Article written in collaboration with Alexandra Berry.
Although quite discreet, French hops have a long history dating back to the 8th century. Already found in royal orders of Pepin the Short, King of the Franks (714-768), it gradually replaces the aromatic plants in the Cervoise, creating this drink that is so dear to us: beer.
Already recognized and listed as an ingredient of beer by the Abess Hildegaarde of Bingen in 1070, it was not until the 17th century that this plant made its place in Flanders, and again until the 19th century that its cultivation was really promoted and developed in Alsace. It was the German brewer François Derendinger who, with 800 plants brought back from his travels in Bohemia, established the cultivation of hops in the Haguenau region. Among his plants was Saaz, considered to be the initial strain of Alsatian hops.
At the beginning of the 20th century, hops were grown on more than 6,900 hectares of land, 58% of which were in Alsace, the rest in the North, the Côte d'Or and Lorraine. From 1916, with the popularization of beer, the French production of hops is then considered insufficient.
" (...) Among the agricultural products for which we are dependent on foreign countries is hops (...) Before the war, beer consumption increased surprisingly every year: and unfortunately we were doing too much credit to Munich and Pilsen (...)", "(...) the industries of the North and East of France have already made great progress in recent years in the manufacture of beer. As for the hops which are cultivated in various regions of our beautiful country, everything is to be done (...)". Jean Masson, 1916, in his thesis presented at the Institute of Agriculture of Beauvais.
Several farmers and researchers are working to demonstrate the potential of French hops and the value of French terroir to the brewing industry:
"All the conditions of soil and climate, are met on many points of the French territory. There is therefore reason to believe that the cultivation of hops could be successfully propagated in France". Mr. Moreau, 1905, professor at the ENIA of Douai.
It is the first world war that will first of all hit this growth, dividing the production surface by two. This loss is slightly made up between the two wars, a period of growth in the surface area of crops but also in prices, due to major problems of mildew among German producers (and therefore increased scarcity on the markets). The golden age of hops was from 1927 to 1929, with prices never before reached.
Unfortunately, this recovery did not last long, with a gradual decline before the Second World War. Occupied France loses its culture, the Germans limit the production to 500 ha of hops.
It was not until the 1960s that this production was timidly reborn from its ashes. In the 1980s, France had only 685 ha of which 90% were located in Alsace. This is accentuated by a big contract signed with Anheuser Bush in 1970 which allows to relaunch the regional production and to make known the local variety: the Strisselspalt.
The 2000s saw a very slow progression of production which was finally revived in 2014, with the fashion of "craft" beers which came to us from the USAs. As the graph below shows, we are still far from the golden age of hops in the 19th and 20th century, but with the French agricultural and brewing influence, this green plant will soon find its place in our cultures. We have no doubt about that!
Hops in France today
The first producers of hops in the world are currently the United States and Germany. France is in 11th position, with 540 ha in 2022, 96% of which is in Alsace. Only 50 ha of this surface are certified organic, despite the strong demand from brewers. This demand for Organic continues to grow, reflecting the multiplication of microbreweries (the number having more than tripled between 2012 and 2018).
To meet this demand, some (sometimes unexpected) regions have turned to hop growing. They are helped by several companies, organizations and associations promoting the revival of French hops such as Hopen, HOP France, Houblons de France, or more localized groups such as Bière de Provence.
With the growth of microbreweries in France, more and more focused on local, more and more hop growers are being created to be able to meet this demand. The West is particularly targeted by these installations and an associative status was created in 2018 to support them thanks to the Chamber of Agriculture of Pays de la Loire: "Houblons Grand Ouest". These groups of hop growers can hope to receive official recognition as a GIEE, Group of Economic and Ecological Interest.
What are the French hop varieties?
Aramis: Use Aromatic with an Alpha content of about 8%. Its profile Aromatic is grassy and floral, sometimes with notes of lemon. Created in 2009, Aramis is the first new variety resulting from the varietal research program of Comptoir Agricole.
Red Beard: Variety derived from Strisselspalt, it is considered as DUAL, therefore at the same time Bittering and Aromatic. With very fruity notes and particularly of red fruits, it has a rate of alpha included between 8 and 10%.
Bouclier: Resulting from the program of varietal research sharing its origins between France and England, created in 2005 resulting from a crossing between the hop Strisselspalt and an English male plan. Its aromas are fine herbaceous and spicy and its alpha acid rate varies between 3 and 5%.
Elixir: This hop was created in 2016, originally called the GS10. It is a very Aromatic, 6% alpha acid hop, created to be able to produce very Aromatic IPAs with French hops. Strong fruit and citrus nuances are particularly expressed in raw hops.
Mistral: Mistral is a particularly Aromatic hop with notes of jasmine and rose. Some people also find notes of white fruits like lychee or even white grapes. Resulting from the research program of the Comptoir Agricole, it is a crossing between a female Cascade and a male Strisselspalt. With an alpha level between 6.5 and 8.5% it can also be used in Bittering.
Strisselspalt Also Aromatic, its alpha content is between 3 and 5%. It can offer spicy or floral, citrus and fruit notes. It is a very noble and fine hop, preferred for a raw hopping to keep its lemon notes.
Tardif de Bourgogne This hop Aromatic is cultivated in small quantities in the region of Alsace and offers a rate of alpha acid between 3 and 6%. Very difficult to find on the market, it is a variety which disappeared from the French culture and was put back on the brewing map thanks to Locher-Hopfen, hop grower at Tettnang having found this variety in Haute-Marne. Resulting from a clonal selection of an old French variety, it reveals soft and herbaceous nuances of laurel, anise, or even for some, apricots(We found it certified Organic on the other side of the ocean...and yes...)
Triskel: An 8-9% alpha hop with floral and citrus notes. It is the result of a cross between Strisselspalt and an English variety called Yeoman. It offers the same aromatic notes of citrus and flowers but can also be used as afirst hop for a pronounced bitterness.
These varieties are being embraced by brewers for their finesse, similar to the noble hops of Germanic regions. Varietal research continues to develop aromatic hops to produce the juicy, fruity IPAs that are trending in the craft scene. The classic varieties mentioned above create great Saisons, Pilsners or interesting and complex Sours.
Another French phenomenon is the interest in hops Organic. According to Hopen, 70% of new brewing projects are oriented towards Organic. This demand is reflected in the crops, although it takes 3 years to obtain the certification Organic for a hectare of hops in conversion. Yes, Organic has to be earned!
In order to meet the demand of breweries, more and more hop companies are being created in France and are starting to grow French varieties. France will be able to boast again of a brewing terroir !