Near the Channel ports and battlefields of the French-Belgian border, a hop-growing region spreads toward the town of Ypres. It is a small region, but one rich in the folklore of hops and beer. Its hop capital is slightly smaller town, Poperinge. Neither town has a brewery, but there are three in the yet-smaller community of Watou. There is even a statue of an unidentified brewer in its main square. One of the local breweries is the family-owned enterprise of Van Eecke. This began as the estate brewery of a local chateau in 1642. Van Eecke's speciality is called Poperings Hommel Bier.
The beer is primed with white sugar, and re-yeasted for bottle-conditioning. The finished beer has 7.5 per cent alcohol by volume and 40 units of bitternes, though it tastes lighter on both counts. Some drinkers feel, and I am inclined to agree, that it has a faintly honeyish yeast character - or is this thought deposited by the bumble bee? There is also a rose-like floweriness, from the bottle-conditioning. The beer certainly has a great deal of hop aroma and flavour, remniscent of orange-zest. It also has a late, spicy, cumin-seed, dryness, again from the hop. This beer is very refreshing and cleansing when served lightly chilled.
The Van Eecke brewery traces its origins back to 1629, when, for the first time, a document mentioned the local castle was adjacent to a brewery. Indeed, at that time, the noble family living in the castle secured the right to call themselves the "Earls of Watou".
During the French Revolution the plundering French troops burned the castle and the brewery. The noble family escaped the guillotine by running off to England. Only the brewery was rebuilt by a local farmer in the same year of the destruction, under the slogan "Revolt all you want, but we still need beer here." The brewery was named "In de Gouden Leeuw" (In the Golden Lion), which is a wordplay in French. Many country inns in France are named "Au Lion d’Or" (in the Golden Lion), but the pronunciation is exactly the same as "au lit on dort" (in the bed one sleeps). The brewery in Watou had of course also its own pub, and offered room for travelers. Not understanding the French wordplay, the local farmer called his establishment in Dutch the "Gouden Leeuw", as he must have seen so many such names in France, but ruined the wordplay at the same time
Through marriage the Van Eecke family became the masters of the brewery in 1862, where they brewed top fermenting country ales. The brewery had only a local significance until well after WW II. With the revival of the authentic local ales in combination with TV and modern marketing in the 1960's, the beautiful delicious beers of the brewery became a hot commodity in bars and fine restaurants all around Belgium and Northern France.
The village of Watou is well known in artistic Europe for three major events during the summer: a Poetry festival, a Contemporary Art Exhibition in open air, and a festival of Gregorian Music. Watou is also one of the three remaining cities/villages in Belgium with three breweries. Indeed, besides Br. Van Eecke, Watou is also home of the two independent family breweries St. Bernard and De Bie. Br. Van Eecke finds its water in its own well under the brewery. The actual layer of water starts to give problems at certain times in the year, thus new and deeper drilling up to 1800 feet is planned. The malts are bought in Northern France (the border is only 5 minutes away), and the hops are bought locally. Indeed, Watou is part of the city of Poperinge, the last remaining area in Belgium where hops is cultivated on the local farms, and has been for centuries. The brewery uses only their own yeast-strings, cultivated in their own laboratory. The same yeast is only used for seven generations. Then they start with newly cultivated yeasts from the original.
Poperings Hommel Ale is the most famous and best selling beer of the brewery. The demand is at times so large, that the production can’t follow. It was based on the request of the city council of Poperinge in 1981 for a special beer for the local hops-festival. Br Van Eecke repositioned and reformulated one of its beers to create the Poperings Hommel Ale. The Hommel Ale is so unique that it has gained a large international customer base. Its best characteristic is the high bitterness, created by the use of very high quantities of the local hops. The re-fermentation in the bottle adds an extra dimension to the beer, and you, the consumer, discovers a very round mouth-feel, a full bodied and flowery aroma, with an alcohol strength of 7.5 %.
The brewing is very classic: after heating the water and the malt in the mashtun, the sweet liquid is filtered through an over one-hundred-year-old plate-filter. In the next vessel the wort is boiled for 90 minutes, and it is during this process that hops and spices are added. Then the liquid is filtered again, cooled down to fermentation temperature, and stored in large fermentation tanks.
Br. Van Eecke brews four more beers: the Watou’s Wit, a Belgian White, and three Abbey Ales under the Kapittel Logo: the Pater (6 %), the Prior (9 %) and the Abt (10 %). Hommel is the local word for hops. Hops was the main industry for Poperinge until well into the 1950’s.
Brewers Website: click here
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