The appreciation for Belgian beer and Belgium’s brewing culture has never been more keen than right now. One could even argue that it is currently the most influential force in North American brewing. This well-deserved affection has helped sustain and nourish both the fledgling North Americans and venerable Belgians. Beer lovers have taken a particular liking to the biggest and brawniest of them, and Belgium’s answer to those are quadrupels and strong dark ales.
Because they are quite similar in profile, the line between the two can be as blurry as the aftereffects. They are made all across Belgium, brewed with equal conviction and spirit in Trappist monasteries, abbeys and independent breweries alike, and in North America, brewed with the utmost respect and reverence to those from the fatherland.
We all have romantic perceptions of Belgian brewing, pastoral farmhouse and monastic settings with contemplative, attentive artisans producing beers from centuries-old recipes. This may be true to some degree. Mostly though, Belgium has worked as hard and been as transformative as anyone over the past 200 years. Sure, lambic, Flanders sours and witbier are all examples of old beer styles that have endured, but the majority of the rest, including quadrupel and strong dark ales, have been either invented or reinvented during the 19th and 20th centuries, often as a retort to contemporary tastes. Belgium never had the industrial might of the British or the relative political stability of Germany. Instead, Belgium had seemingly always been in the midst of some sort of political tussle or imperial shuffle until 1830, its year of independence. Coincidentally, this was also an era of groundbreaking brewing technology that lasted to near the end of the century. That beer renaissance and technological enlightenment enveloped most of Europe, resulting in many of the regional “styles” and definitive beer cultures. In Belgium, the demise of the French Revolution in the early 19th century paved the way for the return and rebuilding of banished Trappist monks and monasteries, which, once re-established, resurrected their brewing expertise. Westmalle was founded in 1802 and started brewing in 1836.
They were followed by Westvleteren in 1839, and Achel, with assistance from Westmalle, in 1852. Chimay was established in 1850 by Westvleteren monks, and brewing began there in 1862. Chimay opened the door for commercial Trappist brewing by selling its beer to the public shortly thereafter. Rochefort was established in 1887 by monks from Achel and began brewing in 1899, making it the eldest among the Trappists. Orval was destroyed by the French in 1790, lying fallow until its rebuilding in 1926. Brewing resumed in 1932, making it the last of the Trappists to do so. It was a culmination of centuries of perseverance and dedication, manifested in brewing, earning the Trappists a reputation among the finest brewers in the world. Not to be forgotten in this scenario is the brewing namesake of The Trappist Order, La Trappe. La Trappe, France, was the first home to the strictest Cistercian Order, which became known as the Trappists, in 1656. They were driven out of France by French revolutionaries and returned to foster the six Trappist monasteries. Of the six, Westvleteren (12), Rochefort (10), Achel (Extra) and Chimay (Grande Réserve) make a bona fide quadrupel or strong dark. La Trappe moved from Sainte-Marie-du-Mont in Northern France to Berkel-Enschot in The Netherlands and began brewing there in 1884, introducing a quadrupel in 1991. It is one of the best and is now offered in a stellar oak-aged version. All Trappist brewers are protected by appellation.
This independence opened the door to commerce of all sorts, brewing included. Numerous abbey and independent breweries were started, many looking to the esteemed Trappists for inspiration and style. Those known as abbey, which outnumber true Trappists by a great margin, invoke monastic imagery, a powerful, symbolic visage in the realm of beer. Those who do wish to designate themselves as an abbey must adhere to a strict set of guidelines for the privilege. They are controlled by the trade organization known as The Belgian Brewers, and those who display the Certified Belgian Abbey logo must follow these rules: They must have a link to a former or existing abbey, pay royalties to charities to protect the cultural heritage or benefit an institution that represents the abbey, and the abbey or institution has control over advertising material. While secular brewers make no allusion to any sort of religious connection, they may draw stylistic inspiration from them. Several make excellent quadrupels and strong dark ales. St. Bernardus Abt 12 Quadrupel is world-class.
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.