A Willy Nice Guy

Earlier this year, we received an invitation to tour Anheuser-Busch’s hop farm in the Hallertau region of Germany. We  were somewhat shocked to be contacted by A-B, but after talking to a few friends, it was definitely something we wanted to do. It didn’t fit into our schedule when we were here in May, but it did fit nicely into this trip.

YiB-9On Monday morning, Willy Buholzer, the Director of European Hop Purchasing and General Manager of Busch Farm Hüll, came to pick us up at our hotel, which was a good thing because I think we would have gotten lost trying to find the farm.

A friendly, down to earth guy, Willy easily chatted with Chris during the drive. Feeling a bit woozy from the previous night’s visit to Oktoberfest, I sat quietly in the back. We passed many hop farms along the way, but almost all had already been harvested and the large telephone poles that hold the hops were bare, but for a few brown dried up stragglers.

We did see several farms with young plants that were not harvested. The small plants, however, were only a fraction of the size that mature plants can grow to and far less impressive. But that was our fault for not being able to fit the tour in earlier in the year.

YiB-9Willy started our tour by pointing out that Busch Farm Hüll is a real working farm, complete with pigs and chickens. After patting the muddy snouts of the pigs and interrupting the morning routine of the chickens, we moved on to the stuff we really came for, the hops.

Everything was somewhat theoretical because their harvest was over, but we did get demonstrations of how the machinery worked. We saw everything from how the hop vines are harvested and stripped of the cones to how they are dried and baled. While the farm only produces a tiny portion of A-B’s hop needs, it is a vital presence in the world’s largest hop growing region.

Then we went across the street to the Hop Research Institute Hüll. The institute is a private/Bavarian state collaboration working independently to develop new varieties of hops that are heartier, more resistant to pests/diseases and with higher yields. The ‘breeder’, as he called himself, gave us the tour and we even got to meet the disease/bug expert who develops ways to combat things like downy mildew and spider mites.

At the institute, we learned everything we ever wanted to know about hops. We saw ‘seeded’ hops, which is not what you want for brewing, and learned about the two different petals on the hop cone. The pointy ones are to protect the cone and the rounded ones hold the seeds. Most importantly, we also were told that if a farmer finds a male plant, by law, he is to kill it immediately in order to avoid the other plants getting seeded.

Back at the farm, we sampled some beers before heading off to an actively harvesting farm and then lunch. We sampled Budweiser brewed with only Hallertau hops, one with only Willamette hops, one with no hops, and finally regular Budweiser. Chris especially liked the Hallertau Bud.

The tour of the still harvesting farm was very cool. We stepped out of the car and it seemed to be snowing hops.

This particular farm was still harvesting for two reasons… first of all, it was the biggest in the region but also, on that day, they were harvesting high alpha hops that take longer to mature.

Here’s the harvesting process in a nutshell. A tractor with a trailer and a special cutting mechanism cuts the vines at the bottom and the vines roll onto the flatbed. The vines then get dropped off at the barn, where people hook the thick stems to a machine that pulls them up. The vines are then pulled into a machine that separates the leaves and stems from the cones. The cones travel to the kiln where they get dried. Once dried, the cones rest to cool off before they are baled. This process all happens within the space of hours.

To see a working hop farm in action was special and the smell was absolutely amazing.

Our time with Willy ended with lunch in the nearby town of Wolznach, also the home of a very impressive-looking Hop Museum. Unfortunately, it was closed.

How can I sum up our day?

Earlier at the farm, Willy had shown us a rough cut of a Michelob commercial that was filmed recently at Busch Farm Hüll. In this commercial, Willy is featured talking about buying hops for Anheuser Busch and what pride he takes in it.  He is the face to a large corporation.

Normally I would find such commercials to be a big guy’s attempt to look small and intimate. But you know what? Willy really is a face of a large corporation. He is a man who was raised around hop farms, takes pride in showing off the farm, and  loves everything hops. Willy even hinted that perhaps some day his 10 year old daughter will replace him, just as he had replaced his father as the hop buyer for Anheuser Busch. Willy is an extremely nice man and I couldn’t think of anyone better to spend several hours with talking about hops.

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