I’VE BEEN TRAVELLING a lot for my dayjob lately, which is not terribly unusual… but I am not usually on trips abroad. This fall, however, took me to both Ghent, Belgium and Barcelona, Spain.
While on business trips, I don’t usually have many hours of daylight to “see the sights,” but I do always try to take a couple hours at night to check out the local brewpubs and breweries of the area. And Belgium is known as one of the beer capitals of the world… so I tried to sample as many different brews as I could while I was there.
That said… I’m not personally a fan of the funky taste of Belgium yeast… so it was a challenge to find things that I really enjoyed! I did taste 3 of the 18 certified Abbey ales (Maredsous, Steenbrugge and Tongerlo) and 2 from the six Trappist producers (Chimay and Westmalle) as well as a number of other Belgian beers during the six days I was there.
1) Delirium Tremens
2) Jupiter Blond
3) Maredsous Tripel
4) Brugge Tripel
5) Monk’s Cafe Sour
Other beer mentioned in this blog: Steen Brugge, Tongerlo, Chimay, Westmalle Tripel, Prearis IPA, Gulden Draak, Gruut Amber, Duvel.
But more about those later. (If you just want the “beer tour”, click here.)
A short walking tour of Ghent
I flew from Chicago to Brussels on Saturday, August 29, 2015, and then took a taxi up to Ghent, arriving at my hotel, the Best Western Cour St. Georges, on a picture-perfect, 75-degree sunny Sunday morning. I stayed in the heart of the old city district, so everything within walking distance was beautiful and historic. The Town Hall was a block down the street. Here was the view out of the hotel doorway, and around the block:
NOTE: click on any of the pictures in this blog to see full-size versions)
Sint Baafskathedraal (St. Bavo’s)
I arrived too early in the day to get into a room, so with the sounds of church bells ringing around town (there are churches on virtually every block there, it seemed!), I took a walk around the city center and had my first meal at Brasserie Agrea (Belgium waffles, of course) and explored the beautiful St. Baafskathedraal, the exterior of which was unfortunately under construction.
There was a sheltered concert pavilion just down the street from the hotel and across the street from St. Nicholas’ Church, where locals took turns playing an outdoor piano. In just a few minutes of standing there, I heard some amazing impromptu classical music played by three different people who just hopped up on the bench from the crowd and started playing. I took a short turn at it myself at one point in the week, when the crowds had thinned!
St. Michael’s Bridge/Graslei
A few blocks away from my hotel was the Leie River, which runs through the center of town and is lined with eateries and cafes, and crossed by a notable bridge, St. Michael’s, from which you look down on the Graslei strip, and have a beautiful view of the famous Ghent towers: Saint Nicholas’ Church, the Belfry and Saint Bavo’s Cathedral.
Gravensteen Castle (Castle of the Counts)
Just down the river was Ghent’s most famous site, Gravensteen Castle, built in 1180 by Philippe d’Alsace, count of Flanders. The castle offers a great audio tour, and perfect views of the city, as well as a small torture chamber museum with a guillotine. So… you know I had to check it out!
My first beer in Belgium
After walking around for a few hours waiting for the hotel to have beds, I sat down in a restaurant/bar cafe area across from the Castle Gravensteen and tried a Prearis IPA. A refreshing summer ale, it was a faintly grassy, dry beer that betrayed very little overt hops flavor.
I was quickly to learn that Belgium IPAs offer little of the overpowering hops character that American IPAs do… I tasted a couple others that I didn’t write down for this blog, and found none there that had enough flavor to encourage a second try.
On the advice of my waiter, I switched to a Tongerlo Blond, a copper-colored abbey ale. It was a better brew, smooth, with a touch of honey… but still not quite what I was looking for — I didn’t come back to it the rest of the trip.
One thing I learned quickly in Belgium – there is an intense focus there on the beer glass as well as the beer. Every place you eat has a full stock of glasses imprinted with the brews they serve. I did not drink a beer in a restaurant or bar anywhere the week I was in Ghent that did not have the imprint of the appropriate brewery on it.
Once I had finally checked in to my hotel and unpacked on Sunday, I went out to enjoy a couple hours of daylight at the Bierhuis at Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant by the river. There I had my first Gulden Draak of the trip, a thick, darker ale I discovered several years ago in, of all places, a German bar in Boston.
I did a little writing by the river before dinner, and would come back to Bierhuis several times during my trip — it was a perfect location for writing. At one point, my bartender was singing along to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” over the radio. Not quite what I expected to hear in Ghent, Belgium!
Dinner that first night was at a great spot on the Graslei next to the river. There I tested a Gruut Amber beer (which had very little taste) and enjoyed an amazing hunk of steak. And the “presentation” was good too:
Housed in a building from the 13th century, it was both a modern and old style experience — exposed brick and beams from the original shell of the building paired with modern floors and fixtures to make a very cool space. I had to try a local dish — the Waterzooi (stew with cuckoo). And I topped it off with a Brugge Tripel, an abbey ale which I enjoyed – probably my favorite Tripel style of the trip, as it didn’t overpower you with Belgium spice notes. Topped it off with some ice cream with vanilla bourbon.
