28. Hops In Wine Country

I’ve written before about my work volunteering with the “Le Mura” organization in a previous entry.  Here’s a brief summary of what we do for those who don’t feel like reading a whole entry from months ago:

  1. Siena’s medieval walls are falling apart.  We attempt to stave off the inevitable march of time by clearing away the ivy and other plants that threaten to end the wall’s 700-year run of existence.
  2. There are areas near and adjacent to the walls that are totally abandoned.  We don’t think that this is cool.  We do our best to clean them up and come up with creative and useful ways to use these spaces.

Point two there is the focal point for this entry.  There are 5 huge green areas within medieval city center of Siena (so, on the inside of the walls).  These were extremely important during medieval times.  The city needed farmland on the inside of the city in case one of their many enemies set siege to the city.  Siege is an approach to warfare where invading armies would surround the city they wished to conquer and wait, sometimes for months, until everyone on the inside had either starved to death, or was close enough to starvation that they surrendered.  Medieval times were not friendly times.

Back to the present.  The city of Siena deserves compliments where they are due and it is certainly laudable that these green areas have remained pristine oases for centuries.  Today, more than half of the total green space is used for parks, by community organizations, and for gardens.  However there are still significant amounts of space that are unused and in the worst cases, abandoned.

It was in one of the abandoned spaces more than a year ago where we were clearing out a path to reach the walls when I noticed hops plants poking up through the undergrowth.  As a super-amateur homebrewer of medium (and occasionally high) quality beer, I recognized the plant as identical to the plants that I had planted in my own garden a few years prior.  The more I looked, the more that I saw!  There is an entire valley inside to Siena’s walls that is teeming with wild hops.

Most wild hops in Tuscany taste like garlic.  Even the most pretentious of hipsters would admit that while garlic, though original, it is not a desired taste in a beer.  I suggested to other members of our organization that we ask permission from the city to plant a few “tasty” hops plants, to see if they’d grow (the abandoned area we were working on is owned by the city).  We asked.  Permission was granted.  It’s unclear whether they actually understood what we were asking, but they gave us the green light as long at didn’t not put any permanent structures in place.

For those of you who don’t know about hops, they are flowers that grow on vines.  The vines grow straight up and can climb any rope, stick, or other plant that they can find all the way up to 5 meters.  The ideal height for hops is around 4 to 5 meters.   Hops are a natural preservative.  They won out through the years as the tastiest preservative for beer, over things like juniper berries, rosemary and loads of other natural preservatives.  There are hundreds of varieties of hops and each of them can add their own, unique flavor to beer.  These flavors can range from citrus, to piney, to spicy, and much more.  Depending on how they are used in the brewing process, they can add either bitter or aromatic flavors and sometimes both.

We needed poles.  As luck would have it someone, whose identity is forever lost in time, planted a bunch of bamboo in the same valley where we found the wild hops.  Today there is a full-on bamboo forest that boasts stalks rising up to 7 and 8 meters.  Again, with permission from the city we cut down 6 bamboo shoots that would serve as poles from which to hang a string for the hops to climb.

We got our hands on some non-garlic-tasting hops thanks to an acquaintance that I’d made in the local homebrewing community in the region.  He grows hops on the nearby Mount Amiata, and was more than willing to give me some rhyzomes (a fancy word for roots).

We planted them.  They grew.  Then we had hops!  We harvested just under one kg of hops.  We are well aware that hops plants in their first year don’t produce to their full capacity and that the flowers don’t reach their full potency.  Nonetheless, a local craft brewery was willing to take a chance and dumped our hops into a one-time-batch of beer.  Our contribution of hops this year was more symbolic than anything as professional breweries use much more than 1 kg of hops per batch.  The “La Diana” brewery produces roughly 500 liters of beer per batch and can use up to 20 kg of hops per batch.  Our goal as a volunteer organization was never to become hops farmers, but rather to find creative ways to reutilize abandoned space.  I’m pretty proud of what we accomplished with this little project and I learned a lot about hops, brewing, and working with local government.  It’s possible that it could turn into something more productive.  We’ll see!

Soon in mid-September, the beer containing our homegrown hops will be officially sold and a portion of the money earned will be donated to our organization.  I can’t wait to taste the fruits of more than a year’s labor!

Here are some pictures start to finish of the project.  The medieval wall can be seen in many of the pictures:

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