I’m taking a break from reviews this week to focus on my recent honeymoon in Brussels, Belgium. During the next few days, I’ll be covering my thoughts on the culture, the craft and – of course – the amazing beer and breweries my bride and I enjoyed while on our trip in what many consider to be the mecca of beer.
After hopping around Brussels for a couple of days, my wife and I decided to plan a couple of day trips to other cities nearby to see some of the other sites. And, of course, the other breweries.
On our third day, we hopped a train to Bruges, which is about an hour outside of Brussels. We climbed the 366-step bell tower, browsed the open-air central market and made nice with a few other tourists. In case you’re wondering, the city is much nice – and much less violent – than “In Bruges” makes it out to be.
Bruges is also home to De Halve Maan (The Half Moon), Bruges’ only active family owned brewery which really came to be in the mid 1800s. During the past few centuries, the brewery has grown and modernized, going through some tough times but reopening in 2005 and still going strong.
An open-air beer garden sits outside while a cozy and modern tasting room that serves the brewery’s four beers: a blond and dubbel under the Brugse Zot brand and a trippel and quad under the Straffe Hendrik name.
But before we got to the beer, we took a tour through the modern and original brew house. When you first walk in, you stand among all the expected brewing equipment. If you’ve been to a brewery, you know how it all works.
From there, it’s up a series of staircases through the original brewing equipment. There was the upper loft, where they kept all the hops and grains; the roasting room, where all the grains were heated just right (as well as a mirror pointing up the original exhaust shaft); the original coolship, where all the beers were once cooled; the original brew kettles; and eventually outside to the top-most point, where you can look down on the old and new brew house.
After all the walking, we were left to our own devices in the tasting room. The Brugse Zot Blond was a classic blond with a peppery bite. The Brugse Zot Dubbel was rich with carbonation and big flavors of plums and toffee.
The classic were great, but the big boys were the ones that really shined. The Straffe Hendrik Tripel had a really interesting tropical fruit note with a caramel coating. But the big daddy – the 11% Straffe Hendrik Quad – was one of the best quads – hell, one of the best beers – I’ve had. Massive carbonation, a gigantic punch of brown sugar and figs and nary a hint of alcohol (until after you down it). There was a barrel-aged version in the gift shop for sale, but sadly, I made the decision to buy it right after the last bottle had sold.
The following day, we made another day trip to Gent, which is about halfway between Bruges and Brussels. There aren’t too many touristy things in Gent, so we just wandered the streets and shops and scoped the place out.
We happened to stumble upon Gruut, Gent’s city brewery. The brewery gets its name from the coinage once used to purchase gruit, a herb similar to hops. (An image of one of the coins is used as the brewery’s logo.) To honor their history, Gruut uses the gruit herb in their beers in place of hops. It’s a specialty spice that has a lot of similarities to hops, and in the beer tastes like a slightly less pungent hop.
The brewery itself, which lies at the corner of two canals, is extremely modern inside, and resembles more of a cafe than a brewery. There are tables scattered outside and inside along with the brewing equipment. It’s very clean and modern, and on a nice day like the day we visited, was the perfect place to pop in for a couple of drinks.
With five beers on tap and us wanting to try a bit of each, my wife and I decided to go for the sampler, which cost just a handful of euros. We were expecting small tasting glasses to get just a nip of everything, and then we’d purchase full drinks.
Well, the Belgians don’t play around. The “tasters” we received were five full-pour 12 oz. glasses of each of the beers.
Our “tasters” included the following (which are right to left in the above photo):
- Gruut Wit, your standard 5% witbier with a mellow sweetness and a slight bite;
- Gruut Blond, a surprisingly rich, full-bodied and spicy 5.5%-er that was easily the best blond I’ve ever tasted;
- Gruut Amber, a really superb 6% amber with a bit caramel note and some bready sweetness;
- Gruut Bruin (Brown), a bit higher at 8% but with an incredibly smooth and rich nutty flavor;
- Gruut Inferno, their damn-impressive 9% trippel with huge carbonation and a big, spicy punch of rosemary and sage.
Having never heard of either of these breweries stateside, I was floored at how good their beers were. Even the standard fare such as blonds, browns and ambers – the standard three beers for nearly all Belgian breweries – tasted better than the vast majority of their American brethren. They’re hidden gems among the Cantillons and trappist breweries that usually grab the attention of folks in the states. Because of beers like the ones I had at De Halve Maan and Gruut, I’m now a little more inquisitive about and apt to try Belgian beers I’ve never heard of before.