The Beer Wanderer: Gibraltar and Gent.

So you are probably asking, why put Gibraltar and Gent together? Ignoring the fact that one is in Belgium and one right next to Spain, one of them is a city whilst the other is a, erm, country/British Territory I think, with Gibraltar as its capital. So what do they have in common? Well, they do both start with G, which surely is a good enough reason to group them together?

No?

Ok, heck then, they are two places I visited recently and never got around to writing up.

Gibraltar:

An odd mix of cultures here.   In defiance of all the heat that summer brings, Gibraltar defiantly holds fast to its stereotyped British and Irish style pubs heavily stocked with fizzy lager. There are some minor concessions to taste. Around the picturesque Marina Bay you can find a few pubs advertising German weiss beer and such, but overall it’s pretty shocking.

Its wish to be familiar to its British heritage is evident in a few scattershot British ale, taken from their natural cask home and trapped in kegs. Now I’m not a keg hater. The craft beers of America have shown keg can be amazing. However taking a natural cask beer and transplanting it to keg tends to lead to disasters, as a pretty weak pint of London Pride demonstrated.

Now Gibraltar is insanely sunny 90% of the time and an amazingly pretty place to boot, especially since they started cleaning up the dog refuse that was nigh omnipresent in the 1980’s. Of course with the sun comes the heat, and because of that I cannot blame them for concentrating more on the lagers. Well I wouldn’t be able to blame them if they actually did so with taste. Pilsner Urquell is probably the best of a mediocre bunch (though I will admit I do quite enjoy its quite malt filled styling), but there is nothing you won’t find elsewhere.

The one beer oddity is ale made with Gibraltar grown hops, which can be found in a couple of pubs and shops. A nice oddity, but hardly saving the place.

So why does Gibraltar rate an entry at all then. Well being a bit of a tourist trap, and it seems, home to low duty prices, it has a rather insane number of spirit shops. The first shop I saw came as a surprise, with a good selection of Jura and Bunnahabain up to quite respectable ages. The second shop with range of independent bottlings from “Old Malt Cask” and such was less surprising but no less welcome. By the 15th odd store, this time with arrangement of aged whisky in 5cl miniatures I had realised that Gibraltar has really found its niche as a haven for whisky fans.

Quite the range of scotch between the stores, and a moderate smattering of Irish and Bourbon. Prices vary from the obscenely cheap (Ten quid for a bottle of Jura ten year) to pretty much what you would expect in a UK store. Generally it seems the cheaper the bottle was to begin with, the more it will be massively discounted here. More expensive and rare bottlings generally are closer to their UK price.

I did wonder if the liquids under 100ml being allowed in my hand luggage would allow me to bring back some miniatures back but decided not to risk it. Again, not really a reason to hunt out Gibraltar as whisky chaser, but hey if your there for the sights, the prevalence of good quality whisky is a nice little bonus.

Gent:

I’ve mentioned before my love for the Belgium beer culture, and pointed out the high number of drinking restaurants in Bruges as one symptom of that. We did another trip around Bruges this year, and it seems in the off peak seasons a lot of the places are less picky about requiring you to order food in order to drink there, but it’s still something to watch out for.

Gent on the other hand seems to have more dedicated Bars, which, while looking very quirky and original, still operate in a manner much more closely recognisable to what I was used to. In fact Gent in general is a much more real feeling City than Bruges. Bruges’ reputation as a fairy tale town is very much emphasised by its dedication to its touristy feel. Gent bows down less to this pressure and feels much more natural for it, if still an amazingly pretty City to visit. This is especially evident in its Grafitti alley, something that would look out of place in Bruges, but adds a vibrant bit of colour to Gent.

Talking about local colour, A local beers called Stropken beer is a reference to a bit of local history (a rebellion against a tax increase in 1540) which is a nice bit of local colour to your drinking.

Gent’s bars are pretty easy to find. The impressively large bottle selection of Trappistenhuis is notable, as is its way of preventing theft of its most unusual glasses. When ordering a drink in such a glass, a shoe is taken of the drinker and placed in a basket. The basket is then raised to the ceiling, only when the glass is returned is the footwear hostage returned. Usefully the bar also sports a view over the main square where the outdoor market is held, allowing for much watching of the world going by as you drink. If you stay inside instead there are many little alcoves and beer related nick knacks as decoration resulting in the feel as much of an oddities shop as a bar.

The Waterhuis aan de Bierkant is another good choice, with its windows overlooking the river (though on a warm day this can lead to an unpleasant aroma). Add in a wide bottle selection and frequently rotating tap selection to make it a fine beer destination. What makes it stand out is its little batch of tap brews made specifically for the pub. In particular Gandavum Dry Hopping is a smooth hop bomb of delight that I wish I had tasting noted, make sure to grab a glass if you are travelling through.

The final pub I never actually saw inside. The bar Velootje is thus known only by reputation. We passed this bar several times before we realised the run down joint was in fact the bar we were looking for. The reputation of this place is that it is so bad that you must visit it. Unfortunately while we were there it did not open once (or possibly it did and we just had no way of telling the difference), so the reason for this reputation is still a mystery to me, though from the run down look of it maybe I can guess.

Strangely, awesome bottle shops were thinner on the ground than expected. I mean, there still was an inordinate number of placed selling fifty plus different Belgium beers but that seemed almost passé by this point. The redeeming counterpoint needed a bit of wandering to get to, but was well worth the effort. On the outskirts of the city is more a warehouse than a beer shop, the beer Mecca known as Drankencentrale de Hopduvel. A large open room, filled with crates stacked up of nearly every Belgium beer you could think of, from the commonplace to the craft brew. Even better, nigh uniquely for Belgium, it had a wall of world beer, Port Brewing, Nøgne Ø, Insane amounts of Mikkeller, Lost Abbey plus more. Very cheap on the Belgium stuff. So much so that I presumed that taxes were to be added to the listed prices at the checkout (I was very happy to find out I was wrong on this), and respectable prices for world beer – the only problem was the limit on what I could reasonably carry.

Finally, while this is a beer and whisky blog I would be remiss if I did not mention the amazing Marco Polo Restaurant. A slow food restaurant, making delicious Italian dishes. It was worth the half hour wait as you watch them prepare the dishes, for the resulting works of food art they turned out. Pasta, pizza, whatever, it didn’t matter. Everything was delicious. Just make sure you get there early or book in advance, we nearly didn’t get a table.