Only the oldest residents of Villanueva del Carrizo, a town on the fertile banks of the Órbigo River in northern Spain, remember that day just after World War II, when all the area farmers were called to a meeting in the center of town.
Spain’s tiny beer industry was in a bind: It could no longer import hops – a key ingredient in beer – from war-devastated Germany. But brewers had spotted wild hops along the Órbigo River, and they had a hunch it could grow on farms too.
“Nobody knew what it was, this plant with flowers,” says Bernardo Llamas, who was eight years old at the time. His father was one of the first to switch his wheat fields to hops.
“It was a gamble,” says Llamas, who is 73 now. “But it turned out to be profitable.”
Fifteen or 20 times more profitable, local farmers say, than growing wheat or corn. Those here who took a chance on hops got rich – and Spain’s fledgling beer industry was saved.
Fast forward 66 years, and the craft beer craze has sent demand for Spanish hops through the roof.
Spain is one of the world’s biggest wine producers. And for centuries, there were only a few brands of beer produced in the country – mostly lager. But the recent boom in craft beer – with 150 new brands, and counting, in the past decade – has been good news to the town of Villanueva del Carrizo (‘Carrizo’ for short), which grows 99 percent of Spain’s homegrown hops.
There’s still only one production factory, a local cooperative, which handles all of the region’s hops – about a million kilos a year.
“This factory was founded in 1945,” says Ignacio Nicolás Campillo, the facility’s director. “Our area of Spain has plenty of water and low humidity. It’s the perfect climate for hops.”
Campillo took The Salt on a tour of huge machines that dry the hops and separate the hop flowers, revealing yellow powder that’s compressed into the pellets which are dissolved into beer. The hops add the sharp sour flavor in most beer.
But the Carrizo factory can’t make those pellets fast enough to meet the demands of a growing industry. Craft beer production jumped 33-percent in Spain last year. In an ironic twist, an international hops firm first founded in Germany, called Hopsteiner, recently bought a controlling stake in the local factory, hoping to boost production, with ten more varieties of hops…
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