Traditional Tools and Customs
The Green Gold Fountain tells the story of the hop-growing tradition which developed through a century and a half. In some places it lives on, in others it has become nothing but a memory. Several tools, habits and traditions still remind us of this heritage.
Hops stack – “Hmeljevke”
Before the use of wires, hops climbed tall wooden poles, called “hmeljevke”. After the picking they pulled out the poles and stacked them into stacks/pyramids, which became a discernible symbol of the Lower Savinja Valley. Today, the hops stacks only remain on old photographs and in works of arts and remind us of the valley’s most typical activity.
Hop pickers – “Obirovke”
Each year after 15th August, the Lower Savinja Valley was flooded by hop pickers who brought simple joy, laughter and songs to the solemn farmers of the Savinja Valley. The majority of them came from the Croatian Zagorje, the Slovenian regions of Ptuj, Kozjansko, Dolenjska, Posavje and the Upper Savinja Valley. There were more women than men among the pickers. They woke up at dawn and filled the entire hop field with joy and laughter. Hops were picked by hand, in pairs, each picker from his or her own side of the cross-supported hop poles.
Pole-man – “Štangar” and Cat claw – “Maček”
Each group of pickers had their own pole-man. These were strong lads who set up the hop poles in the spring for the hop vine to climb on. During the picking season, the pole-men used the cat claw to lift the poles so the pickers could lean them on the wooden cross support and pick the hop flowers.
Cat claw is a tool that was used to lift the pole from the ground. The name “cat claw” (“maček”) derives from its form, as its iron part is reminiscent of cat claws.
Bushel – “Škaf”
Manually picked hops were measured in special bushels/pails. The first bushels were wooden, and later they were made of aluminium. All of them measured 30 litres. In measuring it was very important that the flowers were accurately picked, without leaves. Otherwise the master spilled the picked hay on bags spread on the ground (the pickers said the master “threw the hops on the sheet”), and the pickers had to separate the leaves from the flowers and waste valuable time and profit. Pickers respected a farmer who measured in a fair way, which meant measuring up to the top of the bushel and without a cone on the top.
Card – “Baleta”
When the master was measuring the amount of picked hops, special cards were given to the pickers, called “balete”. These were cardboard cards or aluminium tags with the number of bushels of picked hay. The truly industrious pickers could pick as many as 30 bushels of hops per day. At the end of the picking season, the workers exchanged the cards for their wages.
Pickers’ lunch – “Obirovska južina”
“Pickers’ lunch” consists of a warm cucumber sauce and green beans. This food still reminds the people from the Savinja Valley of the years when hop-picking marked the entire valley. Upon arrival, each picker received his or her bowl and spoon. During lunch they sat on the already-picked furrows, in the shade, chatted and quickly ate their lunch. Time was very valuable, since the August days are significantly shorter.
Feast – “Likof”
The stack of cards was growing significantly, hop fields were becoming empty and the hop-picking season was officially finished with the hop-picking feast. The pickers did their very best to make the feast as pleasant as possible – they picked flowers and used them to decorate hop picking baskets, carts, horses and later tractors. The housewives prepared a real feast, offering vast amounts of meat and sweet pastry, as well as drinks. People sang and danced all night long. All the pain and quarrels that marked the season were forgotten.
Hop princess and hop elder
Each year the Rural Youth Association of the Lower Savinja Valley selects the Hop Princess. She comes from a hop-growing family, is young, unmarried, and must know everything there is to know about hops and hop-growing. At a symbolic level, the princess represents the hop flower, holding a miniature version of a hop bushel in her hands. The Hop Elders and Princesses Association of Slovenia awards the honorary title Hop Elder, which can be given to a hop-grower over 48 years old or an expert in the hop-growing industry with more than 10 years of experience in the field. The elder represents the hop plant, and the symbol he is holding in his hands is a miniature version of the “cat claw”.
About Simon Kukec
It is a well-known fact that Simon Kukec is the most important brewer, known by the inhabitants of Laško as the father of the Laško beer. A less known fact is that he also owned a brewery in Žalec, which stopped operating after World War I. This ended a several decades-long tradition of brewing industry established and managed by Simon Kukec.
He was born on a small property in Povirje pri Sežani (1838). He married Ana Smolka and lived in Martinščica near Rijeka, Croatia, at the time, where he worked as a railroad guard. He and his wife managed a restaurant and he also worked as a transport entrepreneur during the construction of the harbour.
Eleven years later they moved to Trbovlje, Slovenia, rented the mine restaurant and made a lot of money on it. Later they moved to Žalec where they bought enough hop plantations to be declared landowners.
Simon Kukec had another great passion – gambling. They say this contributed significantly to his wealth, as he is said to have had a “lucky hand”.
He bought an old brewery from the widow of Franc Žuža, a landowner from Žalec who had established the brewery in 1842. Kukec expanded the brewery, modernised it completely and added his own malt-house to it. At an auction he bought the Laško brewery – Laški trg. He combined both breweries and named them Združene pivovarne Žalec in Laški trg (Associated breweries of Žalec and Laški trg). The Laško brewery was managed by his son Edvard and he managed the Žalec brewery himself until he died in 1910.
It is known that Kukec employed predominantly Slovenians. As there were no brewing experts from the region, he employed some Czechs as well.
Kukec was full of ideas and soon he started using thermal water in the beer production process, which improved the beer’s flavour. He introduced a thermal beer, which still exists to this day, although in a slightly altered form. The business bloomed and they were producing increasing amounts of beer which they successfully sold throughout the Slovenian territory and abroad. The beer was consumed in Budapest, Egypt and even as far as India.
There is an anecdote, related to the thermal beer. Due to the vernacular translation of the term “thermal beer” (Kurbier – Kurort/spa and Bier/beer [in Slovenian the homonym “kurbir” is a vulgar word meaning “adulterer”]), men who liked to bed-hop were called “thermal beer” in order to avoid an inappropriate expression.
Simon Kukec left an important impact on Žalec and Laško, so we decided in the Institute of Culture, Sport and Tourism of Žalec to revive the memory of this man. We did this together with the Pivovarna Laško brewery, nowadays the Pivovarna Laško Union brewery, which has been brewing both types of the Kukec beer for us; the light beer since 2012 and the dark beer since 2014; the latter is presented on the market as a thermal beer.
The Kukec thermal beer can be tasted at the Green Gold Fountain and at the Eco-Museum of Hop-Growing and Brewing Industry in Žalec. Other reminders of Simon Kukec are the souvenirs; the “triplets” with various combinations of beer, beer mugs, t-shirts, aprons that can be bought at the Eco-Museum, TIC Žalec and the Green Gold Shop.