Belgium is a hop producing country. Right? However, the Belgian hop growing sector is only a bleak shadow of its former self. Not only has the total surface and production been receding for years and years, Belgium also has given up its native hop varieties long ago. Varieties that were once a staple of lambic and all the other traditional Belgian beers.
In Belgium, sometimes an echo of nostalgia for its own hops can be heard. Names of varieties like Groene Bel, Witte Rank and Coigneau mainly make the heart of the historically informed beer geek go faster, but there really is a longing for the endless hop fields that once turned parts of the Flemish countryside into a fragrant green jungle. And for the hop harvest, a festive manual work that took weeks, where the whole village would join, singing, in picking the light green hop flowers.
Those times are over. Today, there are only about 25 hop farmers left in the whole of Belgium, using no more than 160 hectares total. That is less than 0,5% of the world’s total hop cultivation. Worldwide, most hops come from Germany, the USA, China and the Czech Republic. In fact, Belgian hops are starting to do just slightly better: for the first time in many years, the total surface cultivated with hops is growing, though only a tiny bit. The growing interest in aroma hops and an initiative to promote Belgian hops to be used in Belgian beers, launch in 2011, were factors in this. Most Belgian hop farmers however, do not see a lot of future in their trade. High costs, low prices and foreign competition keep revenues small.
In the 19th century, all this was different. According to the agricultural census of 1846 there was 2968 hectares of hops, over ten times today’s figure. Interestingly, while today the focus of hop culture is in Poperinge (23 of the total of 25 Belgian hop farmers), in 1846 the region around Aalst (Eastern Flanders) and Asse (Brabant) was more important. Moreover, 20% of hops came from Hainaut province. There, the cultivation of hops was more dispersed. The villages of Havré and Ville-Pommeroeul, among others, were said to be known for their hops, and there was the town of Buvrinnes that lent its name to a hop variety known in Poperinge.
Then, Belgium was a hop exporting country. In 1865, over 2 million kilos of Belgian hops were sent abroad, to England, France and the Netherlands, among others. Also, Belgium imported almost 800.000 kilos of hops, mainly from Germany. But in the course of the 19th century, things deteriorated. The total area cultivated, in 1880 no less than 4185 hectares, shrunk to 2201 hectares in 1900. By that time imports had overtaken exports, and in 1902 the exports were, perhaps exaggeratedly, described as ‘practically non-existent’.
This decline, sometimes labelled ‘hop crisis’, was then too caused by foreign competition. On one hand foreign hops could flow into Belgium free of import tax, while Belgium hop farmers did encounter tariff walls when exporting. One of the people trying to do something about this was father Daens, today mainly known for the eponymous 1992 movie starring Jan Decleir. But part of the problem seemed to be the varieties used, of Belgian origin. Varieties that have now vanished – but was this deserved?
The hop museum in Poperinge has a big poster on the wall, originally a supplement to the trade journal De Hopboer (‘The hop farmer’), in 1908. It describes ‘our National Hop varieties’. Because, what were those originally Belgian hops like?
The Groene Bel was traditionally the typical hop variety of the region of Aalst and Asse, though it was already in decline. It was known for its bitterness and ‘seems to be most suitable for beers where one can and should taste the hops’. Apparently it was also used in the well-known De Koninck beers from Antwerp. A problem was its relatively low yield. That was also the reason why it had been largely replaced by the Coigneau (also known as Cagneau), that excelled in a much higher yield. The Coigneau, said to be named after the farmer that first grew it, around 1900 covered about 75% of the hop fields around Aalst. Its taste was much less bitter that Groene Bel’s, which contained 1.6 times as much lupuline. Possibly this is why Coigneau was considered to be the hop variety of choice to brew lambic.
The Witte Rank was the main hop variety of Poperinge, although since forty years they also used hops there originally from the village of Buvrinnes in Hainaut. Aalst also knew a Witte Rank. It was chosen by brewers for making soft beers, ‘with a delicate and less penetrating taste’ and supposedly in taste it was the most similar to German hops.
