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.