Hop to it

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Related tags: Czech republic, Germany

At Wingersheim, a small town at the centre of the Alsace hop farms, I travelled on a bumpy trailer behind a tractor to view the fields with their...

At Wingersheim, a small town at the centre of the Alsace hop farms, I travelled on a bumpy trailer behind a tractor to view the fields with their tall trellises where hops are grown and harvested. Back in the town, hops were being delivered to a store where machines stripped the cones from their bines and then packed the fresh hops into large sacks for their onward journey to Kronenbourg and other breweries in the region. Hop growing in Alsace has had a turbulent history. When the region was under German control in the 19th and 20th centuries, hop fields were destroyed to stop the farmers competing with the vast German hop industry. The Nazis who controlled the region in World War Two ruthlessly destroyed many farms. As a result, hop cultivation in Alsace fell from 4,800 hectares in 1940 to just 300. Slowly and painfully, it has climbed back to 800 hectares and the farmers hope to pass the magic 1,000 mark in a few years time. There are 110 hop growers in the region and they sell their produce to a co-operative, Cophoudal, which was formed in 1939. They grow English and German varieties, such as Brewers Gold, Magnum, Nugget and Target, but the pride of Alsace is the Strisselspalt hop, which is an off-shoot of the famous Czech Saaz variety. Strisselspalt means "quality bunch": it is an aroma hop, which means its bitterness is low, but it has a fine floral, resiny aroma with a touch of citrus fruitiness. Cophoudal is doing research and trial planting of new varieties, including hedgerow hops that grow to only half the height of conventional ones. The aim is to cut down on pesticides and fertilisers: Cophoudal hopes to grow organic hops in the near future and some of its research is done in conjunction with Wye College in Kent, which develops new varieties for British brewers. While most of the annual Strisselspalt harvest is used by French brewers, some 18% of the crop is now bought by the world's biggest brewer, Anheuser-Busch of the United States. A-B, owner of the world's biggest beer brand, Budweiser, used to buy Saaz from the Czech Republic, but refuses today to take any hops from that country as a result of the long-running trade-mark dispute with the Czech Budweiser brewery.

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