So where are these hop varieties today? Nowhere. Or almost nowhere. A first sign of change was the spread of Bavarian Hallertau hops in 1907, by the abbot of the monastery of Affligem of all people, who originally came from Bavaria. Saaz came to Belgium in 1934 and Kent in 1939. Gradually, Belgian hop farmers replaced their old hop varieties by foreign ones, among others the English varieties Golding and Target. At the same time, the hop surface shrunk significantly and the region around Aalst and Asse had to relinquish its position as leading hops region to Poperinge. The hops of Hainaut, in 1846 still representing 20% of production, had a share of only 6% in 1892, and disappeared after that. Also the hops of Liège, in the middle of the 19th century still at 2.8% of Belgian total production, were never seen again.
The old Belgian hop varieties had disappeared, and there was no possibility of knowing what taste they had provided to Belgian beer for centuries, or so it seemed. Enter a small group of teachers at the lyceum (a type of high school) of Aalst. After rediscovering a few old local pear varieties, simply for use in the school garden, these gentlemen also wanted to retrieve a few hop types considered lost. But where? Not at the local garden centre, and also not from the last (former) hop farmers. The solution came from the wonders of internet and science. As it turned out, the Slovenian Institute for Hop Research and Brewing still possessed a plant of Groene Bel, which they had received from Belgium in 1959. In April 2013, the first Groene Bel was replanted on Belgian soil.
It didn’t stop there. An old Canadian publication lead to Wye College, in the village of the same name in Kent. Although this agricultural institute had been closed in the meantime, its hop collection had been preserved by a commercial enterprise. And it is here that they found the original lambic hop Coigneau. A plant of Buvrinnes hops had however died by this time. Another Coigneau was found in Slovenia, and a research centre in Gembloux in Wallonia still had a Loeren hop, a variety developed in 1908. Only of the Witte Rank there is still no trace.
The hop yield at the lyceum of Aalst is still modest, but… it was already possible to use it to brew a beer, together with the local hobby brewery Belleketels. Two test brews exhibited a very peculiar bitterness. Not a smack of IBU’s in your face like some current American hop varieties, but more of a modest smell and taste. A lot of water will have to flow through the Dender river before these old Belgian hops will be able to lend their taste to Belgian beer on anything like a commercial scale, but it’s a start!
Update: The Hoppecruyt farm in Proven, near Poperinge, has started growing some Groene Bel and Coigneau, which is avaiblable commercially, though in small quantities. (Thanks to Tom Antidoot Jacobs for this information.)
 ‘Er komen geen hopboeren meer bij’, Knack.be, 14-8-2013; http://www.vilt.be/Bierland_Belgie_teelt_nog_158_van_47000_hectare_hop; https://www.belgischehop.be/nl/bierliefhebber/nieuws/evenveel-hopboeren-poperinge-maar-meer-hectaren
 Guido Vandermarliere, De kroniek van de Poperingse hoppeteelt 1800-1850, z.p., z.j., p. 174-175; Ph. Vander Maelen, Dictionnaire géographique de la province de Hainaut, Brussels 1823, p. 155.
 Guido Vandermarliere, De kroniek van de Poperingse hoppeteelt 1850-1868, z.p., z.j., p. 185; Guido Vandermarliere, De kroniek van de Poperingse hoppeteelt 1900-1913, z.p., z.j., p. 10-11, 37, 48.
 Collectie Hopmuseum Poperinge. One year later, more or less the same text was published in : A. Suys, Voor betere hoppen, Ninove 1909. Cf. Vandermarliere, Kroniek 1900-1913, p. 195-199.
 Vandermarliere, Kroniek 1900-1913, p. 166.
 Vandermarliere, Kroniek1800-1850, p. 174-175; A. Picard (red.), Exposition universelle internationae de 1889 à Paris. Rapports du jury international. Groupe VII. – Produits alimentaires (2e partie) Classe 73 (2e partie), Paris 1892, p. 542.
 ‘Groene Bel na 55 jaar terug thuis’, Het laatste nieuws, 6-9-2014; https://issuu.com/mdzadt/docs/tekst_brochure_hopproject_lyceum2.