Growing hops isn’t like growing a summer vegetable garden. When you grow a vegetable garden, you harvest all of your food before the earth starts tilting away from the sun and your plants all die. I’ll admit that statement is a bit northern-hemisphere-centric. To rephrase: Where I live, the vegetable plants all die in the winter. Hops though, only appear to die. Their long, wiry tentacles turn brown and wilt as the temperatures cool, however underground, their roots act much more like a tree, laying dormant during the winter. When spring comes around they shoot out new vines, more potent than the previous year’s while simultaneously expanding their root systems. With vines that yearn to climb as high as they possibly can, covering anything and everything one could easily conceive of a horror movie featuring the hops plants slowly, photosynthetically encroaching on civilization. Back in reality, a decent pair of gardening shears can put a quick end to more than 20-foot high vines with a quick clip at the base.
After last year’s success we decided to relocate the area dedicated to growing the hops destined for the brewery in an area that would allow for the expansion of an additional 15 to 20 plants. In March of 2019, together with a mixed group of locals and some American students on the study abroad program that I work for, we prepared soil and planted about 20 new plants. We also carefully transplanted last year’s plants to the new area.
Other than the amount of plants another major difference between this year and last year was rain. I don’t think that I can call myself a farmer, but through this project I have gained new perspective with regards to weather and new respect for farmers and how much they depend on the rain. Last year it rained a TON in the early summer months which is not that common for Tuscany, but it was great for the hops. We also laid plenty of layers of mulch to keep the moisture down and there was plenty water for the hops to thrive. This year was much, much hotter and dryer. The area where we have the plants is ideal as it sits at the bottom of a basin-like valley. All of the water drains down, to where our plants are but doesn’t stagnate there (which would be bad news for our hops). Again we had plenty of mulch piled on top of the roots, but I was worried that the plants would still need more water. Remember that this is a volunteer project in its initial stages. We don’t have a budget for an irrigation system, however there was a way to bring some water to the plants.
The Sienese built vast systems of underground aqueducts that span for kilometers underneath the city. The first of these was finished around the year 1100. These aqueducts tap into large deposits of rainwater that lie all around the countryside that surrounds Siena. The medieval Sienese took the idea of making water go downhill and dug tunnels to link the deposits of rainwater to a handful of “fountains” that are more like artificial springs inside the city walls. Needless to say, this was an extremely important development for the city during its early history. Incredibly, these tunnels are still intact today and even more amazing is that the water flows, slowly but steadily into the fountains just as it did 900 years ago.
One of these fountains is located about 120 meters from where we have our hops. The water was there. The problem was how to get it to the hops. I had to go old school. All summer I found myself hiking down to the bottom of the valley, filling up buckets of water from the medieval fountain, and hauling them over to the hops. While it may sound romantic, believe me, after a few trips, the romanticism fades quickly.
After a long, hot summer, once again we had hops! There were 9 of us on harvest day, all volunteers with the Associazione Le Mura. With sweat pouring off of us (but not onto the hops!) we picked 2 kg of hops off of the vines. I immediately drove the fresh hops to the brewery and left them in the able hands of Francesco, head brewer at the Birrificio Agricolo La Diana. As I write this, the beer isn’t ready yet, but our contribution to the batch is almost three times what it was last year. Together with the hops produced by Giacomo Gori on the nearby Monte Amiata, hopefully there will be more beer to go around for everyone.
Soon, it’s possible that La Diana will produce a beer using only the hops frown inside Siena’s ancient walls. I’m pretty proud of this project and it’s an amazing feeling to witness an idea go from a thought in my mind to something that grows (literally and figuratively) into something that generates a positive impact for numerous organizations and the city where I live.