“It’s the king of strains”: Žatec hops make UNESCO list

Žatec hop harvest

The northern town of Žatec and surrounding hop-growing landscape have just been granted UNESCO World Heritage status, becoming the 17th Czech entry on the list. Žatec is called Saaz in German and its distinctive Saaz hops are what have earned it this accolade. But what makes these hops so special? I spoke with the Prague-based US beer and travel writer Evan Rail.   

Žatec hop farm | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

“They’re just really high quality, in terms of the aroma and flavour, and they have been for about a thousand years. They’ve been prized around the world – especially around Europe – for their really delicate, gentle aroma.

“Hops can be quite strong, even overbearing, but they refer to this aroma of Saaz hops as really ‘noble’. There are only four, or arguably five, noble hop strains in the world, and Saaz is the king of them.”

Are most of these Saaz hops exported, or are they used here in Czechia?

“I actually don’t know the answer to that question. But I can tell you this: They are prized so much by people around the world that every year there’s a contingent of Japanese brewers, from some of the big Japanese brew houses, who come over and select their Saaz hops, right there in Žatec. They come and select them by what’s called ‘rubbing’ – they actually sense the aromas and decide which batch they want.

Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

“And for years Anheuser-Busch in the United States used to boast that it was the world’s largest consumer of Saaz hops; even in the hops museum in Žatec there’s a big billboard from Anheuser-Busch in the US, boasting about how much Saaz hops they use.”

Typically are they used on their own, or are they used with other hops? Would you get an average beer that would use a little bit of Saaz hops?

“Yes, there’s a really well-known Belgian lager, it’s known around the world [laughs]. And in the ‘50s and ‘60s truckloads of Saaz hops went from Žatec to Belgium, just for this Belgian lager. Nowadays they still buy Saaz hops, but they buy much less than they used to. They make much more beer than they used to, they just make up for it; they only use Saaz hops for aroma and for bitterness they use cheaper hops.”

Žatec | Photo: Ondřej Hájek,  ČTK

I haven’t been to Žatec. What's the town like?

“Oh, the town’s kind of lovely – I was just there on Sunday. I was watching the movie Jojo Rabbit with my family and we were laughing, because it’s supposed to be a German village but you can see really clearly it’s not a German village – it’s a Czech village [laughs]. And we had to go look it up in the middle of the movie and that village was Žatec. That’s the town.

“It’s kind of a nice little place. The Ohře River runs right through it and the hop fields, or hop yards, grow on either side of the river and up the hills. So it’s really kind of a nice setting.

Žatec | Photo: Gabriela Hauptvogelová,  Czech Radio

“It’s really an interesting place as well because the earth is very typically dark red, a rusty red. And that’s part of what contributes to the taste and aroma of Saaz hops. It’s this particular landscape.

“You know, genetically Czech hops, Saaz hops, are almost identical to German hops. They’re more or less the same plant. But because of the way they are grown, and the place where they are grown, that very special Ohře river valley surrounding Žatec, the hops come out with this very unique, charismatic aroma that is really just very special, and unrivalled by anything else in the world.”

Local politicians are saying this recognition could help the region. Can this kind of status be a boon to town or city?

Žatec | Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

“Yes, I think so. Just this last week I met a group of Brazilians who had spent about 10 days here [laughs], and they had come all the way from Blumenau in southern Brazil to go to Dočesná, the hop harvest festival in Žatec, and then wander around Prague and Plzeň and taste beers and visit breweries. If you had told me 10 years ago that Brazilians would be heading to Žatec, I would have been surprised. But that’s what’s happening nowadays. I think it could be a big boon for part of the Czech Republic that’s a little bit overlooked.”

Finally, is this UNESCO status a kind of recognition of Czech beer?

“It is… You know, there is an argument to make Czech beer part of the intangible cultural patrimony of the world, on the UNESCO list of intangibles, which it is not yet. This is a specific landscape and a specific culture and a place that is tangible [laughs]. And I think this is a half-way step towards that other goal. But Czech beer is very special and Czech hops have been, for at least a thousand years, the world’s best.”