The Bounty of Belgian Beers
Beer-styles: Dubbel, Tripel & Quad
The loosely interrelated beer-styles of Dubbel, Tripel and Quadrupel form an interesting niche in Belgian brewing history. Originating in the Trappist tradition, these archetypes have influenced craft brewing in the United States and beyond, gaining a new audience far beyond the walls of the monasteries. The chief factors separating them from most other types is the liberal use of fermentable candi sugar and the fascinating, complex yeast strains cultivated over the years, imparting a character unique to each master brewer’s expression.
Though recent years have seen a proliferation of Trappist breweries (with outposts popping up in Austria, Italy and even Massachusetts), for quite some time there were only seven main exponents, all centered in the Low Countries: Achel, Chimay, La Trappe, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle and the elusive Westvleteren. With the exception of Orval, all of the above brew variations of two or more of the styles profiled here. As it is forbidden for secular brewers to label their products as “Trappist” or even “Trappist-style”, the matter is often neatly sidestepped with the wording “Abbey Ale”.
A Dubbel is, essentially, a strong Belgian brown ale. Deeply caramelized candi sugar provides the coloration and characteristic brown-sugar flavor on the palate, while the yeast imparts clovey, floral and phenolic aromas. When executed well, the result is akin to a decadent holiday sweetbread, malty but also pleasantly spiced. Note that the candi causes the darker hue in the final beer without any of the roasty characteristics inherently found in a porter or stout. The malt is simply not toasted or charred to the same extent as these beers hailing from the UK brewing tradition. This also reduces the perceived bitterness. A Dubbel typically clocks in at 6.5-8% ABV, exuding flavors of sticky toffee, brown bread and raisins, with low hop character.
Examples: Chimay Red, North Coast Brother Thelonious
If a Dubbel is a strong Belgian brown ale, then a Tripel is a strong Belgian blonde ale. Again, the use of candi sugar (light in color this time) boosts the alcohol by volume without the usual associated heavier body. These beers are therefore quite easy to consume quickly and in higher volumes, with their ABV deceptively well-hidden, and their effects are well-known to sneak up on an unsuspecting drinker. The prototypical Tripel is that of Westmalle; it is indisputably the very first to be called by that designation. Contrary to some preconceived notions, the style is not age-old - Westmalle Tripel was first brewed only in 1934. The yeast is the star of the show here; in addition to clove and fainter banana, the beer gives off a powerful aroma of pears. The proprietary yeast-strain is so renowned that it is also used at Achel and the famed Westvleteren. A Tripel’s ABV band can range from 8-9.5%, often with more dry-hopping floral character evident than in its cousins (Chimay White), and some bitterness from both the hops and the yeast.
Examples: Westmalle Tripel, Bosteels Tripel Karmeliet.*Brouwerij Bosteels is family-owned brewery in Flanders has expanded laterally upon the style by utilizing three grains in the mash, rather than the usual one: barley, wheat and oats. This makes for a terrific textural difference, with a fluffier and altogether creamier mouthfeel.*
If Dubbel and Tripel have only a distant claim to longstanding tradition, then the term Quadrupel (usually truncated to “Quad”) is absolutely a triumph of marketing. Precursors exist in the form of the awkwardly named “Belgian Strong Dark Ale” style, which encompasses beers as divergent as Chimay Blue or Delirium Nocturnum. Like many a big tent, this term is more of an umbrella category than a definitional ideal-type. We are presented with a classic squares-and-rectangles situation: all Quads are BSDAs, but not all BSDAs are Quads. The very first beer to be commercially dubbed a “Quad” was that of La Trappe, located just over the border from Belgium in south-eastern Holland. This beer debuted only in 1991. If you look closely at recent labels of La Trappe Quad, you may notice that they have been rebranded for the calendar year 2016, with a prominent “25” intertwined with the iconographic block-letter Q, celebrating a quarter-century of this beer’s existence. A Quad is often more amber/russet brown in color than outright opaque, with a pronounced sweetness and an ABV of absolutely no less than 10%. When the alcohol (and the residual sugars) are pushed that high, the aromas trend towards figs, prunes, plums and other dark fruits. Hopping is all but nonexistent.Examples: La Trappe Quad, St. Bernardus Abt 12