Gent/Ghent/Gand is a city that I have been wanting to return to for some time. I last visited over a decade ago, a not-so successful beer trip as we were spending a day there with Wifey’s parents who are certainly not beer bores like me. I was struck by the grandness of the architecture within the centre of the city with the Graslei harbour being a notable memory. However, I was keen to explore Gent in more detail and try to get under the skin of the second largest municipality in Belgium.
I was staying at the Ibis Dampoort, just on the north-east side of the city and a simple stroll into town. Walking north to the Handelsdok basin felt like being on a Terminator movie set. Many of the crumbling dockside buildings were taken over to art installations, skateparks and meeting places of all descriptions. Crossing the footbridge brought me to Joint Dokkaffee, an arty beer cafe on a barge. The temperature was hitting 37 degrees and a Saison Biologique from Dupont hit the spot.
Suitably refreshed it was time to take in some of the city’s sites. Heading down to the Graslei, the medieval port in the centre of the city, the many grand buildings surrounding this area are a reflection of the city’s past wealth. Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant is on the Leie just before you get to Graslei and an ideal place to stop for a restorative. I tried a glass of dry-hopped Gandavum from Proef. The beer list is impressive and if you’re hungry you can pop next door to their Eethuisje Chez Leontine. Moving on to Vrijdagmarkt I spent some time away from the heat in the Dulle Griet, another old beer cafe with an impressive list. Situated on the market square this pub was unavoidably full of tourists, the majority of who happily gave up one of their shoes for the privilege of drinking one of the Max house beers from a 120cl stirrup glass. Each to their own. I went for a Soleil Levant from Brussels Beer Project.
My next stop was another institution, the Trollekelder next to St Jacob’s Church. A remnant from Belgium’s impressive tilt at the World Cup title, Go Belgium is a red berry Belgian ale which unfortunately lacks a fruit punch.
A new day brought more searing sunshine so why not head off to a brewery in the heart of the city? Gruut has been around for almost 10 years now and brewer Annick De Splenter’s family use to own Riva in Dentergem. Of particular interest is that Annick brews her beers without the use of hops, hence the name Gruut. Gruut is the mixture of herbs and spices used to flavour these beers. Many years ago, brewers from the French side of major Belgian rivers used gruut, those from the northern German side used hops. This is not unique to Belgium as even in Britain, brewers used to make ‘ale’ which was un-hopped. Once British brewers adopted hops to flavour their beers was it then called ‘beer’.
They currently make 5 beers and the 3 that I tried were all good quality and well-balanced. The glasses have a little silver mirror on the bottom which reflect erotic drawings from the beer mats. There is an open door policy at the brewery but you can pre-book guided tours if you wish. They also offer guided walks, boat rides and give you the opportunity to add your own flavours to their blond beer.
Suitably refreshed it was now time to wander towards Sint-Pieters and the university area of town. It was summer so the pace of life around here had slowed somewhat and many of the student-orientated bars were operating on reduced opening hours. Planck, a lovely steamer-turned beer cafe is located on the canal just down from the University. The terrace is an oasis of calm and I enjoyed a lovely Netebuk from Gulden Spoor.
Across the street is De Brouwzaele who’s claim to fame is its amazing bar which has the top of a brewing kettle sat atop it. I was excited to see a favourite of mine on tap, Witkap Stimulo. However, the beer was tart and not up to standard. A shame.
Redemption was to be found across the footbridge to the other side of the canal. I think that I’ve found my favourite cafe in Gent, thanks to the indispensable Good Beer Guide Belgium. On the water’s edge below St Peter’s Abbey sits Geus Van Gent. I enjoyed a lovely Geuze from Tilquin on the terrace with a generous helping of cheese, salami and local Tierenteyn mustard. I’m glad that I then chose to explore the cafe’s interior as it is a dream.
Various styles of cafe furniture mingle with leather sofas and a pool table. The art is funky, sometimes rude and the soundtrack is classic jazz. I could happily have stayed here all evening and am kicking myself for not doing so. A repeat visit is certainly on the cards. Apart from a superb range of lambics they also champion local producers. I was happy to try another wonderful beer from the ever-impressive Humboldt en Gauss.
Foolishly electing to head back into the centre of town I took a walk to Trappistenhuis. Nice bar, good service but be warned that it is just around the corner from Gent’s blue light street, I somehow have an uncanny knack for stumbling onto these areas like a moth to a lamp. Beating a hasty retreat, I was tempted to return to the Trollekelder but at the last minute decided to try Afsnis which is just opposite. Another cool cafe dedicated to lambics and locally-produced beers. I plumped for some more beers from VDBCK. I think that these boys are destined to go from strength to strength. Must pay them a visit soon.
I would definitely recommend a trip here and urge you to step off the well-beaten tourist track and seek out some of the great bars outside the centre. If you are travelling by car I would strongly recommend stocking up at Hopduvel, one of the best beer warehouses in Belgium.