Belgium’s Poperinge Beer District
Harvest Time, Festival Time
This Flemish area of Belgium, nicknamed “Hoppeland,” is nestled against the French border and, in a country known for more than 800 beers, has the distinctive honor of being called the “brewers’ corner of Belgium.” There, five breweries are located less than a 10-minute drive from downtown Poperinge: the reclusive Trappist brewery of St. Sixtus, Van Eecke, De Bie, Leroy and St. Bernadus. So what better part of Belgium to plan to visit than where the hop cone and beer itself is most revered, treasured, respected and celebrated.
Hops found their way to Poperinge in 1332, because of a quarrel with the neighboring cloth-weaving town of Ypres, and originally, the hops came from the abbey of St. Bertins, St. Omer (France). The hops turned out to be a valuable alternative to the disappearing cloth trade. Presently, the following hop varieties are grown in Poperinge and the surrounding area: Challenger, Target, Admiral, Fuggles and Magnum.
One of the world’s only hop museums, situated a few blocks off of Poperinge’s main square, was put together by local historian Stijn Beoraeve, and it’s an interesting peek into the life and history of the hard-working harvesters of this precious fruit, the hop cone. The museum covers the life of this amazing climbing vine (or bine, as a hop vine is also called) and those who farm it. A guided tour of Poperinge’s National Hop Museum walks you through four seasons of cultivating this remarkable bud.
Until 1965, the hop harvest was accomplished by hand and every man, woman and child that lived in Hoppeland was involved in this annual endeavor. Traditionally, the harvest took place in September, so the school year started in October in Hoppeland. The town was assisted by as many as 10,000 migrant workers, as well. During Poperinge’s Hop Festival we visited a hop farm. Our guide described working in the hop fields as one of the best jobs of his youth and stated that it wasn’t uncommon for whole families to use the harvest as a working vacation.
One thing the museum didn’t explain was exactly how hard the hop farmer’s life is. We stayed at a working hop farm run by Rita Lobeau, which doubles as a bed-and-breakfast (d Hommelbelle). She has developed skin cancer from her extensive time in the sun. She has had a number of cancerous melanomas removed and can no longer tolerate long exposure to direct sunlight.
Hopping Mad about Beer
The locals, who revere the big lovable bud, even have their own word for hops. Hommel is a cross between the Czech, French and botanical names for the hop plant: chmel, houblon and humulus, respectively. The most famous of the products and businesses in the area to use Hommel in their name are the local Poperinge’s Hommel bier and d Hommelhof restaurant, world renowned for its beer cuisine.
Poperinge’s Hommelbier, which translates to “hop beer,” was first brewed at the request of the City Council of Poperinge in 1981 as a beer to showcase the local hops for their tri-annual hop festival. Since its inception, Hommelbier has proved to be most popular of Van Eecke’s range of 12 beers. The Hommelbier is known for its crispy hop bitterness, from the use of local hops. This Belgian golden ale is full-bodied and flowery, possesses a fruity, citrusy hop aroma, and is one of the hoppiest ales made in all of Belgium.
d Hommelhof (which means “hop garden”) is Chef Stefaan Couttenye’s restaurant, famous for its beer cuisine, and is located in the town of Watou (three farmers’ fields west of Poperinge). Stefan has written some of the best beer and food cookbooks I have ever seen, and they were in the process of shooting photos for a new cookbook while we were there last fall. If in Hoppeland, at least one two-and-one-half-hour lunch is required to savor the ambiance of d Hommelhof. You should try to get a table near the bar as it’s fun to watch the kitchen staff run out and restock their cooking buckets with wits or triples.
Many restaurants in the area feature dishes made with locally grown hop shoots during the short season during which they are available. Hop shoots, similar in texture and look to bean sprouts, have a nuttier taste and some must be culled in the spring so one strong hop-brine (the correct term for a hop vine) can survive. These hop shoots are a very expensive delicacy. They are only available for a short time (January through March) and sell in excess of $100 per pound.
