She just served us our first Poperings Hommel ale, and now she hooks up a squeezebox. Is she going to sing? My God, she is! Benedicte Coutigny starts an old Flemish folk song about the pleasures and the pains of harvesting hops in the olden days. We all clap in our hands and cheer her on when she finishes. We, beer-loving Americans, didn't understand a word of course. No worries, it's fun! Then comes the cold shower: Belgian law prohibits her from singing a second song. You must be kidding me! No. If she would sing more than one song, she would have to pay all kind of taxes and fees, since her house would be considered a dance hall!
Where are we? On the farm, named 't Hoppecruyt (old Flemish for the herb of hops), in the village of Proven in the South West Corner of Flanders, Belgium. This area around the town of Poperinge is the last remaining hops-region in Belgium. The cultivation of hops started here in the 15th century. The harvest season for hops is the first half of September. Benedicte welcomes groups of visitors on her farm, and teaches them everything about hops and how she and her husband, Wout, cultivate hops on their farm. You think 'of course' when you hear her saying she was schooled as a teacher, because she presents the abundance of information in a clear and methodical way. She's a natural.
We walk with her to the hops field. The hops-plant grows very high (20 feet) along wires that are strung up in between tall stakes. You recognize a hops field from far away. A tractor with a flat trailer rides in between the stakes. A second man stands high up in a cage contraption mounted at the front of the trailer, and cuts the wire at the top. The special trailer cuts automatically the wire at the bottom. The string of hops with the wire inside falls on to the trailer.
In the mean time, Benedicte tells us about the different phases during the growth of the hops, and all the work and care involved during the year. We learn about the different species of hops. Some are more aromatic than others, and some come with more bitterness than others. We squeeze the hops-bells between our fingers to produce the essence of the flower, and then we inhale. We are all hop-heads now. The hops-bell is a flower-cluster, also called cone. She makes us look under the microscope to try to find extremely small insects carrying diseases for the hops. We eventually find a tiny little spider. Everything we always wanted to know about hops, she knows.
Back on the farm, the tractor pulls the trailer along a loud big machine. Every string of hops is individually fed into the machine. The hops-bells are picked and separated by the machine from the string. The separation is not done at a sufficient level. Pieces of leaves are left behind. Thus the 'product' of the machine is transferred into a kiln, where the combination of heat and a wind tunnel results in dry hops-cones nicely separated from all contaminants. This is the end product for the farm. The dry hops-bells are stored on a big pile in a large hall. Trucks will later transport the hops to a hops-processing plant.
It was at the end of the educational tour on the farm, that she invited us into the farmhouse to relax and have a very hoppy, a bitter beer, the local Poperings Hommel Ale. Benedicte had two more surprises for us: cake and Hops-gin! 40% ABV strong, bitter and dry, clear hard liquor. Cheers.
To visit: www.hoppecruyt.be, best time is early September.