Around 90 per cent of all Belgian hops are grown in the hop fields of Poperinge, a quaint municipality in the province of West Flanders. The surrounding countryside contains over 275 hectares dedicated to the growth of Humulus Lupulus plants, stretching ever-higher towards the skyline.
The region's association with the famous plant goes back as far as the 14th Century, when the Count of Flanders ordered the region to stop production of cloth due to persistent disagreements with the nearby town of Ypres. Until the mid 20th century, schools in the area started later than in the rest of Belgium, so that children could help their families to pick the year's harvest. The region's Hop Museum describes the plants as part of "the very soul of Poperinge", and with the exception of the Yakima Valley in Washington state, it is hard to think of a region whose identity is so closely intertwined with the bitter, green cones that are so essential to the brewing process.
It comes as some surprise, therefore, to hear Joris Cambie, hop-grower at the biological Brouwerij De Plukker, declare that no beer from his brewery leaves the site until eight weeks after the start of the production process. "Good beer takes time," he says, "and it is important that we allow our product the time to mature before we release it."
Living in the UK and constantly being told how important it is to drink hoppy beers as quickly as possible, this assertion comes as something of a shock. Even more shocking is when the first beer Joris hands over to sample is a six month old bottle of the brewery's Green Hop beer. "This beer was bottled in late September, so maybe it is a little bit on the way down now in terms of the quality, but I think you will agree that it still a very tasty beer," he says. Admittedly, the hop aromas have faded, giving way to a slight whiff of damp cardboard, but the taste is mellow, less aggressive and actually still extremely pleasant. The fact that Joris was prepared to use a six month old beer to showcase his brewery speaks volumes about the attitude Belgians have towards drinking fresh.
It's not just De Plukker who are extolling the virtues of patience when it comes to drinking hoppy beer. A short drive away at Brouwerij Het Sas, a family-owned set-up which dates back eleven generations, beers are matured for around a month before being released to the public. On our visit, Karel Leroy, project manager for Leroy Breweries, (which manages both Het Sas and nearby Brouwerij Van Eecke) is more concerned about ensuring that all of the brewery's bottles are clean and uncontaminated than he is about whether or not the beer is fresh when it is drunk. The brewery currently produces 25,000 hectolitres of beer, two-thirds of which is exported, and their flagship 7.5 per cent Poperings Hommelbier (made using entirely hops from the region) is as drinkable and delicious as anything currently being produced in the UK.
Over in Oostvleteren, trendy new kids on the block De Struise Brouwers are fast developing a reputation as one of the rising stars of Belgian brewing. Surely these semi-celebrity, rock-star brewers have embraced the concept of super-hoppy, fresh-as-nails West-Coast IPAs? Except they haven't. The brewery's flagship beer, Pannepot, is a 10 per cent dark Belgian ale, 2011 vintage's of which are still readily available in the region. On the day of our visit, the taproom line up is dominated by dark, barrel aged beers such as Zombination, a 17 per cent imperial stout, and Rio Reserva, a 10.5 per cent dark ale aged in wine and bourbon barrels for over four years.
The brewery currently owns between 500 and 600 barrels of different origins including sweet wine, port and whisky, each of which contains a few litres of the liquid still absorbed into the wood. "If you simply add alcohol to a beer it will ruin the flavours," explains Carlo Grootaert, a former wine maker who helped start De Struisse back in 2001, "but by allowing it to mature and letting the alcohol from the barrels soak into the beer slowly over a long period of time, the flavours are preserved and enhanced." De Struisse have also recently begun ice-distilling their beers with the use of a custom-built Eisbock machine, sending the ABV rocketing up as high as 39 per cent in some cases.
Admittedly, there are lots of breweries in the UK producing excellent barrel aged beers with long shelf lives that are not designed to be drunk fresh. However, there has been an undeniable surge in the number of breweries producing hop-forward pales and IPAs and demanding that consumers throw them down their gullets the instant they are released. There are also a considerable number of breweries churning out new releases every few weeks, whizzing beers through the production process in order to free up fermentation space and keep cashflows at a maximum, and not giving the beer adequate time to ferment and mature as a result.
In an age of Drink Fresh/Born to Die double IPAs, we've been conditioned to believe that the longer a beer is left after bottling or canning, the more it will deteriorate. In many cases, these beers will be perfectly palpable long after their 'best before' has expired. But of course, 'drink whenever you feel like it' doesn't quite have the same ring to it, and won't keep consumers rushing back, wallets in hand, determined to have the latest 'hype' release. It is true, generally speaking, that hop-forward beers tend to taste best in the first six to eight weeks after they have been released, but only if the beer has been properly conditioned and not dry-hopped to oblivion during fermentation. In many cases, these beers will actually need at least six weeks after bottling to round off the aggressive hop flavours contained within them, and rushing to consume them before then will probably leave you disappointed.
In our desire to consume, check-in and tweet about the latest must-have IPA, we appear to have forgotten that the entire reason the style came into being was due to the power of the hop flower as a preservative, allowing beers to survive the long journey across the sea to British colonies. I'm not suggesting that we start ageing our New England IPAs and session pales, but some inspiration from our Flemish neighbours may be required if we are to shake the idea that a beer isn't worth drinking once everybody else has Instagrammed it already.
*Full disclosure*: This article was written after a trip to Flanders that was paid for by Visit Flanders, Visit Poperinge and the Ypres Tourist Office.