Even the local Trappist monks of St. Sixtus, famous for the beers of Westvleteren, get into the local hop madness with their very own hoppy blonde ale, available only at the abbey window and café across the street from the abbey. The café, In de Vrede (the garden of peace), even has a dessert on the menu made from hops, a hommelpaptart and it is best served warm with slagroom (whipped cream for us non-Flemish speaking folks).
Unfortunately, Hoppeland’s hop industry and the rest of Belgium is in danger of becoming extinct and the main reasons are softening (reduced bitterness and use of less hops in popular beer styles), less worldwide beer consumption, increased harvest yields through better farming techniques and the more efficient use of hops by brewers through better brewing technology in beer production.
To make matters worse, the big Belgian brewing outfits buy their hops in large quantities from the US and Germany, ignoring Belgium’s own hop harvest. Curator of Poperinge’s hop museum, Stijn Boeraeve, feels that hops in Belgium will probably disappear. He also pointed out that in the 1960s, there were close to 2,500 acres of hops being grown in Belgium and now there are less than 500 acres of hops being cultivated.
The Positive and Puzzling Power of Hops
However, not all is blight. A savvy West Flanders businessman has found a new use for the hops of Hoppeland and is buying roughly one-third of the hops grown in Belgium for a new product called Menohop. Hops can guarantee a full night’s sleep, are known to combat cancer and, has been newly discovered, they counter the effects of menopause. Research teams found that hops have the most powerful phyto-estrogens found in the plant kingdom and closely mimic the molecular makeup of naturally occurring estrogens. His Belgian company (Biodynamics) is reviving the dieting hop industry of Hoppeland with the introduction of this hop-based pill to counter the effects of menopause.
Early clinical studies by Professor Denis De Keukeleire from the University of Ghent and Professor Stuart Milligan of King’s College (London) are proving that hop derivatives are far safer than the present hormone replacement therapies that doctors are currently prescribing. For some women, hormone replacement therapy and its side effects are worse than those from menopause itself. Consequently, many women are switching to phyto-estrogens as a safer, less health-disruptive, alternative.
With the use of this strong Phyto-estrogen, doctors are finding fewer incidents of breast cancer, coronary disorders and pulmonary embolisms than traditional hormone replacement. The new product, which is not approved for North America yet, is called Menohop and each tablet contains 100mg of hopeine (a hop derivative), which is equal to the amount of hops found in three quarts of lager-type beer. Presently, a monthly treatment of Menohop costs 15.15 Euros or just less than $20 per month.
Extensive exposure to hops is known to affect men as well. Hops contain a natural hormone-like substance that mimics estrogens. It is called “hop grower’s droop,” causing male hop harvesters to grow female-like breasts after long exposures to the hops. Evidence of this phenomenon appears anecdotal. Humulus lupulus, the botanical name for hops (which translates from Latin to “wolf of the woods”) is part of the Cannabinaceae plant family; yes, the same family as marijuana. I have read that the overuse of pot can have the same breast-growing effect on men. (But fear not: unless you are drinking 20 Imperial IPAs a day, the purchase of a bra should not be necessary.)
Dr. Seuss Meets Norman Rockwell
Due to the mechanical harvester, hop picking by hand has become mere folklore. In 1956, the fear of losing its proud hop heritage spurred Poperinge’s townspeople to organize its first hop pageant. The hop pageant became a triennial event in 1960, as this is a more manageable time frame for Poperinge’s native population of less than 20,000 residents (including those found in surrounding areas). In writing this article, I was asked to find out why the hop festival is held only every three years. When considering the question, I couldn’t help but remember a quote from one of my favorite books about Belgium, A Tall Man in a Low Land (written by Harry Pearson). He wrote:
They held a carnival in celebration of the hops—though only every three years, because, let’s face it, anymore than that and the hops are likely to turn all big-headed and hoity toity on you and stop returning your calls.
