STEENHUFFEL - The annual hop harvest at Palm Belgian Craft Brewers is truly a festival of and for the people. We survey the busy crowds on the last Sunday in August in the hop field in the shadow of the brewery, looking across to Diepensteyn Castle, home to the stud farm where the famous Brabant draft horses – a Belgian equivalent of the British shire horse – are bred.
The hop field covers 0.35 hectares (0.86 acres) on which around 3,000 hop vines, all of the Hallertau mittelfrüh variety, have been grown since 2012.
The thirsty hop pickers pause to enjoy a Palm Hop Select, Palm, Palm Royale or alcohol-free Palm - those in the know are aware that the Palm Hop Select is brewed with freshly picked hop cones from these very fields.
Under a blistering sun, brewery staff drag hop vines that can be several metres long to the 800 hop pickers who join the harvest to scrape the cones off the vines.
Overflowing baskets are emptied into bags and transferred just around the corner to the De Hoorn microbrewery. There the hop flowers are immediately dunked in a bath of boiling water.
Brewer Fons treats himself to a glass of Palm Hop Select. “Well, now you get a feel for what it’s like to brew in this weather,” he says. “Around here what would you need a sauna for?”
Palm Hop Select, a hoppier version of the classic Palm amber beer, was developed with these fresh Hallertau mittelfrüh hop flowers from the brewery’s own field.This beautifully balanced degustation beer is hopped in three stages.
The brewers traditionally add the first dosage of hops to the brewing kettle in the brewhall.
The second stage sees the introduction of Hallertau mittelfrüh, a variety with a very delicate, hoppy and fresh aroma.
It is added at the end of the boiling stage in what the brewers call ‘late hopping’.
The hop story does not end though as the finishing touches still need to be applied.
More hops are added at the end of the main fermentation, the so-called ‘dry hopping’.
This gives the beer an extra boost to reinforce its hoppy flavours and aromas.
The beer then goes into the warm room to re-ferment, making it even more complex and giving it a longer shelf life. And what about the result? Ask the hop pickers, who will be the first to taste ‘their’ beer when they are invited back in the autumn.
Jan-Renier Swinkels, CEO of Bavaria NV, the new owners of Palm Belgian Craft Brewers, is impressed by the harvest scene. “A wonderful event!” he enthuses. “For a brewer, this ranks amongst the best. Just seeing people enjoy our beers!”
Bavaria, a Dutch brewery, acquired Palm and Rodenbach in May 2016, as Jan-Renier explains: “It was the best day of my life! Two famous names in the beer world enhanced our portfolio with several new tastes and traditional, typically Belgian beer styles.” These beers are now distributed to over 120 countries around the world.
Jan-Renier has beer running through his veins. “All this craftsmanship makes me feel quite emotional,” he tells us. “Just look at the foeder hall at Rodenbach’s, think of the coopers that are still capable of crafting foeders such as these! Where in the world do you still find that?”
Once the beer bug has a hold on him there’s no stopping him. He lets slip that not long ago he replaced his entire wine cellar with one full of beer. “There are so many great beers, styles, aromas and tastes. I’d be a fool not to do it!”
Palm Belgian Craft Brewers can look confidently to the future with Bavaria behind it and already promising to invest €25 million euros into its new Belgian acquisitions.
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