follow the journey of his fresh green whole-hops to the Budweiser Budvar brewery in České Budějovice - or 'Budweis', as it's also known - to see them tipped into the copper brew kettles to create the brewery's own limited edition 'Fresh Hopped Imperial Lager'. Finally it's back to the hop fields in Žatec for the right, royal knees-up that is Dočesná: the legendary and world's largest hops festival. Think Glastonbury for hopheads.

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Or let us set the scene a little...

Weaving between the towering green corridors, I’m surrounded by flower cones sticky with pollen and glistening in the morning sun. The air is perfumed with their scent and it’s sending my tastebuds into overdrive. Sweet, sour, citrusy, floral, it’s the tang I usually associate with a pint of great Czech beer.

I’m reminded of that line from Rime of The Ancient Mariner, paraphrased by Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka: “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink”. Only this aroma is of something far more exciting than water. I’m walking along row upon row of a raw material that makes many of the world’s finest beers: fresh green hops, perfectly ripe and ready for harvest. It’s 7am in Strkovice and, thanks to this intoxicating wake-up, I’m already dreaming of a cold beer. But the tasting will have to wait. Right now there’s work to be done.

Strkovice is deep in the fields that surround Žatec, historic home of hop growing for over a thousand years. For those in the know, it’s still the place you need to go to find the finest hop in the world. Known as Žatec, Saaz or the ‘Noble Hop’, these green wonders have a rare balance of bitterness and aroma that lends itself perfectly to traditional Bohemian beers, and many others besides. I’m here learn more about them at the farm of Vlastimil Florian, a man with the telltale tan that speaks of years in these fields growing hops, potatoes and the many other crops that love this fertile soil and its perfect moisture content.

‘Florian’ – as he calls himself – has agreed to let us follow his team of hop-pickers around on one of their early morning gatherings of this green bounty. The first thing that strikes me is the sheer height of the crop; these ambitious plants grow in long terraces up to seven metres tall. Anchored by their roots at the base they stretch up to the sky on thin wires. Then, at the tops, they weave around further lateral wires, developing rapidly through the summer growth season. Hops are voracious climbers, growing in bines, rather than vines. The difference being that they shoot an ever-growing helix ahead of themselves where vine plants pull themselves up with tendrils, like little hooks. This process allows them to be incredibly efficient and grow faster than other plants with the same amount of energy. The visual effect at harvest time is something like grape vines on steroids. And walking through them is an all-encompassing, 4D experience.

Florian and his team are picking hops the old way. One man runs ahead to cut the plants and wires either side of a row at their base, before a tractor trundles past and a group of local men and women on the trailer at the back rip the plants loose from the wires above and lay them at their feet. It’s hard physical work, but it’s a beautiful late-summer morning and spirits and jokes are running high. The team makes impressively quick work of the first row. Replace the tractor with a horse and cart and the techniques have hardly changed here in a millennium.

Read the full story here: http://www.czechstories.com

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