Delirious in Ghent

De 4 Vaargetijden cruised the canal while we biked our way from Brugge to Ghent through the West Flanders countryside. Ghent is a much larger city than Brugges and has a very different feel. While Brugge felt to me more like a city for visitors, Ghent had the feel of a big city that welcomes, but is not so driven by tourist trade. We arrived at the mooring site on the Leie River near the center, locked our bikes down, and set off to explore a bit. Unsurprisingly, finding a beer was easy.

There is interesting beer culture to explore in Ghent including the story of the hopless gruits. Gruit brewing has a long history in Ghent dating back to the tenth century or earlier. The city’s brewers were known for their use of gruit, a mixture of herbs and spices that was used to flavor beer before hops became popular. Gruit beers were popular in Ghent until the 14th century, when hops began a common ingredient.

This is the third part of what will be a four-installment series of stories about a beer, bike, and barge experience in Belgium.

Part 1: Series Overview
Part 2: Beery Explorations in Brugge
Part 4: Down the River to Deinze

click on map to open interactive Google Map of the beer, bike, and barge adventure

Like many cities throughout Europe, Ghent was home to lots of breweries back in the day that produced a variety of beers including pale ales, brown ales, and strong dark beers. Industrialization, transportation innovations, wars, and other factors began sorting things out in the 18th century and the brewing industry declined in the city proper. Today, there are just a couple of breweries in the center but there is vibrant cafe life offering plenty of beer experiences.

Brewery Visits

But first, a trip to the suburbs and a bit of Delirium. Brouwerij Huyghe in Melle – about five miles southeast of our mooring is famous for its Delirium beer and pink elephant logo. The brewery has been in operation since 1906 and is arguably one of the most prominent Belgian brands worldwide. Following a tour of the sprawling complex, we convened in the brewery’s tasting room to sample a delightful array of beers. I could tell that our guide, Jose de Bock had done this a zillion times, but he was patient, friendly, and quick to pour yet another of the seemingly endless variety of Huyghe’s beers. It was a bit dizzying (literally). We tried out the flagship Delerium Tremens, an Averbode Golden Ale, a Ten Duinen Dubbel, a Paranoia Hazy Hoppy Blonde, a La Guillotine Golden Ale, Floris Kriek, and Fruli Strawberry Wheat beer among others.

Back near the city center, the Ghent Gruut Brewery has revived the ancient tradition of gruit using herbs as a natural preservative and flavoring agent in their beer. They brew a range of unique brews, including a blonde, amber, brown, and white beer. Gruit is certainly not unique to Ghent — it was brewed far and wide before hops brewing became popular. Gruit blends varied from region to region, but they typically included a combination of herbs such as heather, yarrow, bog myrtle, mugwort, horehound, and sweet gale. These herbs imparted a variety of flavors to beer, including bitterness, sweetness, and spice. Gruit also had antimicrobial properties that helped to keep beer fresh.

The use of gruit declined once people figured out that hops were cheaper and more effective at preserving beer and imparted a desirable flavor. In Germany, the Reinheitsgebot prohibited the use of herbs other than hops in beer, so no more Gruit there.

Cafe Scene

The cafe scene in Ghent is super — we enjoyed several memorable meals and pleasant refreshment stops during our days there. Some notable places for a beer stop:

  • Brouwbar was a hole-in-the-wall brewpub with a small range of house craft beers. The website link isn’t working so I am thinking this place may have closed since I was in Ghent?
  • Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant is a traditional beer cafe with a large selection of Belgian beers and a pleasant terrace on the riverfront.
  • De Dulle Griet is an old-school pub with a big beer selection and a quirk or two. They have a tradition of serving a beer in a yard glass in a wooden stand they call a “Max.” Don’t be surprised if you are asked to leave one of your shoes as collateral for the glass while you drink.
  • ‘t Galgenhuisje is a historic pub with a cozy atmosphere. The name of the place translates to “the gallows house,” referring to its location near the city’s gallows during medieval times.

Getting Some Culture

There is no shortage of mainstream tourism attractions in Ghent as well, and the center is a pleasant place to stroll and explore. We were told not to miss visiting Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and the Mystic Lamb Painting so we followed that advice. It is an impressive Gothic structure with soaring vaulted ceilings, intricate stained glass windows, and ornate chapels. The history of the Mystic Lamb a painting by Jan van Eyck displayed in the cathedral is fascinating. The painting, which dates back to the 15th century, is considered one of the most important works of art in the world and has been the subject of numerous thefts and controversies over the years.

A short walk away is the imposing Gravensteen Castle, a medieval fortress that dates back to the 12th century. The castle was once the residence of the Counts of Flanders and has survived numerous battles and sieges. We explored inside-out ending up on the ramparts for a panoramic view of Ghent.

There are plenty of charming cobblestone streets, historic buildings, and quaint shops and cafes to stroll and troll. Graffiti Street is a narrow alleyway that has been transformed by artists into a colorful display of edgy works. As I understand it, the murals and graffiti are constantly changing so you can be sure it will be different each time you visit.

Beer & Chocolate Pairing

As famous as Belgium is for its beer, it is every bit as famous for chocolate. One evening in Ghent, Bob (remember Bob? if not read part one of this series) had lined up a beer and chocolate pairing on the barge led by Gaert, a connoisseur from Leuven. Now I had never given much thought to pairing beer and chocolate, but Gaert made me a believer in the discoveries that can come from exploring the complementary and contrasting flavors. Gaert kept opening one little fancy box of chocolate after another assisted by Bob who was opening and distributing the beers they would be paired with. The elegantly designed beers came from around the area. The elegantly designed chocolates came from a maker in Leuven called Bittersweet. It was one mouth surprise after another!

The next morning, everyone had decided to stay on the barge for the trip on the river to our next mooring and exploration of another place. Maybe we’ll have some chocolate and beer along the way?

Here are some tips for pairing beer and chocolate:

  • Consider the intensity of the flavors: Both beer and chocolate can have a wide range of flavors, from light and delicate to dark and intense. When pairing them, it’s important to consider the intensity of both flavors. A light beer, such as a pilsner, will go well with a light chocolate, such as milk chocolate. A dark beer, such as a stout, will go well with a dark chocolate, such as dark chocolate with a high cocoa content.
  • Think about the sweetness of the flavors: Beer can also range in sweetness, from dry to sweet. When pairing beer and chocolate, it’s important to consider the sweetness of both flavors. A sweet beer, such as a brown ale, will go well with a sweet chocolate, such as milk chocolate with caramel or nuts. A dry beer, such as an IPA, will go well with a dark chocolate with a bitter or salty flavor.
  • Consider the bitterness of the flavors: Beer can also have varying levels of bitterness, from low to high. When pairing beer and chocolate, it’s important to consider the bitterness of both flavors. A bitter beer, such as an IPA, will go well with a dark chocolate with a high cocoa content. A less bitter beer, such as a brown ale, will go well with a milk chocolate or a chocolate with a fruit flavor.
  • Think about the texture of the flavors: Beer can also have different textures, from light and crisp to thick and creamy. When pairing beer and chocolate, it’s important to consider the texture of both flavors. A light beer, such as a pilsner, will go well with a light chocolate, such as milk chocolate. A thick and creamy beer, such as a stout, will go well with a dark chocolate with a high cocoa content.

Photo credits: We shared photos pretty freely so I’m pretty certain that there are some photos mixed into the story that were taken by others on the trip. Thank you very much!

Read more stories about beer, biking, hiking, and travel in Belgium here

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