The local hops industry | God is Geen talk&tasting

With Antonio Massa, co-founder of Birrificio Valdarno Superiore, and Cosimo Taiti, researcher at Florence University

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An ingredient for which there is a lot of talk but little actual knowledge is hops. In this talk at the God is Green festival, we spoke about the local industry with a master brewer and a researcher from Florence University, looking at sustainability and research.

The hop plant, Humulus lupulus L. is part of the Cannabaceae family of plants, and so a cousin of the prestigious Cannabis, and as such has properties that make it a relaxant and which provide benefits for the nervous system.

It is a hardy and strong climbing plant that loves water. In nature it is found near streams, and often around tall trellises. The part that is used is the female flower which, in addition to aromatising the beer, is also used in medicine and therapy for its calming, antimicrobial and antiseptic properties.

The association between hops and beer comes from a nun who lived in the first part of the Middle Ages. Looking for something that balanced out the sweet taste of the barley malt used to prepare beer, she discovered this precious combination after many attempts with different aromas and spices. Every area had its own local type of hop plant which led to a huge variety in the taste of different beers. The impact of multinational beer companies has led to a homogenisation in the type of hops that are used, causing a loss of differentiation in both the crops that are cultivated and the finished product.

In recent years there has been a resurgence in craft beers, starting in the United States, where hops and fine malts have been rediscovered and craft breweries have come back into favour.

Birrificio Valdarno Superiore, in collaboration with Florence University, is carrying out research on Italian and regionally indigenous hops in order to produce a beer which is closely tied to the Valdarno area and made only using local produce.

They have been carrying out research into hops for around 5 years. At the beginning, fine hop plants were imported into Valdarno from England and America, to see how they changed once they were planted into the new terrain. In the second phase, research was carried out on the Italian territory, alongside trade associations. Several varieties of hops were found in each of the regions. Even if not all of them are suitable for flavouring beer, their wide genetic variety provides hope that among these there will be one that is able to typify the final product.

“When you travel and you ask yourself what the best beer is, the answer is: the one from the area you’re in and uses local ingredients and helps the local economy. What’s more is that collaboration between producers contributes to the creation of a circular economy”

Antonio Massa

The hops plants need a couple of years before they adapt to the terrain and find a balance that produces the same taste year after year, the selection process requires a lot of patience.

The cultivation of hops has a beneficial impact on the environment as their vegetative period is very long and this means that they absorb a lot of carbon dioxide.

The process of beer production creates a large amount of vegetable waste – given its high content of antioxidants, nitrogen and potassium – and in order to find ways of reusing this, BVS and Florence University are experimenting with the use of this waste as a means of improving soil for the cultivation of plants and flowers.