Experience the mystery and beauty of hop harvest with Willy Buholzer

Posted: August 25, 2020
Experience the mystery and beauty of hop harvest with Willy Buholzer

“For me, it's always been about hops – nothing else.” 

For generations the Buholzer family has been totally obsessed with beer's most beautiful and mysterious ingredient. On the eve of what looks to be a record crop, Dr. Willy Buholzer shares why there's nothing quite like hop harvest.  

There's a lot of work and a bit of magic that goes into growing hops, the little green cones that give beer its distinct bitter flavor and aroma. Few know this better than AB InBev's own second-generation hop legend, Dr. Willy Buholzer. As we enter harvest season in the northern hemisphere, come along as he explains the mystery and beauty of growing and harvesting these extraordinary plants.  

I'll be honest, this is my favorite time of year – it takes me back to when I was a little boy in the 1970s, when every August our family would move from Lucerne, Switzerland to Munich, Germany for the hop harvest. I would tag along with my father, who was the lead hop buyer for Anheuser-Busch. He spent 40 years partnering with our growers and dealers, negotiating contracts and ensuring the quality of the crop. From that age on, I knew I wanted to do what he did and I feel so lucky to have made that dream come true. For more than 30 years, I've been responsible for procuring all the hops used at hundreds of AB InBev breweries around the world.

The Buholzer family has been part of every hop growing season for more than half a century! In the first photo that's Willy's father (second from left) and Willy (fourth from right) on one of their many visits with hop farmers in the Hallertau region of Germany.

People always ask me, ‘What makes hops so special?' 

To start, unlike barley malt or water, hops are mostly added only in small amounts during the brewing process. Like good pepper on a steak, hops have a huge impact on the final taste of the beer. They add the typical aroma and bitterness balancing out the sweetness of the malt to create the perfect beer flavor. Many craft beers of course love to stress the hops character to the extreme so some beers are “dry hopped” during fermentation to keep the full aroma intact.

But it's how the hop plant is grown that makes it quite special - it can't be planted just anywhere. A triangle of land in Bavaria, known as the Hallertau region of Germany, is the largest continuous hop growing area in the world. However, farms in the northwestern United States (which is on the same latitude and offers similar growing conditions) now grow more hops than anywhere else on earth. In fact, together these two areas produce more than 80% of the world's hops!  

Hops also grow at a shockingly fast rate. Each plant starts with about 50 ‘bines' that sprout from the ground. Early in the growing season, workers choose six of the strongest and best-looking bines from each plant and “train' them, wrapping the bine clockwise (always clockwise - otherwise they won't grow!) around flexible twine or wire. These are attached to a 18 to 21 foot-high trellis. Why so high? Because a hop plant will grow 21 ft (7 m) tall and deep withnin three months. On a warm day it's possible for a plant to grow a whole foot! Once the days get shorter in the fall, the plants reproduce and flower – ultimately creating cones. 

Watch: Rubbing a cone is the best way to see why hops give beer the bitterness and aroma we all know and love. Here Willy teaches us how!   

Harvest takes about a month, starting at the end of August in the northern hemisphere and in mid-March south of the equator. There are many different techniques, but in Hallertau, where I am right now, plants are harvested with ‘picking arms' attached to tractors. The plants are cut at the ground, pulled from the top of the trellis and down into the tractor.

At the picking machine the fresh cones are then removed from the bines, cleaned, dried in kilns and conditioned to preserve their quality. Then they are pressed into bales and finally processed into pellets then shipped to our breweries. Prior to pelletizing we sort through thousands of samples each year, hand-selecting only the best quality hops for all of our beers. Once at the breweries, a little bit of hops will go a long way - by my calculation, cones from a single hop plant can flavor up to 300 gallons of beer! 

Our growers are like family 

Most of our growers are family operations and we have some relationships that span generations going all the way back to my father. Visiting with the farmers is one of the greatest joys of my life. But I'm not the only one! In most hop growing regions, my brewery colleagues also go from farm to farm during harvest time, knocking on growers' doors to say, “Hey! How's it going? How's the crop?”  

Did you know? AB InBev is the only global brewer with our own hop farms? Our farms in Hallertau, Germany; Bonners Ferry, Idaho (USA); Fernandez Oro, Argentina and George, South Africa produce about 20% of our hop supply each year. 

During harvest all the farmers are so proud to show me their crops – always waving and saying, “Hey Dr. Buholzer, I have to show you the most wonderful hops I am growing for you!” And, not to break tradition, like my father, no farm visit is complete without sharing a great beer with even better company!  

I've been doing this my whole life, but this is a year like no other. 

Early in the season the COVID-19 pandemic closed national borders, meaning vital seasonal workers from Poland could not come to Germany to help prepare the hop fields. Together with Harald Stückle, leader of our Spaten-Löwenbräu brewery in Munich, we launched the “Save The Beer” initiative, bringing together apprentices from our German breweries to lend a hand.  

They quickly learned the skills and spent many days on their hands and knees, carefully training the hop bines around the wires. My daughter Fabienne, who also works at our Spaten-Löwenbräu, helped out as well which was a wonderful father-daughter experience! 

From left, Harald Stückle, my daughter Fabienne, and me training the bines in the hop fields

It was hard work but we had a lot of fun – and it's paid off. This is going to be a great year for hops! I would take bets today that we will have an unprecedented record crop worldwide both regarding quality and quantity this year. 

The truth is, there's always something interesting when it comes to hops. Whether it's new varieties so our brewers can create delicious new beers, or new breeds that are easier to cultivate in different climates, hops always surprise those of us who are passionate about beer. But some things will never change - like our strong connections with our farmers and commitment to the special land where hops are grown. 

Just recently, I had a wonderful reminder of this very thing. I was visiting a farm with a fellow hop lover and his young family. Together we walked through the tall, green fields. We pulled down a few bines and plucked off a cone for the children to peek inside. Their eyes lit up, just like Fabienne's did.  And just as mine did, all those years ago when I walked alongside my father on the hillsides of Bavaria, experiencing the wonder of the hop harvest for the very first time. 

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