Down by the River — The Hop Farmers of Spain's Órbigo Valley
Unlike arid, ochre Murcia or Castile, Spain’s Órbigo Valley is verdant. The area is riven with hundreds of ancient irrigation channels, each of which brings cool water from the meandering Órbigo River to the land that needs it most. In the hop fields, tangles of leaves reach up into the hot, dry air and out, further and further into the valley in endless furrows of deep, luxurious green.
These bines were what gave this area back its prosperity after the devastation of war. Small-scale hop production on cooperative farms quickly and quietly became the region’s main money-maker after the end of WWII. A spike of intense commercial interest in the 2000s saw multinational hop producers gain control of more than 95% of the hop-growing industry within the space of just two or three years. Now, independent Spanish brewers have turned their heads this way. With their fierce pride and wild ideas, they’re using beer to bring back the Órbigo Valley’s local identity.
Juan Carlos’ hop-harvesting machine has filled the lupulin-rich air of Villamor de Órbigo with industrial rattlings and rumblings every September for more than 30 years. Before then, his family took in the year’s hop harvest by hand—first pulling down the tall helixes of bines, then ripping each cone off individually and stuffing them into burlap sacks, ready to be shipped far away.
Out on the field behind Juan Carlos’ home, the sun forms mirage pools in the deforested space where 12-foot-tall rows of hops once stood. It’s around 2 p.m., and we have arrived in time to help bring in the final portion of their harvest. The rest was completed in a single morning by three generations of hop growers in 32-degree heat. Apparently it’s “not that hot.”
Stood on the roof of a tractor, Juan Carlos’ father shades his eyes and overlooks his crop. A hedgerow-height bundle of twisted bines creeps steadily across the dusty ground in front of him and into the darkness of the family’s only barn, a searingly white, windowless building topped with terracotta tiles. This is where the hop-harvesting machine lives.
The machine that Juan Carlos’ family relies on is a rusty-red marvel of pistons and toothy, greased-up gears. Groaning and straining in its corner, it shudders to the beat of its belt-driven heart, complaining heavily about a hard day’s work.
As we watch, a lolling green tongue of hop bines is dragged into the machine’s mouth, inside which a sophisticated picking mechanism of soft plastic brushes plucks the hops gently but efficiently from their stalks. This part is covered by a rubber flap, and I’m glad I can’t peek inside—I imagine pearly-white teeth chomping steadily away with a shudder. As a final indignity, mangled, hopless branches are diligently pulled from the machine’s rear-end into giant bundles by Grandma, in her sun-proof dressing gown.
Precious hops rumble along a conveyor belt and are then hauled up worn stone steps in sacks and dumped out into the barn’s attic. This attic, with its slatted, wooden floors and dark, cobwebbed corners, is where the family’s hops have been cured for more than 80 years. Unlike the bleached outdoors, it’s breezy in here. The air smells of hay and freshly cut grass.
“We can’t fix modern machines when they break,” Juan Carlos says through a translator, shrugging his shoulders.
My translator and tour guide is Paco Gutiérrez, owner of local independent hop company The Spanish Yard, and a main instigator of the Órbigo Valley hop-growing cooperative.
“A newer machine has one button to get the work done—that’s true,” says Paco, “But when something goes wrong, they need specialist engineers to fix it, who come all the way from Nuremberg. It’s hard for people to understand why that’s better.”
Paco’s expression rarely changes from a smile, but often that smile is mischievous. He likes to get you worked up about things. Inside his head is an empire built on the Órbigo Valley’s industry, and he’ll talk in detail about his Magnum crop before striding off towards a speech about biodiversity, or the virtues of Fuggles, without warning.
He’s passionate about preserving local culture, and believes that entrepreneurs have a responsibility to maintain local economic stability and to create jobs using traditional methods and skills. But he also believes that drawing from aspects of the outside world will enrich the area he loves, and will force it to grow. That’s where his craft brewery Four Lions comes in.
“Changing industry changes people’s lives,” he says, paraphrasing Juan Carlos, who had returned to the important job of completing his harvest.
“There are 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, but for who? For the Swiss bank, perhaps, but not for my region. Not for my way of life.”
