Written for the Burlington Free Press http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/life/2016/03/31/belgian-style-beer-tutorial/82335172/
There’s no category of beer more complex, more complicated and yet also more rewarding than the universe of Belgian-style beers.
In an effort to help demystify this category I thought we could walk through the abbey-style ales, a subset of beers that sprang from the monastic brewing tradition of Belgium.
Europe has a long brewing tradition and it is tied closely with the history of Christian abbeys. Monks worked hard to brew refreshing and nourishing brews for themselves and to sell to lay-persons in an effort to raise funds for their monastic missions. Some of the monastic breweries eventually fell fallow, the brands and recipes were sold off to secular companies. Other abbeys continued to brew their own beer, and still do to this day.
As a side note, the Trappists are subset of the abbey brewing tradition and are unique in that they must be a member of the International Trappist Association. The ITA ensures that the monasteries produce products that benefit the mission of the Cistercian Order and are regulated by a strict code of quality.
Abbey ales were once categorized by the beer’s final alcohol strength. Stronger brews required more ingredients and therefore were most expensive to produce. The stronger beers were reserved for visiting dignitaries or for the leaders of the abbey. There are many stories regarding how these beers gain their style names, but the most logical seems to be this: regular strength beers were marked with one X, double-strong beer casks were marked with XX, and so on. This led to “Single,” “Dubbel,” “Tripel” and “Quadrupel.”
Single – Also known as abbey blonde ale or Patersbier (“father’s beer”), these beers are pale in color and are between 4.5 percent and 6 percent. Singles were usually brewed for the monks to consume on-site at the monastery as table beers. Unfortunately, few commercial examples are available in the U.S. market. This might be because Belgian blonde ales are an unpopular style at the moment or because the low alcohol content keeps these beers from traveling well. In Vermont look for Four Quarters (Winooski) “Opus Dei,” which is draught-only, or Witkap Pater (Belgium) “Stimulo,” which should be on shelves in better bottle shops.
Dubbel – I typically equate abbey dubbels with the brown ales of other cultural brewing traditions. Medium-dark in color and of moderately strong alcohol by volume, 6 percent-7.5 percent, this style is incredibly food friendly. Dubbels are brewed with dark malts and dark “candi” sugar, which is also know as invert sugar. Adding sugar helps to raise the alcohol level, making a more stable product, without adding extra body to the brew. Expect notes of dark caramel, fruity yeast esters, and an earthy dry finish. The best examples available in Vermont are Rochefort (Belgium) “6,” Westmalle (Belgium) “Dubbel” and Ommegang (New York) “Abbey Ale.”
Tripel – This style was invented by the Trappist monastery of Westmalle in 1934. Pale in color and traditionally ranging from 7.5 percent -9.5 percent alcohol by volume, this beer is great for drinking fresh or for cellaring. As a side note, every other abbey style is pale and the others are dark in color: Single and tripel are pale, while dubbel and quadrupel are dark. Tripels are brewed using pale candi sugar, and exhibit subtle fruity notes, spicy yeast phenolics, and a sweet-then-dry mouthfeel. Maredsous (Belgium) “Tripel,” Bosteels (Belgium) “Tripel Karmeliet” and Victory (Pennsylvania) “Golden Monkey” are all available in some Vermont beer stores.
Quadrupel – These Belgian dark ales range in alcohol from 8 percent to 12 percent. Brewed with dark candi sugar and tons of dark malts, Quads offer flavors of dried figs, raisins, orange peel, toasted nuts, milk chocolate, and a flavor I can only describe as “wooly” — earthy and dry. The best Quads can age for a decade or more under proper cellar conditions. Look for Ommegang (New York) Three Philosophers which is at its best when aged for around three years, in the opinion of this writer. Also available in Vermont are La Trappe (Netherlands) “Quadrupel” and Van Steenberge (Belgium) “Gulden Draak 9000 Quad” (which is different than the standard “Gulden Draak”).
Got a favorite abbey ale? Let me know on Twitter at @aPhilosophyOf.
Jeff S. Baker II is the Curator of the Curriculum for Farrell Distributing.