Wolves, foxes and dragons

Richard Croasdale explores Slovenia’s world-renowned hop gardens, and discovers why their harvest is so prized


I bid Nova Gorica goodbye, as Andrej and I head east, toward the capital, Ljubljana, and Slovenia’s prime hop-growing region. The journey is beautiful, and the hop gardens, once you’re in their midst, are lush, verdant and unbelievably dense. In fact, the only place in the world with a greater concentration of hop output is Washington State’s legendary Yakima Valley.

Slovenia may not be on the tip of every craft beer-lover’s tongue when it comes to hop production – at least not in the same way that Czechia, the US and Germany might be – but the tiny country has a serious and proud tradition of hop farming, and is in fact the fifth largest producer in the world. 

Much of this prominence is down to the work of the Slovenian Institute of Hop Research and Brewing, one of the foremost organisations of its kind anywhere in the world. Although it was officially established in 2002 by the Slovenian state, its work goes all the way back to 1952, when the region’s forward-thinking hop growers realised that, to be internationally competitive in the long term, they needed to collectively invest in developing new and better varieties of their own. 

Selected to grow well in the particular conditions found in Slovenia, Styrian hops don’t fare well in other regions, and likewise attempts to grow foreign hops in Slovenia have not been particularly successful. For this reason, just over 90% of Slovenia’s total crop harvest is made up of varieties developed by the Institute.

The Institute’s current catalogue, built up over the decades, falls into two groups: ‘traditional’ varieties – which make up around 80% of the harvest – and ‘flavour’ varieties, which are closer to what we in the UK would term ‘aroma’ hops, rich in juicy, floral volatile oils. The main characteristic that sets Slovenian, or ‘Styrian’ hops apart from their European neighbours is their high concentrations of linalool, an essential oil that – depending on how the hop is used – imparts an sweet, lavender-like around, with a hint of citrus.

The institute’s director Martina Zupančič, says: “All the varieties fill into this aroma spectrum. If you compare comparable varieties like German Magnum and Slovenian Dana, the main difference between them is the concentrations of linolol are much higher in the Slovenian variety. Magnum you just use as a bittering variety, whereas Dana is dual-purpose – you can use it for bitterness, and in late-hopping for aroma. That’s common in Slovenian varieties - they’re almost all dual-purpose”.

It follows that the rise of the global craft movement has created new opportunities for Slovenia, as brewers look to use its hops in different ways.

Martina continues: “We are happy that US craft has flooded the whole world, because we all benefit from this I think, from the hop growers, to the brewers and consumers. We’ve always had quite a big breeding programme here - one of the biggest I think, worldwide - so we had the material in our collection to look at what the market wanted and start breeding towards that. We selected based on aroma, and on the other side always looking at resistance and yield so the farmers are satisfied too.” 

Slovenian breweries like Reservoir Dogs increasingly interested in showcasing the unique character of native hops – for example, in the Lone Wolf single-hop IPA in this month’s Beer52 box – but interestingly only 5% of the country’s hop harvest is used domestically; another way in which this tiny country is unique.

“The result of this high export to all parts of the world is that Slovenian varieties have always been selected for their natural resistance to diseases and pests,” says Andreja Cerenak, who runs the Institute’s hop breeding programme. “Each country we export to has its own regulations on what chemicals can be used on imported ingredients, so we can only rely on a very narrow range of universally accepted pesticides. This concept – known as integrated plant protection – was partly pioneered by the Slovenian hop industry, and is now used in other areas of agriculture across the world.”

Leaving the institute, we head straight for the neighbouring town of Žalec, where Andrej is keen to show me a public ‘beer fountain’. Assuming that something has been lost in translation, I’m surprised to see, in pride of place in a square on the town’s main street, a crescent-shaped piece of granite, into which has been set six stainless steel automated beer taps. Thirsty townspeople (or, let’s face it, the busloads of tourists who flock to see this marvel) pay a few Euro for a glass with a chip embedded in its base. The chip – which is good for six pours – is then read by the tap, and beer dispensed with cool, machine-age efficiency.

Wonderfully, the whole thing was built using the tax windfall the local council received from a resident who won the Slovenian lottery. When it was first installed in Žalec, kegs were tapped and replaced by means of a huge cylindrical platform, which rose out of the ground next to the taps. This was abandoned in favour of a hatch and a set of steps down into the cellar, after an unlucky attendant was trapped underground in the mechanism for several hours.

A few of the beers on tap when I visited (they change regularly) were lovely and refreshing, while several others were objectively terrible. But, at the end of the day, it’s a robot-operated public beer fountain, so I have no serious complaints.

Striking out to the north, we leave Slovenia’s best-established hop hotspot and drive for another hour or so, to a region whose hop gardens are less prominent, but which many believe is now producing some of the country’s finest product. Andrej has brought me to the home and family farm of Mihael Vitko and his partner Klara Mirkac, who supply Reservoir Dogs, to see for myself.

In this particular area, Mihael is one of four hop farmers, each of whom has around 10 hectares, with around 10,000 plants per hectare. His crop is mostly Styrian Golding, with some Aurora and new flavour varieties including Styrian Wolf, Styrian Dragon and Styrian Fox. The business is a true family affair, with Mihael’s father and brother working alongside him.

“The standard of Slovenian hops is very high everywhere – we’re not doing anything particularly different here,” says Mihael. “Some farmers started growing non-Slovenian hops but they saw it wasn’t the same. Soil, environment, weather… It’s so different compared to any other growing region. In my opinion, we should grow in each country only the hops that were bred to grow in that country, because they’ve been selected over time.

“There is still innovation though, particularly from the younger generation of farmers, who are trying to add value. The first goal is to increase the output per hectare. That means doing soil tests, nitrogen tests and looking carefully each week for pests and disease. Then we have to choose exactly the right time to harvest, and make sure we kiln at the proper temperature.”

Although he agrees that Slovenian hops have an excellent global reputation, Mihael says the market is still fiercely competitive, and success requires a total commitment to quality and attention to detail.

“The Hop Storage Index has really helped brewers understand the quality of the hops they’re buying,” he says. “So when the world is full of hops, all brewers can cherry-pick, and they want the best. If you want to be competitive, you have to make the best. And that means things like cold storage, or even a complete cold chain from the hop grower to the brewer like they have in the states, as well as palletising in a nitrogen atmosphere; anything you can do to ensure the hops arrive in the best condition.”

Still chatting, we head out for a bite to eat with Mihael and Kalra. Then, as the sun sets over the rolling hills surrounding then farm, we set off back to the capital of Ljuljana, for one last pint before I head east again, alone, bound for Croatia.

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