Belgium is a country thick with beer tradition and history. While that leads to an impression of rows of noble old breweries and ivy-covered abbeys, the situation on the ground is quite different. After the main weekend of the European Beer Bloggers Conference, I went on a tour around West Flanders with the folks from Visit Flanders. We toured five breweries, each very different and showing a different side of modern Belgian brewing. First up De Plukker – The Picker.
Poperinge is the centre of Belgian hop industry. While only 150 hectares of hop fields remain of the more than 1000 that were once farmed in the area, it remains the focus of production in the country and is the site of the Belgian Hop Museum. The land is fertile and is now increasingly turned over to grain and vegetables, but there are still a few growers producing hops. One of these has crossed over from being just a hop-grower into also brewing beer – Joris Cambie, founder of De Plukker.
Joris’s family have been farmers as far as back as they can remember, and have been growing hops for just as long. However, in late 2011 Joris branched out into the world of brewing, billing himself as the first local grower to have done so.
Joris grows organic hops on the farm, the only producer in the region who does and one of about 20 or so worldwide. He mainly grows English hops – Goldings, Challenger, Pilgrim and formerly Admiral – but also has some American Cascade. He took over the farm in 1993, and as a hop grower, began to meet brewers and get into beer. A keen homebrewer, he discussed the idea of building a brewery on his farm, but even with encouragement from the industry, it wasn’t until he met brewer Kris Langouche at a local beer club that the plan started to move towards reality.
Setting up a brewery on a farm is more difficult than it might sound, especially if you consider the agricultural origins of historical brewers. Firstly, brewing is, these days, generally restricted to industrial areas, and isn’t allowed in agricultural zones. There is an exemption, allowing farms to use their own produce to make food and drinks, but the ratio of hops to other ingredients in a beer is so small that initially De Plukker couldn’t use it. However, they planted some fields of barley, which will one day be used to make their beer, which satisfied the loophole and allowed them to start building in 2010.
The next barrier was the strict nature of health and safety regulations in Belgium – the combination of the mandated cleanliness of a brewery with the naturally mucky environment of a farm triggered alarms with the local government. The brewery is based in a former hop shed, bought in the 1960s from a nearby farmer who went of business. After a new processing shed was built on the other side of the farm leaving the building empty, it was the obvious choice for turning into a brewery. After months of refurbishment, building and negotiating often conflicting legal requirements, the brewery was ready, and they started brewing on 9 November 2011.
As you might expect, their first beer was all about the hops. Keikoppenbier is a bitter, hop-led ale, not quite an IPA, but still packed with hoppy flavour. Rookop, red head, the second in their line-up, is a red ale originally brewed for the Kinderbrouwerij – The Children’s Brewery – a centre dedicated to teaching people, including children, about how beer is made. The third of their regular beers is Tripel Plukker, which Joris described as a ‘commercial reality’ brew – tripel is a popular style, and the brewery needs to sell beer to survive.
However, it’s their special edition and seasonal beers which show off what is possible when your hops grow within metres of your brewery. Single Green Hop uses very fresh hops, picked less than 30 minutes before use, with the variety chosen based on what is ready to harvest on brewday. While most brewers use dried hops or hop pellets, both of which can be stored for months with out much deterioration, using fresh hops straight from the vine before their flavour can deteriorate is something very rare.
The final beer in the lineup for now is All-Inclusive IPA, a beer using all of the varieties of hop that are grown on the farm. Despite being in Belgium, Joris is part of a British hop-growers collective, and he sends almost all of his hops over to the UK for processing. However, he holds back a small amount of each harvest – a bag of each hop – which he dries and then stores until he and Kris have time to brew. The beer is continuously hopped throughout the boil, with bags of whole hops dropped in every 10 minutes – with minimal handling, other than careful drying and storing, the hops will have lost only a small amount of their potency and flavour, and reports are the All-Inclusive IPA is a bit of a hoppy monster. They only produce about 1000 bottles per year, which sell out quickly – completely enough that there was none left when we visited. I’m now on the lookout for a bottle of the 2015 edition, which will hopefully appear soon.
De Plukker is still far from being a large brewery. In 2014 they produced 180 hectolitres of beer, very much micro-brewery scale, but they have plans to expand. With external financing, a new bottling machine and a target of 1000 hectolitres per year, there is great potential. And with more than 11.5 hectares of Belgian hops to call upon, they won’t be running out any time soon.