Often, when beer lovers venture into the realm of Belgian brews, they experience an epiphany. Even without an experienced or refined palate, it is apparent immediately that there is something different, something beyond the familiar flavors and aromas of other offerings. Be it depth, complexity or nuance, we are presented with the unexpected manifestation of the magic in brewing art. One need look no further than Belgian dubbel to enjoy the intricacy enveloped within a finely-crafted beer of great sophistication.
The best examples are made by Trappist monasteries, where divinity and purpose congregate. Dubbels are clearly a case of the sum far exceeding the parts and the simplistic and deliberate manner in which they are formulated. They are a combination of understated opulence (with the full, rich flavor and palate of dark malt), mellow drinkability and unparalleled finesse. A fine dubbel is malty with a touch of caramel sweetness; fruity with hints of raisin, rum, berry or even fig; and spicy with cinnamon, nutmeg or pepper.
Of course, none of the fruit or spice notes is added, they are simply the suggestive byproducts of the kettle and fermentation, the malt and candi sugar and the business of the house yeast—some very distinctly Belgian items. The sugar also offers a tempered mouthfeel, making the body a bit more nimble. Perfect for pairing with hearty foods, cheese and dessert among them, dubbel makes as good a case for beer as cuisine as any other. Similar beers to dubbel have been produced for hundreds of years, but modern interpretations are products of monastic refinement within the past century and a half. Heaven-sent, for sure.
On The Dubbel
All good brewers are dedicated to their craft, but most would defer to the monastic brewers as steadfast testament to diligence and excellence. It truly is an ageless way of life for them, a trinity, if you will, of work, devotion and rest.
The seven Trappist monasteries are well-known for their beer, and most of them make a dubbel. Brewing has been a part of the monastic life since the beginning of the Middle Ages in Europe, or about 1500 years ago. St. Benedictine monks of that time brewed for both sustenance and support. Unhappiness with the original Order led some to matriculate and found their own monasteries. The Trappist order, which first established itself in Normandy, France, was driven from there by the Napoleonic Wars, and eventually settled in Belgium and The Netherlands. Through it all, it was necessary to maintain a level of self-sufficiency, primarily through agrarian endeavors.
At the heart, in many cases, was brewing. Beer was nourishment on several levels, both spiritually and literally. It was a commercial means to maintain their lifestyle (and undoubtedly secure the good grace of the locals), it was essentially a source of calories and nutrients and it was vehicle for contemplation.
As the monks worked cloistered and unified towards a goal, it would make sense that the minimal outside influence would lead to distinct styles of beer. To this day, the brewers of Belgium beyond the walls of the monasteries are very individualistic in this regard, but the styles of dubbel and tripel are wholly attributed to the efforts of the Trappist monks.
To the original point, the Trappist brewers used their isolation to perfect their own beers, and the high quality of the product is held with reverence around the world. In keeping with the conviction to simplicity, monasteries seldom make more than 3 different beers, with dubbel and tripel styles being the most recognizable. Even these are rather loose designations, beyond the fact that a dubbel is dark and medium in strength where a tripel is pale and quite strong. The old Belgian system of degrees consisted of 3, 6 and 9. Six became dubbel and 9, tripel. Rochefort designates their beers as 6, 8, or 10 and all are a shade of brown, with the 10 being quadrupel in strength at11.3% ABV, and the 6 in roughly the style of a dubbel. No point in quibbling over classification: quality supercedes such pigeonholing.
Dubbel may have been polished in Trappist monasteries, but it is brewed by a number of abbeys and secular brewers throughout Belgium. In addition, North America has a burgeoning number of breweries that make tasty examples, some of whom specialize in Belgian-inspired beers as their sole enterprise. This is, in a way, a very Belgian manner of doing things relative to most North American breweries. This ideal has served the brewers in Belgium for centuries and endures today as both a paradoxical adherence to tradition and a thumbed-nose to convention: beer brewed for beer’s sake, on the crest of contoured artisanal independence, with respectful disregard for well-defined borders.
