Dubbel Troubel

The third beer in my Summer Belgian Series is a dubbel (pronounced double). I brewed this beer a few weeks ago and it has spawned no end of discussion among my friends, as to the nature of dubbel, trippel, and quadrupel (and singel?). In San Diego we have all become accustomed to the West Coast style of pale ales; Double and Triple IPAs. These are strong, highly hopped beers in the IPA tradition, having twice (or three times) the alcohol and hops of a normal IPA. From that we might be tempted draw a similar parallel in Belgian beers (or in point of fact, to assume the West Coast Pale Ales have copied the Belgian naming tradition); we’d be mostly right.

The Belgian dubbel originated in the Trappist brewing tradition. Trappists are Roman Catholic monks who follow the Rule of St Benedict; a code for how monks should live, behave, and worship. Their order was founded in 1664 by Armand Jean le Bouthillier de Rancé, originally the commendatory abbot of La Trappe. Notable among the rules of St Benedict are moderation in the use of speech (Chapter 6) and the importance of manual labor (Chapter 48). Not explicitly stated, but still followed, is the importance of self-sufficiency.

Soon after their formation, Trappists interpreted Ch 48 and the guideline of self-sufficiency as an invitation to brew beer (perhaps in spite of Ch 6?). Many abbeys began brewing beer for consumption by their own monks. On occasion they would take their excess beer down to the gate and sell it to the public. The money was used for abbey improvements and to fund their works.

The Trappists originally brewed relatively weak beers, meant for every day consumption and intended not to interfere with a monk’s daily activities. Later they began brewing stronger versions for sale and for special occasions. These brews followed basic recipes but were subject to the whim of the brewers. Trappist brewers often had freedom over the type and amount of hops used in the brew, striving to achieve the perfect marriage between hops and malt.

Early on the beers were not named, but as more and more recipes were added a classification system became necessary. The everday beer was often called the patersbier (or father’s beer), as it was only meant for monks. In most cases this was a very weak blonde ale or a witbier (white ale).

Westmalle Abbey, arguable one of the most influential Trappist breweries, was founded in 1794. In 1836 they brewed their first batch of witbier and served it with lunch. In 1856 Westmalle began brewing a stronger brown ale. Small scale production and local sales of this beer continued until 1926 when the recipe was altered to boost the alcohol content. The original witbier would have been in the range of 3-5% ABV. The stronger brown ale was brewed to 6-8% ABV. Somewhere between its invention and large scale production (in 1933 when Westmalle built a larger brewery) the beer was called dubbel (Dutch for double). The name did refer to the fact that the strong brown ale had roughly twice the alcohol as the original patersbier.

With the addition of the expanded brewery, Westmalle continued to innovate. In 1934 they brewed a new beer, light in color but strongest of them all.  At 9.5% ABV this new beer was called a trippel (pronounced triple).  Soon other Trappist breweries developed their own versions of both the dubbel and the trippel, and thus the two styles were born. The original patersbier was then often refereed to as enkel, meaning single, as a nod to the Holy Trinity.

Following World War II the popularity of Belgian beers grew considerably. Dubbel and trippel became sought after styles and many secular breweries began labelling their beers as Trappist or Trappist style. In 1962 the Trappists won a lawsuit in Belgium that protects the label of Trappist beer, limiting it only to true Trappist monasteries. Like Champagne, Trappist ale must come from the verified source. The usurpers were forced to relabel their beers as Abbey or Abbey style.

Later a fourth style, quadrupel, was born. Its origins are less clear, but it is officially recognized by BJCP as a Belgian Dark Strong Ale, generally regarded as having 10% ABV or more and being dark in color.

Today there are 7 Trappist breweries still in operation (out of 170 monasteries), including Trappist Westmalle. Westmalle Dubbel and Trippel are both still available in bottles and for certain lucky people, in kegs. Both kegs and bottles are naturally conditioned and aged. As with all naturally conditioned brews, Westmalle Dubbel is alive and tastes different with every glass. It is known for its deep, rich rasin and plum flavor, with hints of fig and brown sugar. It has a thick smooth mouth feel and a creamy head.

My dubbel is just coming online. It’s been in bottles for 3 weeks, carbonation is pretty much set and the flavors have smoothed out nicely. Westmalle is able to acheive a rich mouthfeel without cloying sweetness, using malts alone. This is apparently difficult for home brewers to achieve, because most recipes call for additions of table sugar. This adds alcohol without contributing to the body of the beer.

I brewed Jamil’s recipe for Black Scapular Dubbel and it is fantastic (like all of Jamil’s recipes I’ve tried). This dubbel is heavily carbonated and produces a foamy head which leaves rings on the glass. The flavor is delicate but notes of plum, raisin, and fig shine through. A subtle spice note hangs in the background. As the glass wanes and the beer warms, the fizz in your mouth begins to match the buzz in your head.

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