Belgian Styles: Putting Rumors to Rest
You'd be hard pressed to go into a DC bar and not find at least one Belgian beer, or Belgian-influenced beer, available. In establishments with, shall we say, less than robust selections this usually means Stella, Blue Moon, or Leinie's Sunset Wheat, but DC Beer Week has had a lot of really great Belgian beer all over town. To our delight, more and more bars in DC are carrying a wider range of Belgian styles on a regular basis, including saisons, Belgian IPAs, and the dubiously-named dubbels, tripels, and quadrupels.
At some point, everyone has wondered why the latter three Belgian beers have been named in relation to each other. Is there math involved? If so, what factor is being multiplied? Speculation runs high, and we have heard claims of all kinds. "The styles have twice, three times, and four times the alcohol content of the monks' basic brew." "No, it's the malt that's doubled, tripled, and quadrupled in the recipes." "It has nothing to do with ingredients. Most people couldn't read back then, so the barrels of types of beer were marked with one, two, or three X's." "It's how many times the beer has been fermented."
Each account has a bit of truth to it, but none is entirely correct. The simplest (while still accurate) answer is that the names have to do with the amount of malt used. However, the full explanation has more to do with an old brewing process in which the same malt was used for multiple batches of beer than it does with simple math and the unique characteristics that each style has come to exhibit today.
Hopefully those of you who attended the "Hitting for the Cycle" Belgian beer event at Marvin last night got a proper account. Sly Fox brewmaster Brian O'Reilly, who the Lagerheads got to meet during a Pennsylvania brewery tour a few weeks ago, has written what appears to be the most succinct and accurate explanation of the origin of the names available online. (Scroll down to the "From the Brewer" section.) It gets a little technical so you may want to check this out to brush up on the steps of the brewing process and basic brewing terminology before reading it. (Beer Snob Warning: In the video, they use hop pellets instead of flowers and refer to two weeks of conditioning as "aging." Don't hate.)
Historically, the enkels (the monks' basic brew, which the Belgian blonde style most closely resembles), dubbels, and tripels had much more in common with each other. The image above from La Trappe, the Dutch trappist brewery that took the nomenclature one step further by brewing the first "quadrupel," shows how the types of beer compare color-wise today. Below is a bit of information on the three styles and some less obvious examples of each (that is, examples that don't have the word for the style in their name).
- History: First brewed as early as 1856 by the monks at Westmalle
- Characteristics today: rich, malty, some spice aromas, mildly hopped, caramel flavors, decent carbonation
- Alcohol content: 6% to 9% ABV
- Examples: Chimay Premiere/Red, Ommegang (their straight up abbey ale), North Coast Brother Thelonious, Corsendonk Brown, Maredsous 8, Brewer's Art Resurrection
- History: First brewed in 1934 by Westmalle (Belgium)
- Characteristics today: spicy, fruity, sweet, often clove and citrus aromas and flavors, sometimes banana and/or pepper
- Alcohol content: 8% to 12% ABV
- Examples: Chimay Cinq Cents/Tripel (White), Unibroue La Fin du Monde, Victory Golden Monkey, Weyerbacher Merry Monks' Ale, Maredsous 10
- History: First brewed in 1991 by La Trappe (Netherlands)
- Characteristics today: rich, malty, very sweet, strong alcohol presence, often dark fruit aroma and flavors
- Alcohol content: 9% to 13% ABV
- Examples: Rochefort 10, Ommegang Three Philosophers, Avery The Reverend, Victory V-Twelve, Allagash Four, Mikkeller Monk's Brew
Now that we've cleared that little matter up, which do you prefer? Tammy was hooked by her first quad, Kasteel Bruin, but not many other folks are into them. Bruce can't get enough of the tripels, with Tripel Karmeliet being his favorite. Had a specific brewery's attempt at any of these Belgian beauties and been particulary smitten (or completely unimpressed)? Let us know.