LOUVAIN-LA-NEUVE/YAKIMA VALLEY - Pity the poor hop. You could say it's a somewhat over-worked herb, when it comes to the world's beers. A powerful aroma booster, a pungent taste enforcer, a great clarifier, and a useful preserver – not to mention a handy suppressor of over-exuberant brews.
The humble hop is pressed into service on so many fronts. In fact, it seems pretty much ready-made for the hard-pressed brewer. And with five centuries of breeding producing such a dazzling 'smorgasbord' of varieties, the hop has become the first-and-last stop for brewers across the globe. Except, perhaps, in Belgium.
That's not really such a surprise. Belgian breweries have always done things their own way. So while most of Europe bent their beer-making ways almost entirely to the almighty hop, Belgian brewers took its arrival in their stride.
They were happy to keep it as just another ingredient on the long ingredient list to mess around with.
A quietly restrained approach to the hop – you could say it's the one thing that really ties together Belgium's 1001 traditional beer-styles.
That's starting to change. Belgium's brew-masters are a rather inquisitive bunch, and have never been frightened of looking beyond the country's borders for inspiration. Duvel Moortgat, for example, brought Scottish yeasts into their brewery almost a century ago. What's grabbing the attention of the adventurous Belgian brewer right now, though, is another innovation from across the waters – the American IPA (Indian Pale Ale).
These aroma hop-bombs have been making a name for themselves across the Atlantic for a few years now.
So a novel beer-style is on the rise. A cross-continental marriage of beer-making approaches. Take the Old World character of a Belgian tripel. Throw in the New World sass of the rejuvenated US craft-beer scene. Add a nose-full of American hops from the Yakima Valley (the world's best hop-growing region you probably haven't heard of yet).
And there you have it – the Belgian IPA. It all pours out into beers as complex, drinkable and robustly hoppy as the Houblon Chouffe, or the Duvel Tripel Hop.
But while the tantalising pleasures of going 'loud-and-proud' on hops might be sitting there in front of you, frothing away in the glass, the question has to be asked.
Why go 5,000 miles to the Pacific coast (the Yakima Valley is in Washington state) to get your hops? Doesn't Belgium have its own 'hop-central' around the West Flemish town of Poperinge?
It certainly does, but there are two things that Yakima has that Poperinge doesn't. It has the climate. And it has the grapefruit. No, not the fruit itself, but the wonderfully citrus aromas that American hops like Cascade, Citra and Amarillo bring to your nostrils.
Those zesty, almost floral notes are really the defining character of the American IPA style. And the Yakima Valley is where they reach their full-fruited potential – sadly, these notable aroma hops are not so happy back in the gloomy, wet 'old country' of Belgium.
The major hop player out in there in the 'Valley' is a certain Yakima Chief Inc. This is an outfit which started out as a joint company owned by local hop-growers.
Some of them have been growing hops in this valley for 130 years, so there is a fine pedigree to these state-side hops.
And there's volume too. All told, some 75% of the America's hop acreage is found in this small SE corner of Washington state.
The reason? Well, it goes back to that 'climate card' that Yakima has played to such effect. Put simply, this sheltered valley has the sort of warm, dry clime where hops thrive.
Even better, with the Yakima River meandering through it, which is hooked into an extensive irrigation network, the hops are rarely water-stressed. That helps them to fight off the sorts of pests and diseases nasties that are the curse of European hop growers.
As Yakima's Alexandre Dumont – operating out of the company's Louvain-La-Neuve office – told us, “it's a very dry valley, making diseases as mildew and oidium more manageable.” Healthy plants, lacking in disease, makes for higher yields and better-quality cones.
Wait a minute, Yakima Chief have an office in Belgium? Well, it's another sign of the importance of the growing cross-over of the global brewing business, and particularly of the rise of US aroma hops in Belgium and Europe.
Belgium was chosen because of “it's practical geographical situation, as well as being close to the decision-making centres of several big brewers and brewing corporations,” says Alexandre.
Yakima Chief Inc.
Avenue Alexander Fleming 10
Telephone: +32 (0) 10 56 50 50