The Land of Beer: De Plukker spreads hop love from father to son

Summary

Flanders is home to the best beer in the world and our new guide is here to prove it. This week we visit a family brewer from Poperinge, West Flanders

Going against the grain

Joris Cambie is a hop grower from a long line of hop growers. “My father was a hop farmer, and his father and his father, and for as long as we know about. And on my mother’s side as well. But that’s not so unusual; this is the main hop-growing area of Belgium.”

But he’s also an exception to the decline of the hop-growing industry in Flanders, a barley farmer, the widowed father of five children, and a brewer of exceptional beers – beers that the retail trade quite literally can’t get enough of.

Poperinge is by far the larger of the two main hop-growing areas of Belgium, in the part of West Flanders province known as the Westhoek . Belgium only accounts for a minuscule proportion of the world’s hops these days: about 158 hectares out of a total world production of 45,000 ha.

The Cambie family are rooted in the Westhoek’s hop industry; on the walls of the Hop Museum there are huge blow-up photos of Joris’ father and two of his children illustrating the practices of the past. He knows everyone in the beer business, and they know him.

But the hop industry is in decline, he says. “It’s a combination of people getting older – that’s a general problem in agriculture. There’s no succession of one generation to the next, or less and less. But in conventional farming, if someone gives up, other farmers take over the land and things go on, and nobody notices the difference. But if a hop grower stops, then the hops are gone. Nobody is taking over the production.”

No need for marketing

His farm is different. “For many, many years I’ve been transitioning to organic. My hops have been organic since 1998, so that’s a completely different market. I’m a member of a co-operative of hop growers in Paddock Wood in Kent, so my hops are also shipped there.”

He’s also an exception in doubling up as hop farmer and brewer. Across the fields from his farm stands a converted barn, which houses the De Plukker brewery, where he works with his business partner. They produce three beers year round, all brewed with Cambie’s own hops, all 100% organic.

It’s going well; we could always sell more than we produce

- Joris Cambie of De Plukker

Then there’s Single Green Hop and All Inclusive IPA, made during the harvest with hops freshly picked just metres away. Each year is different and produced in a limited edition, unfiltered and unpasteurised and bottle conditioned.

The absolute star of the show, however, is the Keikoppenbier, which derives its name from the nickname for the people of Poperinge, a blond ale with a flavour of such complexity that any description risks derailing into parody. Only a brewer who had spent his life producing hops could ever achieve the effect Cambie produces here.

It comes as no surprise to find the hospitality and retail trades are falling over themselves to get as much as they can. “It’s going well; we could always sell more than we produce,” Cambie admits. “Most sales are local or to specialised beer shops, but we haven’t made any effort at marketing because there was no need. We’re still not really depending on the brewery. We don’t live from it.”

Photo: Joris Cambie (left), with his father Daniël

© Rob Mitchell/stillmation.com

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Belgian beer

Belgium has a beer-brewing tradition going back centuries and is known around the world for both its beer culture and hundreds of craft brews.
History - Beer culture has been recognised by Unesco as part of Flanders’ Intangible Cultural Heritage. The local beer culture dates to the middle ages, when farmers brewed their own beer from the rich harvests of local grain, later transferring brewing to local guilds and abbeys.
Beer styles - The main styles include lambics, white beers, fruit beers, Trappists and abbey beers. The Trappist beer Westvleteren 12, brewed by a dozen monks in a small West Flanders town, is regularly rated by various sources as the best beer in the world.
Exports - Sixty percent of the Belgian beer production is exported abroad, with France, Germany, the Netherlands and the US the largest markets.
74

Litres of beer annually consumed per person in Belgium

100

breweries in Flanders

19

million hectolitres of beer produced in Belgium in 2012