In terms of visitors, Ghent has always seemed to play second fiddle to the tourist hubs of Brussels, Antwerp and Bruges. For some reason, its cobbled streets, castle and the stunning medieval architecture that heaves with a fascinating and turbulent history, haven’t quite attracted the hoards like its counterparts have. So much so, that despite being the country’s 3rd largest city – with a population of 250,000 – it is still considered by many as a ‘hidden gem’.
Stroppendrager’s have a long history of brewing. Like the Leie flows through the town’s medieval centre, beer flows through the veins of its people. It is thought that there was once as many as 500 brewers in the city. Although the same can be said for much of Belgium, Ghent likes to do things a little differently. It brews its beer completely hop free. In the middle ages, the river Lys lay in the middle of two different schools of beer making – on the Dutch side, brewers would use hops to flavour their beer whereas, on the French dominated side, the beer would be flavoured with local herbs and spices. Now Ghent, and more specifically, the Gruut brewery, is leading a resurgence in these herb flavoured ales.
So where should you drink in Ghent? Where can you find the best beers? Here’s a list of my 5 favourites.
Gruut Brewery, located just outside of the town centre on the corner of Baudelopark, is decidedly old school. It is one of the few breweries to use a mix of herbs and spices, known as gruut, instead of the traditional hops. Using local herbs like mugwort, ground ivy, sweet gale, yarrow, and heather, and exotic spices like ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon they have produced 5 distinct ales; White, Blond, Amber, Brown and Inferno.
Despite their traditional recipes, the brewery uses modern technology to produce their beer and their bar is surprisingly cool. Inside their airy warehouse, you will find mismatched furniture sat among the exposed brick and ironwork. life-sized, taxidermied cows stand atop the brewing vessels and their outside courtyard is daubed with street art.
The best thing about the place? They offer a tasting tray of all 5 of their brews for just €9. If that isn’t enough beer for you, there is the option of a brewery visit, tasting session and even opportunity to make your own beer!
De Dulle Griet
Nestled in Vrijdagmarkt, one of Ghent’s many pretty squares, De Dulle Griet is a beer drinker’s heaven. Named after the ill-fated mega cannon (Mad Margaret) that failed to protect the city in 1452, this legendary bar serves so many beers – 500 in total – that it can be a little overwhelming. It can be impossible to know where to start. When the waiter placed the 5 page, laminated tome in front of me, I stared at the top sheet unable to get past the section of the alphabetised list marked A – C. In the end, I had to just ask him to “surprise me”.
If you are really stumped, then most people will recommend that you order the house beer, Max, and witness one of the strangest pub customs in all of Belgium. It is served in a 1.2-litre bulbous tube that is held in place by a wooden rack, once used by coachmen so that they could hang their drink on their saddle and sip away at it until they reach the next drinking establishment. The glass is so expensive to produce, and past customers so sticky-fingered, that De Dulle Griet now requires a deposit when you order. However, this is a little different from the usual passport/driving licence/cash deposit. A small basket will trundle down from the ceiling for you to place a shoe before the waiter winches it back out of reach. It’s a good idea to begin your night with a Max, rather than at the end when you’re already half-cut and forgetful, otherwise you may be wandering home with one shoe.
‘t Velootje Bar Peculia
“Welcome to the strangest pub in the Northern Hemisphere!” exclaimed a dishevelled, bearded man as he ushered us inside, in turn, sweeping piles of junk across the floor with the backside of the door. Instantly I could see why the few customers that had ventured here were drinking at the picnic benches outside, in the cold; Every inch of the room was filled with an assortment of random objects. Bicycle parts – wheels, handlebars and cogs – hung from the ceiling, piles of junk sat on the floor and the table tops were covered in old lamps, figurines and in one case, a Bengal cat, curled in a ball and dozing away. It was a cross between a thrift store and a madman’s shed. The only available floor space was a narrow corridor that the owner had cleared so that he could make the short journey from the door to a well-stocked beer fridge.
“What would you like?”
Before I even had a chance to answer, he was already rummaging around in the fridge. “This is the best beer I have ever tasted. You can have this!” He pulled out a litre bottle of a beer I had never seen before, neatly wrapped in paper with its name in an indecipherable font. He swept the rubbish from a tabletop, put the drink down and uncapped it without giving me another option. “I think you better drink outside with us… if you don’t mind”.
I had read about ‘t Velootje in a couple of blogs and Ghent city guides so I was expecting quite a few other tourists here. Instead, I found the owner dressed in just a dressing gown, sat outside with a couple of his friends, smoking scraggly roll-ups and knocking back glass after glass of fruity geneva. Lieven, a gruff gentleman with a unkempt white beard and hair to match, told me that he had owned this bar for 35 years, gradually filling it with more and more trash. It sat on a narrow, unassuming street just away from the main drag of Ghent’s trendy Patershol neighbourhood. It is not the kind of place you just stumble upon.
“What sort of maniac would recommend this place to you!?” Lievens friend was looking at me as if I was crazy to want to drink here. I didn’t catch his name and I didn’t get a chance to ask him again. The words came at me thick and fast, covering everything from the history of British beer to the history of Belgian beer. With him, it was all beer, all the time. The only time he stopped was to wander inside and yank Lievens cat from its slumber, dragging it to the table for me to stroke. When the cat had lost interest, he got back to explaining how he had spent a freezing winter night, snowed in at the bar, sleeping under a pile of junk to keep warm.
Lieven’s other friend barely spoke. He was a man of around 60, but looking a little worn and much older than his years, and was sat a little too close to me, head down, swaying from side to side. He had clearly been enjoying the drinks a little too much. Occasionally he would lift his head, let out a long, drawn-out “oooh my Gooooood!” in a Kenneth Williams-eque English accent before returning to his own little alcohol-induced world. I looked around to see if anyone else found this a little strange. They either didn’t notice or were just ignoring him. I assume this is a common occurrence.
It may not be the most normal or traditional of pubs, but a visit to ‘t Velootje is certainly an experience.
Waterhuis aan de Bierkant
Popular with locals and tourists alike, Waterhuis aan de Bierkant (“The Waterhouse at the Beerside”) sits alongside the Leie and is the perfect place to while away a few hours on the terrace watching the boats and kayaks floating by. There are 165 beers on the menu, including three house beers: Gandavum, Klokke Roeland and Mammelokker. A word of warning though, the bar staff will only let you order a maximum of 3 beers though as with the strength of Belgian tipple, that is all you need.
Next door is another Ghent institution, ‘t Dreupelkot. Also known as Pol’s bar due to the owner who can often be found looking dishevelled and joking with the customers (also, his face is on the sign above the door), this place is not your average Belgian jenever bar; There are 200+ jenevers on the menu, including over 50 made by Pol himself.
Drink Al Fresco
On a sunny day, there is nothing better than sitting by the river and soaking up the heat while sipping a beer. To do this, I picked up a bottle from one of the multitude of great off-licenses (I found the best to be on the corner of Sint Veerleplein) and joined the cities student population on by the Leie on Kraanlei where the crowds were gathering to drink, chat and sunbathe.
Where are your favourite spots to drink in Ghent? Let me know in the comments!
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