In the forests of Oz, it was the lions, tigers and bears that worried Dorothy, Toto and their friends. In the world of beer, a different dangerous trio lies hidden inside -- dubbels and tripels and quadrupels, oh my.
Some might say that these are the original extreme beers.
Beer lore has it that these Belgian beers are ancient, originally brewed by Trappist monks, who made them as strong as liquid bread to get them through the 40 days of Lent without solid food. Another theory holds that in the days when illiteracy was common, kegs of beer were marked X, XX and XXX to denote their strength. While there is, pardon the pun, a grain of truth to those stories, they're mostly just that: stories.
Today, dubbels and tripels couldn't be less alike. In fact, tripels are a relatively modern invention, brewed by the monks of Westmalle in 1931 and first sold to the public in 1934.
Quadrupels, or quads, are even more recent -- first brewed in 1991 by the Brewery De Koningshoeven in the Netherlands, one of the Trappist breweries that's not in Belgium, under the name La Trappe Quadrupel. Originally brewed as a winter seasonal, the beer's popularity led them to make it a year-round beer. Other breweries, both in Europe and the United States, took notice and began producing their own quads.
Essentially, both of these types of beer were invented for marketing reasons and are not part of a historic lineage in any meaningful way.
Many breweries produced beers of varying strengths, of course. There used to be a singel, or single, too. Actually, many breweries still make one, but it's usually not sold commercially. Instead, it's served as a table beer for the monks, available in limited supply only at the brewery or locally.
Other names for these beers include enkel (Dutch for single) or patersbier ("father's beer"). If you visit Orval, you can order the Orval Vert (sometimes called Petite Orval) at their cafe, A l'Ange Gardien. It's delicious. One of the few available by the bottle is Brewery Slaghmuylder's Witkap Pater Abbay Single Ale.
Even dubbels are fairly recent, likely first brewed about 1856 at Westmalle. That's the year they started making a dark beer. But the recipe was modified in 1926, and that's the one they started selling to the public under the name "Dubbel." So really, this quartet of beers is less than 100 years old, and one is not quite 25.
The new trinity
Fanciful tales abound: The monks made three beers to honor the Christian trinity; or they used two or three times the malt; or double- or triple-fermented. Hogwash.
Generally, these beers do get progressively stronger. Singels are the lowest in alcohol and quads the highest, but even that only holds true within an individual brewery. Even their color doesn't get progressively darker. Dubbels are usually darker than either tripels or quads. But here's what we can say:
Dubbels are usually brown or darker, 6 to 7.5 percent alcohol by volume (a.b.v.) and thick, pillowy heads. Flavors include malty sweetness and caramel, with fruit notes, light spiciness and very little hop character. The finish is often very dry.
Some dubbels to try include Westmalle Dubbel, Chimay Premiere (Red), St. Bernardus Prior 8, Moinette Brune by Brasserie Dupont and Ommegang Abbey. For local examples, try Sante Adairius' Quality Of Life, Russian River's Benediction, The Lost Abbey's Lost & Found Abbey Ale, Sierra Nevada's Ovila Abbey Dubbel, Anderson Valley's Brother David's Double, and Ale Asylum's Diablo.
Tripels to try
Tripels can be quite pale, usually no darker than amber, with a dense, mousse-like head but are 7 to 10 percent (a.b.v.). They're usually bottle-conditioned, and so are a little hazy from the yeast. Be careful not to rouse the bottle when pouring. Flavors are a mélange of soft malt and sweet alcohol, with light spicy and fruity notes, a bubbly effervescence and a sweet, dry finish.
Tripels to try include the original one from Westmalle, along with Tripel Karmeliet from Brouwerij Bosteels, Chimay Tripel (White), Gouden Carolus Tripel from Brouwerij Het Anker, Scaldis Blonde Ale Tripel from Brasserie Dubuisson (or their Cuvee des Trolls), Allagash Tripel Ale (or their Bourbon-barrel aged version, Curieux), Unibroue's La Fin Du Monde and Pretty Things' wonderfully named Fluffy White Rabbits. A relatively unknown tripel, though one of my personal favorites, is the Arend Tripel from Brouwerij De Ryck. Locally, try Russian River Damnation or Sante Adairius' Always In Life.
Quadrupels are the strongest, at 9 to 14 percent a.b.v., and they range from amber to deep brown in color. Some "grand cru" beers could fall into this category as well. Quadrupels are intensely sweet with brown sugar and caramel flavors and low, if any, in bitterness. Complex aromas of dark fruit and spices give way to a full, creamy body with strong alcoholic character and intense malty sweet flavors.
Try the first one I mentioned, La Trappe Quadrupel. Also keep an eye out for Rochefort 10, Pannepot by De Struise Brouwers, Ommegang Three Philosophers and Allagash Four. Here in the Bay Area, look for Sierra Nevada's Ovila Abbey Quad, Lost Abbey's Judgment Day, and Firestone Walker's new Stickee Monkee.
Because of their strength, all three types are sipping beers, which should be shared. Enjoy them with dessert or on their own as an aperitif or digestif.