Belgium’s best hoppy beers
Hops are one of the 4 basic elements contained in beer. In the middle ages all the way before pasteurization was invented, it was used in beer as a natural preservative. Only the flower is used in the brewing process and today it is used mostly as an aromatic dry, bitter or fruity touch to the beer. To preserve it, it is dried and stored in refrigerated containers (must be used fast) or turned into pallets as shown below and its storage can hence be longer.
1. La Sambresse, Erquelinne, Belgium. Visited in April when hop seeds are planted.
2. De Plukker, Poperinge, Belgium. Visited in September during harvest.
“Most of modern day brewers are going to fail! I’m telling you!” Alain shouts joyfully as the effects of the beers he had been drinking all morning kick in – and it’s only 11am. He goes straight to the point “these guys have no idea about hard work and honesty. Their beers contain all sorts of chemicals, colorants and preservatives” and adds “nothing like this happens here! All our beers and organically produced with local ingredients, unpasteurized and unfiltered!” and proudly points to his recently planted hop field right across the street.
Alain is founder and managing director of a very unique brewery called “La Sambresse”. The tiny brewery is located inside of what was formerly a local bakery in a town called Erquelinne, about an hour drive from Brussels. As you walk in, tables are disposed in a way to comfortably allow visitors to come and taste the brewery’s foods and beers. The place resembles the style of a typical Belgian tavern: decadent yet warm and welcoming.
As you walk past the main dining area, you find yourself in a kitchen where the food and beers are being prepared before being taken to the dining area. The only table in the kitchen also serves as the town’s local meeting point for the brewery’s friends and family. Needless to say, the place is always crammed and jokes fly around just as frequent as the laughter that follows them.
Alain welcomes me to sit at the table and confesses “I have not been a brewer all my life. I used to be a teacher. Then decided to quit my job and start brewing beer”. He adds that his brewery has been a local meeting point to both villagers and foreigners most of which are from nearby France “But we welcome everyone! Even the Flemish!” he proclaims loudly branding a huge Flemish flag he was holding on his lap.
“I come from France “adds Jean-Claude who had been quiet up to that moment. “That’s how I became addicted into coming here!” and continues “when my son turned 40, I wanted to gift him something special as a birthday present and I accidently stumbled here. After I found out it was a brewery, I asked Alain to brew a batch for my son”. “Since then I have been looking after the maintenance of all mechanical and electrical parts at the brewery” he concludes.
I notice there are two participants at the table taking longer than usual to understand the jokes cracked by Alain and friends. When questioned, I discover they are Canadians working at the nearby military base “The Shape” who fell in love with the “family” type of atmosphere La Sambresse brewery has to offer. And they were going to cook a Canadian traditional dish that day.
As the conversation moves towards the brewery located at the rear of the building, another Jean steps in “many years ago, I was lost and walked in here for directions. After a few drinks, I was hooked to the whole idea and decided I would be a loyal assistant to Alain in the production of his beers”. Another Jean (this time a female figure named Jeannine), starts serving a sliced black sausage pudding while pouring one of their latest “Sambresse Blonde” in my glass.
Jean-Francois pulls me at the rear of the building and into the brewery. He shows me the brewing and fermentation tanks. The brewing process is initiated with the help of a mashstaff, he confesses, as it allows the grains to uniformly spread in the boiling water. “Not everybody does this in the industry” he confesses, “most of them highly rely on machinery and automation, but our touch guarantees extra quality.”
A small religious statue in an angle of the brewery oversees the process; it’s Saint-Arnould. The legend has it that in the middle ages Father Arnould, was summoned to help assist the sick local population.
At that time water contamination was frequent. The father quickly understood that to cure and prevent others from getting sick beer had to be brewed as alcohol killed bacteria.
Back in the kitchen, I ask about the hop field across the street, “it’s the apple of my eyes” adds Alain “and the first didactical hop farm in Belgium”. Alain insists on the quality of his hops and the type of farming that goes on there. He brags about that time Brewery DuBuisson came to ask for advices as they too wanted to grow their own hop farm.
The hops produced by La Sambresse are Styrian Golding (about 60% of the production), Saaz (24%) and Hallertau (14%). The hop field also produces a very unique and rare type of hop called by Alain “Buvrinnes”- an aromatic hop.
Beers produced with those hops are a blond, dark, xmas and an “abbey” beer.
Belgium is famous for its hop fields. The country’s most famous hop fields are located in the northern part of Flanders in an area called Poperinge. You may not know the place, but you are certainly familiar with local beer producers such as Saint Bernardus and the Abbey of Westvleteren -both producing top awarded beers such as the Westvleteren 12 and ABT12.
The story has it that during the middle ages, there were too many cloth producers in the region and the Duke of Flanders had put a halt to further production for businesses located outside three walking hours from Ypres, Gent and Kortrijk. Peasants, who were already very poor had no option but to become hop farmers.
Today the tradition continues thanks to many hop farmers and in particular De Plukker, with whom I had the pleasure, last September, to harvest and launch a fresh hop brew together with Kris and Joris, the owners at De Plukker.
As I arrive to the nearby factory I get welcomed by Joris. “We also export our hops to England and Germany” he adds with a mixture of proud bitterness for seeing most of his yield helplessly quit the nation. When the hops arrive to the factory, the flowers are carefully separated from the stems in rotating machines, then dried and packed in large 20Kg bags. It’s the flowers that are used during the brewing process the rest serves as cattle food.
The hops produced at De Plukker hop farm brewery are various:
- Cascade (USA) since 1970, an aromatic floral hop with flavours pushing towards citrus and grapefruit, intensity of 9/10. It is used for their Keikoppenbier (Blond) and All Inclusive IPA (Blond).
- Challenger (UK) since 1972, has a dual use for both preserving the beer and aroma in which green tea and floral characteristic is provided to the brew. It has a moderate intensity (7/10). Compared to Cascade. De Plukker uses this hop only for its All Inclusive IPA.
- Fuggle (UK) since 1875, aromatic “mint” hop with intensity of 6/10. It is only used for its All Inclusive IPA.
- Goldings (UK) since 1790, also pretty smooth with its floral lavender aroma, spices and honey overtones. Intensity similar to Fuggle. Also used for the All Inclusive IPA as well as the Keikoppenbier and Rookop (brown ale).
- Phoenix (UK) since 1996, sweet bitter hop with both chocolate and pine aromas. A sweet intensity of 5/10. Used for the Single Green Hop and the All Inclusive IPA.
- Pilgrim (UK) since 2001, grapefruit and spicy it has a dual purpose for an intensity which does not go above 6/10. Used for the production of the All Inclusive and the Tripel Plukker.
- WGV (UK) since 1911, mild classical bitterness commonly found in ales and just used for the All Inclusive IPA. Intensity 7/10.
Instructed by Kris back at the brewery I pick up 6 plastic baskets and fill it up with fresh “Goldings” and “Phoenix” just before these enter the drier and head back to the brewery. My fresh hop brew day is about to start.
Today we are producing a fresh hop brew an All Inclusive IPA and it’s going to be a long day since not even the malts have been milled.
During the boiling process, the fresh hops are finally added to the wort both 20 minutes into the process and 20 minutes before the process ends.
The result is a very balanced Belgian style IPA, refreshing for the soon to come autumn.