Going Old School… er… Abbey
I tried a Westmalle Tripel, the oldest and most well-known abbey ale, at ‘T Vosken, an outdoor cafe near the cathedral one night, thinking it would be comparable to the Brugge I’d enjoyed at the dinner at Belga Queen, but instead, the character was very different.
It was fizzy like Duvel, which could be refreshing, but the fruity/spicy character was overpowering for me. To my tastebuds, it was heavily colored with Belgian spice… I was not at all a fan, and honestly almost didn’t finish the glass.
Nope… despite the high marks this one gets on Beer Advocate, Belgium just could not make me a fan of spiced abbey ale!
On the day that I toured the Gravensteen castle, I had a late lunch at ‘T Vosken after working an 8-hour day (we started early) — Belgium chickory stewed with ham in a cheese sauce…with twiced baked potatoes and a Steen Brugge.
It was one of my favorite meals of the trip. The chickory is a local vegetable with the consistency of chopped rhubarb, which was excellent in the cheesy sauce, and the Brugge was good too — not too “yeasted” for me!
It was at a little pub around the corner from my hotel that I discovered my favorite “session” beer of the trip. Ironically, I think it has the local reputation of a Bud or Miller in Belgium – as a light watered down brew.
But I found Jupiter Blond to be a good easy-drinking beer that had far more complex characteristics than its American pilsner counterparts. The most famous beer of its type from Belgium is Stella Artois… but I have a couple bottles of that in my fridge at home… so I didn’t drink any Stella in Ghent. I was most unhappy to discover when I got home that they don’t export Jupiter. Here are a couple shots of that corner bar:
It was towards the end of my trip that I finally tried Delirium Tremens, one of Belgium’s best known exports. While it has that Belgium yeast funk, I found it light and effervescent enough that I enjoyed a couple glasses of it before I left the country… and even bought a sign for my home basement bar. Ironically, this one was quaffed in an Irish bar – The Celtic Towers – on my last night there. Where I also had the worst nachos ever (ew – salsa should not be sweet!).
Breezing through Brussels
On my one free day while in Belgium, I took the train back down to Brussels, since all I saw of the city coming in was the airport. After walking several blocks through a typical modern city, I arrived at the old city center, where there’s a square called the Grand Place, that is used for various events through the year. There are photos on the web of the place being completely filled with a Flower Carpet, during one periodic festival, that are amazing. However, when I was there… they were constructing dozens of tents.
I found that there was a Belgian Brewers Association museum off the square, so I paid my 5 euros and went in — they had examples of classic brewery equipment and a short film about Belgium’s long history of beer craft (where I learned that people in the Middle Ages were encouraged to drink beer because of the poor quality of the water — the alcohol in the beer made it safer to drink!).
As part of the tour they offered a sample of a light or dark abbey ale. I tried the darker — Maredsous Tripel — and quite enjoyed it… unfortunately, I didn’t see it on the menu at the restaurants near my hotel, so that was the only sample I got. I think it was also the only beer I had in Belgium that was not in an appropriate labeled glass. Instead… it was in a “proud of our beers” Brewery Association glass.
I also found out while watching the association’s film that that Friday, the day I was LEAVING Belgium, was the start of the largest annual tasting festival of beer in the country. That’s what all the tents were that they were setting up in the square. In 48 hours, the square was going to be swarming with beerdrinkers. Believe me when I say, I was really not happy to find that out! I came halfway around the world to find I missed the festival by a day? ;-/
A few blocks away, I saw a store called de Bier Tempel. I figured if there was anyplace I was going to worship while in Belgium, that should be it… so I stopped inside and picked up my Delirium Tremems glass and sign for my home bar.
While in Brussels, I also stopped at the site of the city’s most famous statue — the Manneken Pis (little man pee). Depicting a small boy peeing into a basin, the statue was erected in the early 1600s. There are many versions of the legend behind it — one suggests a young boy awoken by a fire put it out with his urine to prevent a castle from burning. Another suggests that a young boy urinated from a tree on invading troops, who subsequently lost their battle. You can find likenesses of this little guy in just about every tourist stop in Belgium — and when I found a life size one at a waffle shop, well… I had to pose.
One of my last discoveries after returning from Brussels to Ghent, was the Mosquito Coast, a cool little exotic cafe decked out in safari decorations just a few blocks down the street from my hotel. They only had a few beers on tap, but they served a Flemish style Oud Bruin — Monk’s Cafe — the only sour I tried during my week there. It was a beer created by the brewery of Gulden Draak specifically to ship OUT of Belgium — to a Monk’s Cafe in Philadelphia, oddly enough. Supposedly Mosquito Coast was the only place in Ghent that had it on tap. I found it to be the perfect marriage of faintly fruity aftertaste and sour finish. And a few weeks after returning from Belgium, I was excited to find that a Chicago liquor store chain (Binny’s) actually carried it. So there are a couple in my fridge right now!
Sadly… all good things must come to an end, and after six days in Belgium, I left my hotel at 6 a.m., taxied down to Brussels, and hopped a plane home. Despite the amount of pictures I took, I worked long days most of my time there, so I did not get to go inside most of the landmarks. I did see enough to know I’d love to go back… and while it took some dedicated taste-testing, I know what I’ll drink when I do. And I suppose next time… I’ll need to sample some lambics. I didn’t test a single fruit beer while I was there.
Here are a bunch of other pictures from my week in Belgium: