Belgium will always hold a special place in my heart. It was, after all, a trip to Bruges in 2013 that kickstarted my love affair with beer in earnest. I was a naive 19-year old who knew they didn't really enjoy drinking mass-produced commercial lager, but had little idea of the sheer variety of beer styles and production methods that existed across the world. I still remember tasting Saison Dupont for the very first time in a dingy underground bar in the city. Crisp, dry and with a slightly funky edge, it transformed my perception of what beer could and should be, and it remains one of my go-to beers to this day.
Returning from Bruges, all I knew was that I wanted to try as many different styles of beer as possible. This led me to found a Real Ale society at University, get a job in a craft beer bar and ultimately start this website. Three years later, I finally got the chance to return to the beery-motherland in December, with a trip to Bruges' hip, trendy older brother Ghent.
Before we arrived at the city, however, there was somewhere I simply had to visit.
Shortly after entering Belgium, we turn off the motorway and head south, deep into the Flemish countryside. It is eerily quiet. A heavy fog descends on us as we plough seemingly further and further away from civilisation until eventually, we enter the municipality of Vleteren. Nested deep in the countryside here is, of course, the world famous Brouwerij de Sint-Sixtusabdij van Westvleteren, or Westvleteren brewery, as it is better known.
One of only eleven monasteries - six of which are located in Belgium – still brewing in the authentic Trappist tradition, Westvleteren shot to fame after their 10.2% ABV Westvleteren 12 ale was rated the best beer in the world by American beer website RateBeer. Demand for the product soared, with queues to visit the brewery reportedly snaking over 3 kilometers through Flanders. The monastery's monks, who stipulate that profits from the brewery's operations must be used only to fund the continued maintenance of their way of life, declined to profiteer from the beer's popularity and the beer can only be purchased directly from the abbey, either in the cafe or in limited quantities to take away.
Needless to say, I was pretty keen to see what all the fuss was about, so after a brief look at the historic abbey building, we pile into the cafe, eager to sample the fabled beers. To say I'm surprised by the cafe would be an understatement. I had expected it to be rustic, quiet and authentically Belgian. The reality is more like a tourist information centre, heaving with families; most dragged there by middle-aged, beer obsessive dads. Nonetheless, I put my disappointment aside and we order three of the brewery's 5.8% Blonde beers and some croque monsieurs for lunch.
If I was slightly disappointed by the venue, the beer more than lives up to expectations. A lightly spiced and well rounded Belgian pale with more than a hint of bubblegum, the Blonde instantly reminds me exactly why I fell in love with Belgian beer. We quickly move on to try the Westvleteren 8, a full bodied dubbel that has a hefty liquorice flavour, offset nicely by a roasty malt backbone. All too soon it was time for us to head for Ghent, but not before grabbing a couple of boxes of the famed Westvleteren 12 to take away. Both beers were exceptionally good incarnations of their style, clearly brewed by masters of the profession, but are Westvleteren the best brewery in the world? I'll get back to you after trying the 12.
Located almost slap bang between Bruges and Brussels, Belgium's two most famous cities, Ghent was until recently overlooked by the majority of visitors to the country. The city is home to around 250,000 people, and has a large student population, with Ghent University ranking in the Global Top 100. Despite the influx of a more youthful population naturally bringing with it more modern, trendy cafes, bars and clubs, the city retains a strong medieval character, particularly in its centre.
Our first port of call after arrival is Cafe De Planck, a small floating bar located on the canal to the south of the city centre. The decor is quintessentially Belgian, with a mixture of old fashioned books and modern brewery paraphernalia. The beer list is typically extensive, and I decide ease myself into proceedings with an Oude Orval, a six month old bottle of the classic Trappist ale.
Our next stop is, quite literally, just across the road to De Brouwzaele, where we eat dinner. This authentic pub-come-restaurant is notable for its gorgeous large round bar, which is situated underneath an old brewing kettle. The beer list is again, substantial, but with Delirium Tremens on draught, there's only one choice as far as I am concerned. The food is absolutely stupendous, although a main course will set you back nearly €20. I opt for the ribs, which are incredibly tender and smothered in herbs and garlic. The chips are also delicious, but vegetarians beware, Belgian frites are often dripped in beef fat (which makes them even more incredible in my opinion).
Feeling very full but not yet sufficiently intoxicated, we wander up the river to De Geus van Gent. A homely semi-underground bar, De Geus van Gent has 18 beers on tap on the evening of our visit, and offers tasting flights for those who are indecisive in nature. I, however, know exactly what I'm in the mood for, and order a three year unblended lambic from Brouwerij Boon. I don't know exactly when I started to like spontaneously fermented, so called 'sour' beers, but at the moment I just can't seem to get enough of them. This one, however, doesn't quite hit the levels of tartness that I have grown to love from drinking Cantillon's 100% lambic bio in considerable quantities over the last two years or so.
Our first evening in Ghent was turning into quite a session, and mum couldn't keep up with the pace and headed home. Undeterred, we plough on to up near the main university campus, where we find Cafe Backdoor, a usually lively student hangout with a heavy musical inspiration. Sadly, with the university broken up for Christmas, its a little quiet on the evening of our visit, but we decide to stick around for a Straffe Hendrik Tripel all the same. Random quirky decorations - a model puffin and a huge motorbike hanging from the wall - give Cafe Backdoor an instantly likeable charm, and the music isn't half-bad either, with the likes of New Order and Phil Collins getting a runout during our brief stay.
Our final destination of the evening is Rock Circus, the sister pub to Cafe Backdoor located just down the road. Starting to feel the effects of a heavy evening's work, I plump for the slightly lighter L'Arogante IPA, coming in at 7.2% (positively sessionable by Belgian standards) and get chatting to some locals. Quite unbelievably, one of these locals happens to be Leslie Lambregts, a gypsy brewer who makes, you guessed it, L'Arogante IPA. Amazed at our luck, we happily spend the rest of the evening chatting away to our new friends before stumbling home at close to 3am, resolving to tackle the bars in the town centre the following day.
To say I feel ropey the following morning is somewhat of an understatement. A 9am wake-up call for breakfast is greeted with the levels of distain I usually reserve for Arsenal fans and Fosters drinkers, but eventually I pull myself into some form of semi-human state and we head into the city centre.
Not feeling much like drinking just yet, we decide to take a free walking tour of Ghent, which we booked from a hostel near the centre of the town. The tour takes two hours, and gives us plenty of time to sweat out our hangovers whilst taking in some of the city's sites. Amongst other things, I learn that in Medieval times all of the Flemish grain trade had to pass through Ghent and some of the wheat and rye had to be sold in the city's market. Gravensteen Castle and the cobbled streets in the nearby old district of Patershol are as beautiful as any parts of Bruges and not nearly as touristy.
Feeling revitalised by the frankly freezing winter weather, we make tracks to the north-east of the city centre to local brewery Gentse Gruut Brouwerij. The brewery was founded by Annick De Splenter in 2009, and fascinatingly brew four of their five beers without the use of hops, preferring instead to use herbs and spices. The brewery offer tours for groups of eight or over from €11 per person, but we decide to just sit in the trendy, if slightly draughty, taproom at the front of the brewery and order a flight of all of their beers. The pick of the bunch is the Inferno, which I'm fairly certain was the one containing hops, although its difficult to be sure. On the whole, Gruut's beers are pretty run-of-the-mill, and when one considers the sheer amount of bars in Ghent, it's hard to recommend heading away from the town centre to the brewery unless you're desperate to go on a tour.
A much better place to spend one's evening, I'd suggest, is our next destination. Trollekelder is located just opposite the church of Sint-Jacobdkerk in the north of the centre of the city. It doesn't open until 5pm, and we arrive at ten past to find it already filling up significantly. We manage to grab a seat in the threadbare but strangely cosy cellar and check out the beer menu. All the usual suspects are present, with over 300 bottles (10 on tap) available. There is also a house beer, a very seasonable Belgian blonde, and some rare 750ml bottles including Deus Brut de Flandres. I opt for a Kwak on draught, which luckily doesn't require me to give my shoe as a deposit for the extravagant glass (as is the custom in some Belgian bars).
After a couple of really excellent beers, we are reluctant to leave Trollekelder but eventually make tracks back towards the centre of town for dinner. We eat at Restaurant du Progress, which has an unremarkable selection of beer but an astonishingly good food offering. Once again, its not cheap, but the T-Bone is one of the most succulent, juicy and extravagant things I have ever tasted. Be warned, though, we ordered a medium and the middle was still bright pink, so go for a well done if you don't like your meat undercooked!
Next it was back over to Patershol to pay a visit to Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant (The Waterhouse on the Beerside). According to local legend, the pub was so-named because once one enters, everything turns upside down. With over 160 beers, including three house beers on draught, it's easy to see why one might feel somewhat disorientated after a few drinks inside. The decor is classic Belgian threadbare, with exposed brick and wooden floorboards, and the atmosphere is buzzy but not unpleasant.
I decide to try one of the house beers, Klokke Roeland, on the recommendation of some locals sat at the bar. An 11% Belgian quad packed with ripe fruit and a moderate caramel taste, it's not exactly my usual cup of tea. Thankfully, however, Waterhuis also has a pretty extensive selection of bottled lambics and gueuzes and soon I'm happily supping on a bottle of Hanssens Oude Gueuze. Artfully blended from wort that Hanssens obtains from Boon, Girardin, and Lindemans, it is an excellently balanced gueuze that straddles a fine line between searing acidity and a mild sweetness perfectly.
Our final day in Ghent brings with it more crisp sunshine and bitterly cold winds. A brisk walk through Citadel park quickly eviscerates any lingering wooziness from the night before, and we head off to De Hopduvel - a huge beer shop located in the west of the city - to stock up before the journey home. The selection is fantastic and the prices are extremely reasonable. I make a beeline straight for the gueuze & lambic section, hoping to find some rarities to take home for ageing. Hanssens, Tilquin, Boon and 3 Fonteinen are all present, but to my horror there is no sign of any of Brussels' world-famous Cantillon lambics.
Distraught, we head for Bio-planet, a small sustainable supermarket near the outskirts of town, on the off-chance they may have some of the brewery's 100% Lambic Bio. Incredibly, not only are we in luck, but they also have a slight reduction on price if you buy six bottles, something my brother and I are only too happy to do. We also manage to find bottles of Cantillon's Rosé De Gambrinus, in a wonderful small independent shop called Melanie's World Of Wine And More in Patershol later in the afternoon. Finally, before heading back to the UK, we pay a visit to Het Hinkelspel, a local cheese shop with an exquisite range of smelly delicacies.
All in all, there's a lot to love about Ghent. From its exceptional range of bars, many of which we barely scratch the surface of, to its beautiful buildings and mouthwatering array of restaurants. Even in the midst of the festive season, it's noticeably less busy than Bruges, and if anything the absence of students made our visit feel a little bit on the tame side. I've firmly fallen back in love with Belgian beer and culture again, and can only hope it isn't another three years before I get to visit the country again.