Poperinge’s Hoppefeesten, is a three-day event that takes place during the third weekend of September (the next festival will be held in 2008). The first night features a warm-up party in a tent just off the town square. Day two of the event is held in the same tent (the atmosphere of which is reminiscent of Oktoberfest) and involves a nightlong selection of the Hop Queen to reign over Hoppeland for the next three years. Frankly, this competition makes Beer Drinker of the Year look like a cakewalk in comparison. The Hop Queen crown is contested by teams (three girls each; the potential hop queen and her court). They have to compete in a series of events to decide on a winner with all attendees being eligible to vote. Categories include a lot of pre-planning and work by the teams, such as making their own hop devils, and sewing dresses out of recycled materials.
The candidates, through the use of videos, must also demonstrate the ability to speak Flemish, English and, because of sister city Zatec, some Czech—all in the interest of encouraging tourism to the area for the next three years. She also must be able to differentiate styles of beer during a blind tasting. And the winning candidate must possess real endurance; the contest held on the event’s second night is an exceptionally beer-soaked exercise of stamina for both the Hop Queen contestants, the audience in attendance and even the oompah band charged with rolling out the proverbial barrel.
Having attended last year’s Hoppefeesten, I can tell you that the parade and the last day of the festival are its high point. The best way to describe the atmosphere in the town is a cross between Dr. Seuss’ closing scene from How the Grinch Stole Christmas and a painting by Norman Rockwell. First of all, the whole town is decorated with hop bines and people were coming to the d Hommelbelle hop farm (where we were staying) and buying hop bines the same way North Americans buy Christmas trees to decorate their homes during the holidays.
The parade itself involves the entire community and starts with a blast of a horn. Then stilt walkers demonstrate all the trials and tribulations that the hop plant endures. Everyone is involved—from the youngest of the young to the oldest of the old. The parade is like a school play acting out the whole life of the hop, from spring to harvest. It’s fun to see little six-year-olds in ladybug outfits break out in little choreographed dances while eight-year-olds then strut by wearing hop cone hats that give new meaning to the term “hophead.” The feeling of the parade suggested one of Disneyworld’s famous street parades. Even a Belgian teetotaler would be made proud by the celebration of the nation’s beer heritage. The last day continues with music and revelry in the main square, a concert in the evening, and culminates with a fireworks display.
The Best Elvis Impersonator in Belgium
One of the oddities I didn’t take in while I was in Poperinge that I wish I had seen is Wally’s farm. Its owner has a love for all things American; he offers two-stepping and line-dancing lessons, and when he’s not supervising large barbeques or tending bar at his 40-plus Belgian beer menu, he is an Elvis impersonator. (Check out his Elvis-ness at http://www.wallysfarm.be/.)
Right next to St. Bernadus Brewery is one of the rare treasures of the beer world, the Brewershuis, a mansion previously owned by the first brewer of St. Bernadus. Now the Brewerhuis has been turned into a truly amazing bed-and-breakfast run by the original brewer’s daughter and her husband, who was St. Bernadus’ next head brewer.
The main floor of the house contains a very large library, a solarium with an indoor winter garden, billiards room, and as much St. Bernadus beer in the fridge as one could want. The rooms are big and unique, and many of the guests we met were repeat visitors planning on lengthy stays.
If you have ever smacked your lips after a hoppy Belgian beer, this part of Europe is clearly Beer Heaven. This laidback region of 20,000 embraces life, beer, food, the hop and the culture of beer with an undeniable gusto. A brewer and friend of mine once said to me, “With you beer geeks, it always comes down to hops.” And the people of Hoppeland obviously understand that.
Mike Tessier lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. His vacations often involve beer-themed travel, he enjoys writing beer articles for a number of Calgary based publications and firmly believes that the path to enlightenment includes yoga, golf and beer.