Plus a lot of information on brewing
Out of all the lovely travel activities I set upon during my stay in Ghent, my Belgian beer walk is what I enjoyed the most. Naturally, with so much talk about beer in Belgium, it was only normal to get myself in for such a treat. I had a wonderful guide too, beer expert Ariel Meeusen, from beerwalk.be who took me through the long list of Belgian Beers as well as the hidden beauty of Ghent. Want to learn more about Belgian beer? Keep on reading.
I admit I have long been a beer fan. I would exchange my glass of wine or any other liquor for a good beer any time. I would happily venture in trying any brew, craft, micro, macro or homebrew. Beer is one of the few, down to earth drinks with not a hint of snobbery following it (sorry wine lovers). What’s more to it, there is an immense variety of flavours that will tickle your taste buds.
But what is a good beer? Well, it all depends on taste. Do you imagine a hot summer day without a cold glass of fizzy golden beer? Lager or pils is just the easiest choice. Golden pils have inundated shops and restaurants for quite some time. Now, let’s see who has enjoyed a sound ale from the tap of their local pub or brewer? Perhaps you prefer a bitter? Over the past few years the UK has been teeming with microbreweries which produce excellent quality ales and stouts. Even in Greece, not a country traditionally associated with beer, there are some notable efforts of getting craft beer out in the wider public, Marea and Septem just to name a few.
This time I immersed myself in the world of brewing a little deeper. I entered the Belgian beer world through the restaurant of St Jorishof, located just opposite the city hall in the heart of Ghent. The building used to be a Cloth Hall and house of the guilds of guards erected in the late the 15th century. If you enter it from the side door you will notice towards the far left edge of the building a set of thick, massive wooden doors. This is a sign the building used to be a brewery, and you can find these doors in many buildings around Gent city center. The restaurant has been fully renovated in 2014 and serves for other functions too. We sat in one of the lovely rooms to talk and drink our brew. Although there is no active brewery in the premises the selection of beers are revealing.
I sat around the round table and slowly sipped a small glass of Belgian pale ale. Then the names couldn’t stop pouring in: Faro, Gueuze, Lambic, Oud Bruin, Flanders red, Dubbel, Trippel, Quaddrupel, trappistes and so on and so forth. No, I didn’t try them all. I wouldn’t be able to put on foot in front of the other if I did. But I did learn quite a bit of the brewing process whilst walking the wonderful streets of Ghent.
First things first, how is beer made?
You will need some very basic ingredients to make beer: malts – barley or wheat and water to start with. The grains should be soaked for 2-3 days to allow germination and then drain. When the seed sprouts, it activates the enzymes which start converting its starch reserves and protein into sugar. The grain is then dried in a kiln. At this stage the temperature during kilning will give a different colour and flavour to the malt and thus the beer. Dark malts result from higher temperature kilning and thus darker beer. 😉 Think of stouts here. This whole process goes by the name malting.
After malting is finished, the malts and hot water are added in a large vessel, the mash tun. The temperature is gradually raised to convert the starch into fermentable sugars. What you have in the mash tun will then be separated discarding the residual grain – often used as animal feed- and keep the warm liquid known as wort. Wort is about to be made into beer and it is at this stage that you will add the yeast and your flavouring. Most notably hops, a flavouring and preservative that was largely introduced in the brewing process in the 13th century. This is what will turn your beer a little bitter. In Belgium though, they don’t simply do hops. There is gruut or gruit, a special mix of herbs such as yarrow, wild rosemary, bog myrtle, aniseed and juniper berries. The emphasis of the beer is in the malts and as they say, you have to find balance in your glass.
Then you go straight to fermentation. In Belgium, there are four type of fermentation and there is only one brewery using them all: Omer Vander Ghinste in Bellegem.
Bottom fermentation (Saccharomyces – low temperatures of fermenting 4 – 9 degrees C)
This type gives us the abundant lagers. It’s a method accidentally invented from barrels left in cold cellars. The yeast had sunk at the bottom of the barrel giving the crystal clear beer known to all as pils or lager that comes from the German cellar. Bottom fermentation method was largely ignored until the Bavarians revived it towards the end of the 19 th century and it was subsequently perfected in Bohemia
Top fermentation, the yeasts (saccharomyces) are active at 14-25 C and you have the yeast floating on the top. This is the oldest form of fermentation, used by most specialist and regional brewers. It can take anywhere between 2-3 weeks to months to reach the desirable product.
Spontaneous fermentation, this method uses only wild yeast or airborne bacteria – Brettanomyces. Again, it’s one of the oldest methods. This is the method that Lambiek beers are produced, a specialty of Belgium. I am very proud to have tried one, brewed between the two rivers of Ghent, Scheldt and Leie. Did I like it? Honestly, out of all the barley sweetness I savoured from all the other beers, this one I remember for its distinct sharpness. You certainly don’t take a Flemish Old Style Sour Ale in vain.Mixed fermentation, which, as you can imagine uses a mix of the above types, with Brett., lactobaccillus and/or Saccharomyces yeasts.
Why Belgian Beer?
Belgian beer has a long tradition and history. Back in the Middle Ages, a brew of beer was more common to consume than water. Given the dubious water quality at the time, it was also safer. In the beer belt of Europe, stretching from Ireland passed central Europe and in the Eastern corners of Europe it has been noted that people in medieval times would drink up to one and a half litters of beer per day (!). (Hick) Beer was seen as a healthy alternative to drinking water, which was often of suspect quality.
Abbey beers vs Trappist beers
Abbeys have taken up on the shoulders the production of beer. In the early Middle Ages and much later too, the monasteries would be stop-overs for pilgrims. It was their duty to provide shelter; even if food was meager you would get a sandwich in a glass. A beer would be more nutritious than your actual meal. Nowadays, the names have stayed on, along with many of the traditional brewing methods, even if many of the monasteries have long perished.
What is the difference between abbey beers and trappist beers? Well, it’s simpler than you think; it all has to do with the location and licence of the brewer. Abbey beers are made in regular breweries that pay royalties to the monasteries to use their name. Trappist beers must be brewed in or near an active monastery of the Cistercian order; the monks should supervise the brewing as well as the marketing of the beer. An amount of these profits goes back to the monastery or funds a charitable cause. All in all sounds like a good deal. If you can’t think of any trappist, just keep Chimay, Orval or Rochefort in the beers to try list. These are 3 of the 6 active trappist brews served anywhere in Belgium.
And when in Ghent, don’t forget to try the Gulden draak. A brew named after the Golden dragon of Ghent’s Belfry. Don’t take this one lightly, it’s not just a marketing fix. Golden draak is an exceptional dark triple, with an exceptional alcohol volume of 10,5%. Delicious as it may be, no pub will serve you more than 3.
So this post is just about scratching the top of the iceberg when it comes to Belgian beers. A huge thanks to Ariel for taking me through this wonderful beer walk in Ghent and initiating me in the magic of Belgian beer. I couldn’t recommend you a better guide. Just remember, when on a Belgian pub crawl, indulge your taste buds in good measure and do snack, every alcoholic drink should be consumed in moderation, after all. (hick)
Have you been brewing? Do you have a favourite Belgian brew? Let me know in the comments, I’m always happy to hear from you.
From Ghent with love,
PS: Where else can you enjoy a beer walk in Belgium? Antwerp, Bruges and Kortrijk https://www.beerwalk.be/en/ghent/tour/