Craft and local - with Jordi Sánchez Puig of Lupulina


'I have intolerance to slackers. And to fascists'. With this forcefulness, Eusebi Sánchez replies to me after getting to know my own -food- intolerances. At 72, and after a lifetime of high physically demanding work, he is the most intense and tireless worker in Lupulina, a small family business in Cassà de la Selva dedicated to the cultivation of hops, founded by his son Jordi in 2013.

Graduate biologist, and 30 years younger than his father, in the midst of the past economic downturn he wonders why the raw materials used by local craft breweries, especially hops, come from foreign places. In light of that he decides to start a project to supply regular native products at reasonable costs, while promoting the local economy. Six years later, he dedicates all of his working time to his company, getting very few hours of sleep in summer. Of course, Eusebi cannot reproach him for anything.


‘The thing that makes a craft brewery different is its attitude, but also its raw materials'


Accompaniment and distinction



The local microbrewing movement had already started before the big financial turmoil had a deep impact on the domestic and home economies, although the social context it caused turned out to be a turning point for many people, who decided to start over within the beer industry. Jordi began producing homemade beer with Lluís Frigola, his partner's brother, who introduced him to the practice, and with whom he delved into the discovery of local craft beer in the best possible way: by drinking it in the few existing bars of that time.

At a time when there were around 15 factories with brewing license in Catalonia -seven years later, the figure has multiplied by eight-, Jordi decides to combine his growing passion with his experience and training in biology, developing in 2013 a pilot plantation with 150 hop plants of 10 different varieties.

His vision: to accompany the craft beer movement by supplying raw material, with the will to regularly provide producers with good value locally grown hops. At that time, it was not an easy task for brewers to get the same hop varieties in adequate quantities to give continuity to some of their recipes.

In turn, in a context of deep recession, the promotion of the local economy was another stimulus for the project, although Jordi's initiative included an additional layer that has nothing to do with economics, but with his understanding of craftsmanship: 'The thing that makes a craft brewery different is its attitude, but also its raw materials'.


Hop farming in Girona


Starting a hop farm from scratch is not only complex but also very slow, partly because it is an annual cycle plant. 'Had I just wanted to cultivate the land, I would have done the same thing that my neighbours do. My motivation was to engage in an innovation project'.

After considering the pilot as successful, he launched a survey among craft brewers to find out which hop varieties were most interesting for production. Choosing the 12 most voted varieties, Lupulina expands its farming area to 0.6 hectares in 2014, and right at the start of the harvest season an open doors day is organised to publicise the project. With more than 100 people from the industry turning up, Jordi's expectations were far from exceeded.

During the third and fourth year of its lifespan, the farm is extended to 1.2 hectares, while efforts are especially focused on those hop varieties that deliver better results -namely, Cascade and Chinook-.

Multiplying by four the area of ​​the first commercial farm, hop plants currently extend over 2.4 hectares, to which 2,000 meters of experimental plot have to be added. It is expected that the production in 2019 will move between 1,500 and 2,000 kg of certified ecological hops, with a potential figure of 2,500 kg per year if all the plots are productive.


Year after year, Jordi has been improving processes to 'make things more comfortable. I wouldn't say mechanised, because it's still a very manual job'. For instance, it has only been a year and a half since he acquired the tractor, which allows to slowly move between the rows to pick up the plants and place them in the car without stopping. Previously, a power tiller had been used to drag a small carriage in and out of the field, which naturally led to a greater number of trips to load and unload hop plants. Even more at the beginning, hop cones were collected one by one, by hand, directly from the field.

'Every year is totally different here' says Jordi in a tone of voice that betrays the difficulty of maintaining a different work dynamic in each cycle, but also an unmistakable mix between joy and pride for the challenge it entails.

Six years later, he states that the main challenge still is growing a plant that has never been grown in the area: ‘you have to find the varieties that work, in addition to finding the right technique to make them work. This is different in every country. Without going any further, if you want to plant Nugget hops from León here you have to use different cultivation techniques, because the climate is not the same and consequently the plants have different needs'.


Craft: family and beyond


Jordi complies perfectly with the profile of the one-man band, being the only full-time worker in this project. But as in any small company in the industry friends, and especially family, play a very important role.

Eusebi, his father and right arm, helps him in the plantation, the assembly of the structure and in each of the past and future farm extensions. His two sisters, Nuri and Glòria, in addition to his political family and friends, join in for the harvest. And of course there is Maria, her partner, whose support is not limited to every possible task in the farm, but also extends to the emotional -and even economic- support that entrepreneurships require.

One could say that I am Lupulina, but he'd be missing that there are many people behind it, without whose help this would not have taken hold'.

Outside of his intimate circle, especially in recent years, he has been temporarily helped by other people. In spring, he hired staff for the plantation, in collaboration with a local foundation for agricultural and forestry works, which supports the labour insertion of workers. This summer, for the harvest, he has had some French students of a course on hop farming. I worked, on my recent visit, with three of them, each aspiring to set up a hop farm in a different place in French geography in the near future.

It is a very seasonal job. In April-May you have the first peak of work, and naturally in August-September just can't stop'. But winters are also intense, especially with the set up of new structures and irrigation in each of the extensions. Jordi has no spare time at all, since in addition to farming he is in charge of the administrative and commercial tasks, plus the constant learning, training and exchange in which he involves.


The latter is an important part of his work. Just like with microbrewers, it is key to build good relationships within the scene. As an example, it was through Robin Barden -head brewer of Edge Brewing- and Julian Herrington -ex brewmaster of Shepherd Neame for 15 years and part of the Meantime Brewing Co team until retirement- that he could recently meet Dr. Peter Darby and visit the Wye Hops gardens in the United Kingdom.

But the scene comprises not only his customers -microbreweries-, distribution companies or bars, but also the other raw material suppliers that operate locally. There are currently 5 active commercial small-scale hop farming projects in Catalonia -Lo Vilot, Catalana de Llúpol, Cooperativa de Prades, BioLupulus and Lupulina-, the people behind which meet once a year at the Festa Collita -Harvest Party- organised in Montferri.

The mood between them is comparable to the camaraderie that is generally found among craft brewers. ‘We talk, share experiences, discuss techniques... We see each other less often than brewers, because they have beer festivals, but when we meet we drown our sorrows together'.


Native product


Beyond his will to provide locally grown products, since the very first year Jordi has as a parallel project, consisting on the development of native hop varieties in the 2,000 meters experimental field he has on the farm.

He distinguishes between the farming of local wild plants, from which he makes a selection in nature, looking for those that grow best in the field and have a more attractive aromatic profile; and the crossings between local wild plants with commercial varieties that grow well in his surroundings, which allow him to develop new varieties with both a good adaptation and a genuine native character. The official beer of the last Barcelona Beer Festival, Hops & Hopes 2019, was in fact brewed using these experimental varieties.

However, there is little time left outside of the farm, and to develop this kind of projects in a more decisive way other actors must be involved, especially technology centres. And public funding has to be found, but of course it does not abound.

I ask Jordi if it makes sense to speak, for example, of 'Cascade hops' as if it was some generic product, when its properties depend among many other factors on weather, the land where it has grown or the farming techniques used for it.

It really is too generalist. Scientifically, you have to talk about varieties and families, but in terms of raw material you should stress value of where and how it has been produced. We have a lot to learn from our wine colleagues: they have a clear understanding that two wines using the same grape variety can be very different'.

Some brewers know the importance of terroir in the ingredients. Jordi cites the example of Kjetil Jikiun, famous founder of the Norwegian brewery Nøgne Ø and currently dedicated to his exciting project Solo Beer on the island of Crete, who was invited to Lupulina in 2017 to make fresh hop beer along with Whym's head brewer Francesc López.


He knew in advance what varieties we were going to work with, but he didn't propose any recipe until he could evaluate the hops in the farm’. Noting a distinctive spicy profile on the Chinook hops he was harvesting, Kjetil proposed Jordi and Francesc to brew using yeast with a Belgian profile. They had never considered making a Belgian Strong Ale with fresh hops, but the result was impressive. I can corroborate it.

This same year Soma, one of the most popular local breweries right now, released a Double IPA called This Chinook Is Different, which claimed the differences between this variety of hops cultivated by Lupulina with respect to its ‘American brother’. Reinforcing the message, the colourful label could read ‘This Is Not America’.

But Jordi believes that the industry, as a whole, is still far from a stage where relevance is given to the origin, the crop or distinctive features of raw materials produced under a certain set of conditions.

The brewer should taste the product first, and then decide what he does with it. But we are still far from it, this would actually be a second step. The first step would be for the brewer to decide that he wants to brew with native hops'.

It is amazing, in this sense, to see that it is the craft brewers themselves the ones who seem not to fully appreciate the potential that native hops present to develop distinctive beers, when it was them in the first place the ones who claimed the differential fact of their products with respect to mass produced beers.

'We can't make better Belgian beer than Belgians, we have to make a genuine product' says Jordi, who always had in mind when he started hop farming the opportunity that it means for brewers to develop unique recipes. 'The differential element of the Pyrenean cheese maker is that he uses the milk from the herd that grazes and feeds in those fields'.


With a sufficiently large and developed local market, it is surprising to see that only 20% of Lupulina's sales are made in Catalonia. Approximately 30% more goes to the rest of the Spanish State, and half of the production ends up travelling to other countries, mainly to France. ‘I have never had a complaint about the quality of the product, quite the opposite. Nor has price so far been a reason for anyone'.

One of the disadvantages is that small-scale hop farming cannot keep up with the stifling pace of hype and single-batch recipes. Another potential factor that can explain this situation is the bond of hop contracts with hops suppliers. ‘Two years ago there was an alleged hop production crisis, and many brewers secured their supplies through contracts. Some of them have their refrigerating chambers full of hops'.


Epilogue


While in other parts of the world personal -and even professional- bonds are especially developed in a bar, or by doing outdoor activities, in Catalonia this is made around a table. The greatest display of courtesy being when this table is from one's own home.

Mom always prepares lunch; she likes cooking. And when so many people come to help you, the least  you can do is to prepare a good meal'. This is how, after a day of physical work in the farm, we find shelter in the farmhouse of Maria's family and eat all together.

Eusebi, inexhaustible during the morning, taking on the leadership when required, takes a seat at the end of the table and adopts a more casual and reactive role, occasionally taking advantage of gaps in the general conversation -a trilingual mixture between Catalan, Spanish and French- to tell stories. Beside him, after preparing the food for the workers to fill up their batteries, Montse remains discreet but attentive.

At the other end Nuri and Jordi are cheerfully speaking to everyone, while the French students, who seem thirsty for knowledge and new experiences, fire questions at will. Maria, who arrives later, joins the conversation while taking over as the hostess of the house.

As for me, I'm halfway between them all: savouring the context, with precise interventions and some more individualised talk, while taking mental notes. When I see empty glasses, I offer to fill them from the keg that is tapped in the kitchen, an Ales Agullons 53 Aniversari, from the numbered annual series that commemorates the birthday of head brewer Carlos Rodríguez, and which is made using hop varieties from the experimental crop at Lupulina.

As I drink, I can't help but think that this beer is to English tradition as De la Senne's Taras Boulba is to Belgian tradition. With the brands' trademark drinkability, the scent of citrus fruits is delicate like those hop flowers that, in my different tasks during the day, have caressed my hands with the softness of a wool pullover, in clear contrast to a powerful, durable bitter taste that enhances the refreshing sensation on this hot summer day.


I twist the delicious spaghetti frutti di mare that Montse has prepared between the fork's teeth, with the bitterness of the beer still fresh on my palate. Looking at the face of the people around me I become aware of their chunk of responsibility in the moment of pleasure that I am living. That they are giving me. Beyond it, I also think of the people who will enjoy this same bitterness that I sense in bars, in the company of their relatives and friends, after a long day at work or in the context of a celebration.

Abstracted for a moment from such a beautiful present, I empty my half-pint glass for the umpteenth time during this meal and wonder: how would I not want to be part of this?


Salut i birra!


Related read: Cascade - a study in hop terroir, by Stan Hyeronimus.

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