Part 1: Castile and León
* FULL DISCLOSURE: After reaching out to Orbigo Valley Hops to speak to them about their business, I was invited to visit. Accommodation was provided, but I paid for almost everything else (but you try telling a Spanish person not to pay for your drinks. I dare you.) *
The well-oiled chug of Juan Carlos’ hop-harvesting machine has filled the air with rattling, rumbling, industrious noises for more than 30 years. Before then, his family took in the years’ hop harvest by hand – first pulling down tall helixes of vines, then whipping each lupulin-rich cone off into sacks, ready to be shipped far away. In the fields behind his home in Villamor De Orbigo, it’s hot enough for the sun to form mirage pools in the deforested space where rows of twelve-foot-tall hops have been cleared away. We arrived in time to help bring in the final fraction of their vines, the rest completed in less than a day by three generations of hop growers in 32 degree heat. Apparently it’s not that hot.
Stood on the roof of an old tractor, Juan Carlos’ father overlooks his crop as it’s fed into the dark mercy of their terracotta-roofed barn, a building probably as old as the village itself. A windowless stone building painted in a powerful shade of sun-deflecting white, it houses the hop-harvesting machine, which from the brightness of the field, can’t be seen. We know it’s there by the noise, and the ravenous gulps of hops being taken into the barn, never to return.
Juan Carlos’ hop-harvesting machine is a fairground ride gone wrong – a heavy, misunderstood traction engine come to life. Groaning and rumbling inside its stable, it shudders to the beat of its belt-driven heart, pistons respiring heavily under the strain of a hard day’s work. Its picking mechanism of soft, plastic brushes is covered by a rubber flap, and I’m glad I can’t look into its mouth and see pearly white teeth stained green. Cogs and levers are checked and pulled periodically, as Juan Carlos modifies speed, regulates belt-drives, manages the beast’s complaints. As a final indignity, mangled, hopless vines are pulled from its rear-end into giant bundles by grandma in her sunproof dressing gown, and the hops are fired from a chute speared into its side into the barn’s attic. This attic, with its slatted wooden floors and dark, cobwebbed corners is where Juan Carlos’ family’s hops have
been “cured” as he calls it, for more than 80 years. Unlike the bleached outdoors, it’s breezy in here. The hops smell of hay and chlorophyll.
I ask the family why they don’t use modern machinery to help them bring in their harvest. Owner of Orbigo Valley Hops Paco Gutiérrez translates, and their answer replicates plenty of similar stories from people within the hop-growing community in this area.
“They say they can’t fix modern machines when they break,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “Here we have a machine that can be fixed with their own tools, and knowledge every member of the family has. A newer machine has one button to get the work done – that’s true – but when something goes wrong, there aren’t any tools here to fix it. It’s hard for people to understand why that’s better. There’s a number that takes you through to a help centre in Nüremberg, who’ll send somebody out. How long will that take? We’re four hours by car from Madrid here.”
“Changing industry changes people’s lives. They have skills and a lifestyle centred around the industry of this area and sustaining that can be overlooked by larger companies looking for efficiency over everything else. A new system is efficient perhaps, but for who? For the Swiss Bank, perhaps, but not for my region. Not for my way of life.”
The Orbigo river is clear and ice cold, bringing life to the valley it has worn a comfortable notch in for thousands of years. As we stand on Passo Honroso Bridge in Hospital de Orbigo looking to the mountains lining the horizon, a fisherman waits patiently in the middle distance, waist-deep, casting for rainbow trout. We’re passed by six camino pilgrims as we gaze upstream – this Roman bridge is a right of way for those walking from León to Sarria. An intricate network of above-ground irrigation canals and channels bring water to the valley, the temperature keeps the hops’ roots cold overnight, we’re told. Paco traces his hand over the landscape to to top of an imaginary hop vine.
“Just like in Washington or Oregon, the nights move into a hot, sunny day. The hops can wake up quickly and grow faster.”
Everything here begins with the river, so we left the bridge and took a trip to the nearby Orbigo reservoir, to see where this area’s lifeblood is protected. We talked about climate change a lot. How Andalucia is becoming a desert. How hot southern weather is moving north. How different crops are being trialled in different areas to cope with new conditions. Most of all, we talked about how water conservation is a priority, even in the water-rich Orbigo Valley, and how the population could learn to save, share and do without water. Watching black-finned fish trail gracefully through the water sending bubbles up to the surface with every movement, it was hard to imagine a barren wilderness here. Even so, the reservoir was low, and birds flapped irritably on a stony bank that two months earlier would have been submerged in reflective black water.
A product for the people
If you didn’t visit the place, it would be easy to fall for the cliché that the Orbigo Valley’s remote towns and villages are populated with people surviving on tough self-sufficiency, but at least in the hop-growing industry, that’s not the case at all.
To begin with, the people of the Orbigo Valley were encouraged to grow hops to boost the economy after the devastation of the Second World War. Farms worked collaboratively to collect harvests, and planted sensitively, to avoid cross-contamination. Since female hops can spread their pollen over 20km, this was, and still is, an important step to take. Much later, the climate and unusually fertile land was deemed perfect for hop growing, and commercial projects began in earnest. Until the 2010s, only two companies grew 99% of all the Orbigo Valley’s hops. In 2018, 1000 tons of nugget were grown and harvested by Baath-Haus and Hopsteiner within just 30km of the Orbigo Valley.
