Hopscheuten (or hop shoots) actually look a bit like soybeans: they are white, thin, about 5 cm long and weigh very little. They have a crunchy, delicate and nutty flavor. They are the young shoots from the hop plant, and are produced from the Poperingse variety, which, when mature are added during the production of some Belgian beers. The hopscheuten can be eaten raw, boiled or baked. However, today the hopscheuten – because of their rarity – are almost only found in high-quality Belgian restaurants. However, they are not known amongst the general public outside of Belgium, and even in some other Belgian regions.
The hopscheuten were traditionally planted in full ground and harvested from the end of March until mid-April; a season of just a short three weeks. Due to research and development, since the 1980s the hopscheuten have also been grown with more modern techniques whereby heat is applied to stimulate their growth (mainly with the use of greenhouses combined with soil heating through hot water pipes). The only difference from the traditional method is this applied warmth, which simulates nature by "anticipating” spring. There still exists, though, hopscheuten that are harvested from the full ground through handpicking, a labor-intensive activity. Using both of these production methods, the hopscheuten are now available from late December until the end of April.
Historically, hopscheuten were considered food for the poor. One traditional recipe from West Flanders was a stew of potatoes with hopscheuten. Since the 18th and 19th century, however, the hopscheuten became popular on the tables of the rich. The most important cultivation areas of those times were Asse, Dilbeek and Aalst and the area of Poperinge, the only area were the hopscheuten are still grown today. According to the PGI (Protected Geographical Indication), acquired in 2013, the hopscheuten can be grown in Poperinge, Ieper and Vleteren. Around 250-500 kg are harvested each year. Every year, at the end of March, the town of Poperinge together welcomes the Hopscheuten Happening, a festival around the tradition, cultivation and gastronomy of hopscheuten.
However, cultivation is in decline, thereby rendering the Poperinge hop shoots increasingly exclusive. A minor quantity of hopscheuten are also grown in some areas of Germany, were there would be a lot of potential for growth, but little knowledge and interest from the farmers. From the few dozen farmers in Poperinge who grow hops, fewer than ten of them still also harvest hopscheuten. Even though the growing newer methods help in increasing the harvest time and production quantities, the amount of labor required means many farmers choose not to cultivate the shoots. They are not willing to invest in extra workers and time for a small additional profit. This is remarkable, because even after harvesting the hopscheuten, the hop plant can continue to grow into fully developed hops for later sales. Moreover, there is more demand than product currently available, which is shown by the yearly increasing price per kilogram and the demand from restaurateurs. Without a dedicated effort to promote the harvest of Poperinge hopscheuten, this Belgian agricultural tradition may be lost.