Among the independent “secular” breweries, there are as many stellar ones to choose from as there are among the Trappists and abbeys. Malheur 12, Gulden Draak Dark Tripel, De Dolle Oerbier and Delerium Tremens Nostradamus rival any beer, anywhere.
The easygoing palate of these brews is deceptive. They are full of dark malt and dark fruit, a distractive and coy prelude to their vigor and potency. Strong dark ales and quadrupels are essentially siblings, and much like old ale and barleywine, seemingly overlap in profile. In general terms, quads may be have a bit more body and residual sweetness, and strong darks a more delicate, drier palate, but this is splitting hairs. “Strong Dark” is a generic catch-all used by stylists to describe the many brews that, at 9 percent ABV or greater, are stronger than the golden tripels, or roughly a strong version of the more familiar dubbel. Quadrupel has a more precise and historical designation, hearkening to when beers were identified by numbers corresponding to strength and roughly characterizing the original gravity. An original gravity of 1.060 is denoted 6, 1.080 8, and so on. This old method was used often used to designate single (3), dubbel (6), tripel (9), and quadrupel (12) strength beers. This scale was developed by the Trappist monks, but these days, beers from the Trappiste Order, abbeys, and independent breweries are indistinguishable for the most part as far as names are concerned. This is reflected by the fact that the numerical tradition had been abandoned by most Trappists, while being used by some non-Trappists.
Strong dark ales and quadrupels are quite simplistic in production, yet paradoxically and serenely complex in character. Usually, the grist is nothing more than pilsner malt with one or two darker malts. The dark malts vary among the breweries, but all serve to add color, and more importantly, sublime depth and complexity, offering notes of raisin, fig, date, cherry and plum. Wheat and Munich malt are also key ingredients in some New World offerings. Prolonged boils and kettle caramelization can also be employed to further deepen the brew and add nuance. The brews are usually fortified with light or dark candy sugar, or brewer’s caramel, to add some lilt to the body, giving the beer a distinct “rummy” flavor and aroma. Hops are used in minimal doses, enough only to add a bit of backdrop bitterness, but noticeable alongside the lightened body. As with most Belgian ales, the top-cropping yeast is expected to do the yeoman’s job of fermentation as well as make a substantial flavor contribution. Cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and anise, among others, are familiar yeasty notes to devotees of Belgian brews. Many of these yeasts have common origins, but nonetheless, house character has served to individualize them among the many breweries. Actual spices are added to the kettle by some brewers, though in scant doses. A bit of careful aging can make these even better, believe it or not.
The superb combination dark malts, spicy and attenuative yeast, soft palate and drinkability is unique indeed among the great beers of the world. If you have not yet investigated these most revered and sophisticated brews, you have a path of great enlightenment ahead. Tread attentively, carefully and with the utmost respect.