Record hop yield means Czech producers can compete with Germany in foreign markets

Farmers are happily announcing that 2021 has seen the largest harvest of hops in a quarter-century. The record 8,500 ton yield came despite the extreme fluctuations in harvests that Czech producers have experienced in recent years. To find out more about what's going on, I spoke to Jiří Smetana, the vice-chairman of Arix, one of the largest hop producers and traders in Czechia. I began by asking him why hop yields were so high this year.

“This year's almost ideal climatic conditions during the spring and summer periods are mainly to thank for the yield. There was an ideal change in the shower and dry periods, enough sun as well as mild, warm temperatures.”

Although hop production was plentiful this year, hop farmers have been complaining that harvests have been very irregular in recent years. To illustrate, in 2012 there was a harvest of just 4,300 tons, while four years later it was 7,700 tons. Why is that?

“It is closely connected to the very difficult climatic conditions which we have had in the Saaz hop growing region over the past decade.

“Basically, when we do get showers, they are usually concentrated into just a couple of days. This is not enough. So there is not a good distribution of water during the spring and summer seasons.

“This year's almost ideal climactic conditions during the spring and summer periods are mainly to thank for the yield."

“Furthermore, we are even facing climatic features such as hailstorms, strong winds and, this year, even tornados.”

The Czech Republic is among the world’s largest hop producers and most of its hop production is exported, so what does this year’s bountiful harvest mean for you as a hop trader?

“We are the third largest exporter of hops in the world. The biggest hop producer is Germany, followed by the United States. However, we are number one when it comes to the production of fine aroma hops – the famous Saaz region hops.

“Around 75 to 80 percent of the hops [produced in Czechia] are exported to the biggest brewing groups. This season means that, for the first time in six years, our hop reserves will exceed the number to be sold through contracts.

Photo: Ondřej Tomšů,  Radio Prague International

“It is yet to be decided whether these hops will be sold to territories abroad, such as Asia or Russia, or whether they will be stored and sold next year if the crop harvest is not so good then.”

You were saying earlier how much hop production has been fluctuating and that the country is among the world’s largest hop producers. Do these fluctuations have any effect on how much beer is made every year, or does storage make up for these yield differences?

“There are some limitations. We can store the hops as raw hops for perhaps a year, but that’s it.

“Even if we store the hops in air conditioned warehouses, they do end up suffering from biological degradation.

“This basically means that the hops we store can only be used as a reserve for the next year.”

If Czech beer is so widely used in international beers, could you tell us which famous brands use Czech hops?

“Around 75 to 80 percent of the hops [produced in Czechia] are exported to the biggest brewing groups.”

“Good question. Czech hops are usually used in lagers, especially premium lagers. For example, Stella Artois is partly brewed from Czech hops. Japanese beer brands such as Sapporo, Kirin, or Asahi are brewed using Czech hops.

“Then there is the next category, where some breweries in Asia, such as Vietnam or Indonesia, use either German or Czech hops in their premium lagers, depending on the price. It is a similar situation when it comes to Russia.

“This latter group is interesting for us now. In the past, we did not have a big enough harvest to supply these, let’s say, alternative breweries, because of the bad harvests. This year we have the opportunity to compete a little with German hop producers with the price.”

Is there anything that is being done to prevent these harvest fluctuations?

“This year we have the opportunity to compete a little with German hop producers with the price.”

“Pilsner Urquell is working on a project in that respect. Together with Microsoft and the start-up Agritecture, they prepared a plan that was presented just a week ago.

“The aim of this project is to carefully monitor the distribution of the water, as well as other climatic conditions, in the hop gardens. This should measure the health of the hops at all times during any kind of weather.”