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.