Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Stroppy Vending Inferno

Ghent is a lovely city with some excellent beers, but you do have to get past the beer vending machine in the main train station to try them. Yes, there is a vending machine that sells beer. Or Jupiler as it were...

Still, this will no doubt come as quite a shock to many readers, particularly those living in countries less liberal than Belgium. Or Flanders as it were...

Between visiting friends and occasionally speaking at the university there, I actually get to Ghent reasonably often, and I always try to sample one of the local beers while I’m there. But two Ghent beers came to me recently...

The first, Gruut Inferno from the Gentse Stadsbrouwerij, is another one of those gruit beers we’ve tasted here before. Gruit, as extreme beer geeks will know, is the traditional herbal mix added to beer in the days before hops were used, and some brewers like to experiment with it today. Remembering my experience with Cervesia and Gageleer, I was prepared to be underwhelmed, and indeed, the tasting with Jess and Jonathan brought no whelm of compliments whatsoever. We all found it unbalanced in flavours, being far too sweet and alcoholic. It was just missing something: once again, we learn that there's a reason hops replaced gruit.

The second Ghent beer was more promising. Gentse Strop is a tasty Belgian ale with a fruity nose that won approvals all round.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually come from Ghent, being produced by the Brouwerij Roman just outside the city of Oudenaarde. There is a strong historical connection between the two cities: it’s a wonderful tale involving an illegitimate daughter of Charles V, a city guard who got drunk and didn’t notice an invading army, and noose wearing. It's that final aspect that's linked to the beer: Strop means noose, and apparently at some point during the dark days of the Counter-Reformation in the 16th century, Charles V humiliated vanquished rebels from the city by making them parade around with the death rope knotted around their necks. Not exactly gracious in victory then, Old Chuckie 5.

How Ghent went from such exaggerated levels of uptightness to being relaxed enough to have beer vending machines in public places is no doubt a longer story. Still, the overall lesson is clear: even if you don’t like Jupiler, you have to credit the city’s liberalising trend over the last few hundred years.

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