A very small fraction of these Spanish hops are kept within their country of origin. With 1% of the market, local growers working together as part of the Orbigo Valley hop-production co-operative harvest around 10 tonnes of Columbus, Chinook, Magnum, Summit, Fuggles and Nugget every September. It’s not a hefty operation, but Paco and the growers he works with believe it’s better for farmers to grow premium products they can take pride in, while supporting the local businesses around them. As a brewer as well as a hop grower, he says he looks to find ways to sustain his valley’s way of life.
“We create a circle. I love their hops, and I need them. When I make beer with them, they love my beer. Around we go.”
There’s a great deal of research happening on these fields too. Working with León university, Paco is trying to develop an entirely Spanish strain of commercially-viable hop descended from wild hops found by the river, as well as researching ecological ways to help hops resist fungal infections. (One avenue they’re currently researching involves the use of locally-made wine vinegar.)
It’s an unspoken courtesy that politics should be left at the door at mealtimes, but in every conversation we always ended up there. In León, around the dinner table, food and drink is a highly political subject. Despite the language barrier, lively discussions about “people’s beer” continued for hours.
“When I started Four Lions (his brewery in León), I invited every hop grower we work with to come and drink with us. I stood in front of the bar and I explained that their hops had made the beer they were drinking. Before they had no connection to the beer they’d helped create; no idea about the quality of the finished product. I wanted them to see that what they produce is a specialist product, used by craftsmen.”
“Beer is a product for the people. Big companies don’t see the worth in connections, don’t want people to continue to work in this way. When people know they are a part of making good beer here in Castile and León, they feel proud that they’re part of something good that our region is creating.”
Drinking in León
Paco’s brewery is based in León, a modern university city with Roman ballast and the Camino de Santiago running through it. Here, craft beer is a term of respect, and Gerardo Richtiger the head brewer uses it judiciously in all of his sentences. For him, English real ale is craft – just as much as a NEIPA by his friends at Naparbier, or the pilsner he lagers at a crisp eight degrees in a Roman wine cellar underneath the brewery floor, tiled in original vintage Spanish ceramic.
He brewed a brown ale to see if he could get Spanish people to drink it. “We chill and naturally carbonate it for Spanish tastes, but yeah, they like it. They’re getting used to these types of beers.”
In this beer he uses Fuggles, but grown in the Orbigo Valley. This gives them a juicier, more fragrant attitude, adding a little more hop character to the ale. It’s a great take on a classic, especially when we’re given an uncarbonated taste, at the traditional serving temperature.
“We’d like to sell it like this,” Gerardo says. “Maybe we will, in a few years.”
It might be even sooner than that, given the rate at which locals are choosing craft beer over their regular drinks.
“We convinced a group of older women who came in looking for chocolate [Note: Pronounce every-single-letter of this word. It’s “cho-co-láá-té”: Spanish thick hot chocolate, often used to dip delicious things in] to try our chocolatey coffee stout instead,” said Paco. “They came back the week after for another try and now they come here every Thursday lunchtime instead of the chocolateria.”
León’s main experience with craft beer might be centred around a local brewery, but beers from all over the world pass through the city thanks to a friendly network of bars selling everything from Naparbier Berlinerweisse from Barcelona and Birrifico Lambrate IPA from Milan to Barleywine from our very own Siren Craft. We even found a place selling Northern Monk’s Eternal.
These bars aren’t just catering to tourists, either. Speaking Spanish is necessary here, and most of the people enjoying IPAs and APAs – ordered as “appas” as in “una caña de appa” – were Spanish; if not from León, then visiting from other parts of the country, or staying here because of university.
After walking blindly into a tapas bar called “Jamon Jamon”, my gut feeling being if a place is called ham twice, I want to be in there, we met up with brewer Gerardo again. He took us to traditional bars, but he managed to find craft beer in almost every one of them, and when he couldn’t, we ate delicious local snacks and as English tourists, marvelled at how busy the streets were so late on a Sunday night. In a bar themed like a Beatles memorabilia museum there were cans of Drygate and White Hag on display alongside taps selling Spanish IPAs, NEIPAs and wheat beers. I asked Gerardo why most of the craft beers that weren’t Spanish or Italian were from the UK and Ireland
“We’ve developed a big taste for craft beer in Spain, but unfortunately getting the beer to most of the country from America takes too long, or it’s too hard to do. By the time it gets here, it’s no good. Breweries in England, Ireland, Scotland…they’re making beers just like the breweries in America, only to us they’re better, because when we drink them, they’re fresher, they’ve still got every flavour in them they’re supposed to have. Unless you could prove to me the beer was very fresh, I’d rather choose an English NEIPA in Spain.”
The next day, it was time to leave León and take a three and half hour train to Madrid for the next leg of our trip. I was sad to leave, it’s a surprising and beautiful place, and although everyone knows I love a good old city full of ancient stones and flying buttresses, I enjoyed the readiness it has to take on new things. As much as I love Spain, there are towns I’ve visited where the locals point blank refuse to try anything other than wine and lager. In León, that might have been true some time ago, but the beer scene is well and truly taking off now, and I’d be excited to return in a couple of years to find out how it develops. Would it be ridiculous to think that all the rustic tapas joints we visited would be offering local IPA on draft as well as their standard pils?
In a provincial city where 80% of beer drinkers have gone from choosing lager to just 25% in favour of trying other styles in just four years, it’s not out of the question. When Amstel is €33 a keg (allegedly), it might not be practical for most tapas bars to even consider it at this present moment… but it’s possible.
Part 2 coming soon: Selling Spanish beer to Spanish people in the Spanish capital.
Most of the photos used in the piece are the work of Iván Sánchez Criado. Please do not use without permission.