Share the hops
Two months from now, I’ll be leading a group of six determined beercyclists into the quaint, clean streets of Poperinge, Belgium, where we’ll attend the town’s triennial hop festival. It will be my fourth hop festival in Poperinge, dating back to 1999, and I absolutely love it.
Hop-growing in West Flanders isn’t the business it once was, and the roaming Roma no longer appear in early autumn to pick the magical cones. But today, more hop plants than in many-a-year are climbing trellises in the tidy countryside surrounding Poperinge. That’s because hops aren’t only used to balance the malt sweetness in beer. They also have pharmaceutical applications, and either way, demand and prices are up — and that’s good news for local farmers.
Thus far, Poperinge has resisted the temptation to commercialize its hop festival, and as a result, the feeling in the streets remains homey and redolent of a friendly, human scale. The highlight always is the Sunday afternoon parade, when seemingly the town’s entire population dons costumes and performs a sort of moving passion play, telling the history of hops, and depicting the enemies (certain insects) and friends (the birds that eat the insects) of the hop plant.
As you might imagine, this sort of entertainment has a way of making a beercyclist thirsty, and fortunately, Poperinge is a marvelously central location from which to explore several crucial beer destinations — by bicycle! — including the Hommelhof beer cuisine restaurant in the village of Watou, the St. Sixtus monastery (brewer of Westvleteren), the prime brewing areas of nearby Northern France, and at least three cafes within the town boundaries, each offering dozens of Belgian ale choices.
In September, we’ll sit on the sidewalk during the parade, cheer the children, salute the marching bands from Poperinge’s twin hop towns and pluck fresh, whole-cone hops from passing garlands to submerge in our tasty Hommel Ales. What’s not to love?
Roger Baylor is co-owner of the New Albanian Brewing Co. in New Albany. Visit www.potablecurmudgeon.com for more beer.