A first-rate dubbel is usually a sublime and transcendent combination of malt, candi sugar and yeast, a somewhat unusual triumvirate in conventional beerdom. Running the spectrum from dark amber to mahogany, dubbel can gets its color from a somewhat unpretentious grain bill. Beyond just simply being dark, dubbels also have a bountiful backbone of maltiness, in great part from use of toasted malt and/or caramel malt. Usually, this type of toasted malt is known as “Munich” and it has been kilned to a higher temperature than pale malts like pilsner, which also makes up a portion of the grist.
The Munich malt provides a lot of fermentables to the wort, but its production enhances a malty profile. The combination of the delicate pilsner malt and the flavorful Munich harmonize perfectly if utilized. Other, darker malts, such as caramel and Special may be employed as well. Many of the complementary flavors, such as raisin, fig, cherry, or rum, are a result of caramelization, either by the addition of a highly stewed, or caramelized, dark malt, or by a prolonged, intense boil of the wort after it finds its way into the kettle.
The common practice of adding candi sugar to the wort among Belgian brewers, and their North American protégé, helps to lighten the body somewhat and add to the fortitude, but augments the brew in other ways. Dark candi sugar is reminiscent of the raw turbinado or demerara sugar that is found in natural food stores. It contains the “impurities” in concentrated form, that might otherwise be distilled away during processing. It is made from sugar beets and adds some of the same qualities as the abovementioned caramelized malt. The flavor is similar, but is also distinct in its own right. There is no mistaking a beer that has had this sugar added.
Hops are asked to take a supporting role in the brewing of a dubbel: the beer would be incomplete without them, but distracted by a strong dose.
Like many Belgian house yeasts, those that have been selected over the years have a noticeable spicy and earthy footprint. Clove, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg and even rosemary or thyme and the like have been used to describe the remnants of the fermentation. This adds to the diverse culinary attributes of dubbel, as it would be suitable for both savory and sweet, entrée and dessert, a flexible synergy of the malt, candi sugar and yeast. As most dubbels fall between 6.0 and 8.0% ABV, they are substantial and warming enough, thanks to the candi sugar, to be savored far into the evening during the cooler months. A more well-rounded, soothing and complex beer style would be difficult to find. Usually bottle-conditioned to add even further texture, they are best enjoyed only slightly chilled.
One would expect that a beer of such profundity would only be found among the strongest and most ingredient-rich offerings. Dubbel demonstrates that a simple medium in the right hands with unencumbered resolve is the best approach. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have divine guidance.
Chimay PremièreABV: 7.0
Tasting Notes: Perhaps the most well-known of the style, Première is brewed at the Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Scourmont in the town of Chimay, Belgium. Also known as Chimay Red in America, it is the introductory first-love Belgian for many. Tawny in color, with the distinct house yeast aroma and flavor reminiscent of cinnamon. Fruity and warming from a high-temperature fermentation, with hints of herb, cherry, peach and raisin. It is brewed with soft Artesian water, giving the overall character an easy suppleness.
Westmalle DubbelABV: 7.0
Tasting Notes: Westmalle was founded in 1794 in Malle, Belgium and has been brewing since 1836. The dubbel is brewed with malt from Germany and France, and the kettle is fired with a direct flame, resulting in extra caramelization. Ruddy-brown and slightly hazy, Westmalle Dubbel presents clove, chocolate malt and banana in the aroma. Medium-bodied and malty, with raisin and caramel in the flavor. The yeast footprint gives an earthy and spicy finish, with a noticeable hop presence.
Rochefort 6ABV: 7.5
Tasting Notes: The mellowest offering from Notre-Dame de Saint-Rèmy near Rochefort, Belgium. The monastery dates to the 13th century, where they have been brewing since 1595. Deep-copper in color, the aroma is like fresh-baked Boston brown bread with chocolate and a hint of burnt sugar. The delicate mouthfeel is followed by a mix of chocolate, caramel, clove and fig and a brisk finish. Six is brewed just a couple of times per year to ensure yeast vigor, which is then used for subsequent stronger brews. Rochefort 6 can be cellared for as long as several years.
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is an award-winning homebrewer and general hobbyist who thinks there is no more sublime marriage than that of art and science.