It’s easy to believe the cliché, that the Órbigo Valley’s remote towns and villages are populated by people surviving on tough self-sufficiency, but that’s not the case at all. Until the 2010s, only two companies grew 99% of all the region’s hops. In 2018, 1,000 tons of Nugget were grown and harvested by Barth-Hass and Hopsteiner within just a 30km radius. It’s huge.
A very small fraction of these Spanish hops are kept within their country of origin. Local growers working as part of the Órbigo Valley hop-production co-operative grow, pick, and sell around 10 tons of Columbus, Chinook, Magnum, Summit, Fuggles, and Nugget every year, which adds up to 1% of the market. It’s not a hefty operation, but Paco and the growers he works with believe it’s better 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. Paco is working with biologists at the University of León to develop an entirely Spanish strain of commercially-viable hops descended from wild specimens he collected by the Órbigo River, as well as research ecological ways to help hops resist fungal infections. (One avenue they’re currently looking into involves the use of locally made wine vinegar.)
Every conversation with Paco leads to political discussion. Back in León after our day in the fields, he invites us to join him around the dinner table at his brewery in the centre of the city. Despite the language barrier, lively discussions about “people’s beer” continue for hours. He tells us about an event he hosted here, during which Órbigo Valley hop growers were able to taste beer that their hops had helped craft. They’d never experienced a connection with the crops they grew before that point—never knew of their high quality, or their status as a specialist product. Before joining the cooperative, they didn’t expect their hops to remain in Spain.
“Beer is a product for the people,” he says. “Big companies don’t see the worth in connections, don’t want people to continue to work in this way. When people like Juan Carlos know their hops are essential to making good beer here in León, they feel proud that they’re part of something good that our region is creating.”
There has been a bridge over the Órbigo River in Hospital de Órbigo since at least the year 456, and its name, Passo Honroso, comes from a legend of knights jousting for honour under its white arches. From above, the water looks calm and clear, and I can see deep patches of river weeds waving lazily with the current.
Upstream, a fisherman waits patiently, waist-deep, casting for rainbow trout. Behind him is a thick canopy of trees as the river bends to the right, and behind that, the grey peaks of the Cantabrian Mountains line the horizon to the north. Six camino pilgrims, with scallop shells dangling, pass by while I take in the beauty of this place. Hundreds of years ago, their crossing would have been protected by the Knights of Malta.
Everything here begins with the river. Paco explains that its waters are ice-cold, which helps keep the plants’ roots cool overnight. He traces his hand over the landscape to the top of an imaginary hop bine.
“Just like in Washington or Oregon,” he says, “the cold nights move into a hot, sunny day. The hops can wake up quickly and grow faster.”
A short drive out of Hospital de Órbigo is the river’s watershed, where conservation projects have, since the 1980s, worked to preserve its waters. As Paco walks with me through his neighbour’s hop fields (“They won’t mind, they have a good crop to look at”) and around the reservoir, we talk about climate change and how Spain is rapidly becoming a land of extreme weather.
“Andalucía is becoming a desert, and hot southern weather is moving north,” he said. “Farmers are trying out different crops in unusual and different areas to cope with new conditions. I’m looking at how to grow hops that use less water, and can withstand hotter temperatures.”
As we speak, we watch fat, black-finned fish trail gracefully through the dark water, sending bubbles up to the surface with every movement. The slender trunks of fallen pine trees litter the lake floor, shadowy and distorted. Spurred on by the view, we discuss how water conservation is a priority for everyone, even in the water-rich Órbigo Valley, and how the area may one day have to learn to live without it.
It’s hard to imagine a barren wilderness here. Even so, the reservoir is low, and long-legged birds flap irritably on a stony bank ahead of us. Two months earlier, all of this was submerged by water channelled in from the heavy winter rains. I smell my hands, in search of the faintest scent of the wet hops I’d rubbed between them earlier in the afternoon. I savour it, and turn away from the river back onto the road.
This feature is adapted from a piece originally published on Katie’s blog, The Snap and the Hiss. Our thanks to The Spanish Yard for providing our writer with accommodation and making this feature possible.