Dubbels and Tripels

Here’s a tip for those of us who are novices to the beer world: If you like deep, complex malty flavors, but are not a fan of hops, then you can be well served to search for Belgian or Belgian-style Dubbels and Tripels.

These types of beers come from the Belgian monastic traditions of brewing that I’ve mentioned before, and in fact are often produced in both the Trappist breweries, as well as the breweries that produce abbey-style beers (more on those later).

There tends to be some confusion on these beers because of their names. Yes, Dubbel and Tripel do translate into “double” and “triple” respectively, but these terms, while indicative of a doubling or tripling, do not necessarily mean a doubling or tripling of alcoholic content, or even that these terms are related to one another. To explain, some back story is needed.

Way back in the day, meaning before the Industrial revolution, monks led a simple life. They took various vows and committed themselves to the “Glory of God”. Part of their demonstration of devotion included fasting during Lent. To survive the forty day fast, a simple brew was created that provided the monk with all of the nutrition they needed, without having to deal with all that pesky nonsense of eating. This beer would later be available year round to the monk, essentially a table-beer of low alcohol content, equating to an English bitter. These beers would be more complex in flavor than, say, a pilsner, but still be low enough in alcohol to allow the monks to function in day-to-day activities.

Monasteries, being what they are, celebrated various holidays and other similar religious occasions. The everyday table beer was set aside, and special beers were made. These beers were offered, not just to the monks, but also the residents of the towns where the monasteries were located. While the true reason for the naming convention has been lost to time, legend has it that these beers were called Doubles because they were twice as flavorful as the every-day table beer.

The locals, realizing a good thing when they saw one, asked the monks if they could have the beer on a regular basis, instead of on holidays. The monks, sensing an opportunity to make money for their charity work, agreed and offered the beer for sale. Hence, Dubbel entered the marketplace.

Dubbels are deep and rich beers, and quite malty, and quite complex. They are fruity in a raisin/dried prune sort of way, rather than an green apple or banana sort of way, which makes them markedly different from anything else in the beer world. Hops are there, but they are meant to support the fruity richness of the malt, rather than define the beer itself.

So, knowing the history of the Dubbel, one would think that Tripels were so named because they were three times as flavorful as the table-beer of the monks. Not so fast, ye who is quick to assumption. The Tripel as we know it today is a recent concoction, being defined in 1956 by the Trappists at Westmalle. The name comes from the fact that three times the malt is used in the recipe of the beer, rather than being three times as flavorful.
Using three times the malt means that there is three times the amount of sugars in the mash and wort. This means that the yeast can have a field day during fermentation. The result is a far more alcoholic beer than either the table-beer or the Dubbel. This is what leads people to believe that Tripel means three times the alcoholic strength. yes, the beer is stronger, but it is not three times as strong.

Tripels are typically gold in color while a Dubbel will be amber to brown. The use of malts and high fermentation means a fair amount of citrus with pepper, but with a very dry finish. The hops add just enough bitterness to make me happy without going overboard. Again, the hops are used to add complex and support the flavor of the beer without overwhelming it. The end result can be a bit phenolic, but in the case of Tripels, this is a feature, not a bug.

The thing about Tripels that make them so interesting is that, while they are supposed to be high in alcohol content, a good Tripel will show little to no indication of the alcohol within. The flavor of the beer is what matters, so again, much like the Dubbel, the Tripel ends up being quite a complex and interesting beer, but still quite different from its brother, the Dubbel.

Both Dubbels and Tripels have the added benefit of being bottled differently from your everyday average beer, in that residual sugars and yeasts will find their ways into the bottle. While most beers are done fermenting before packaged, Dubbels and Tripels can still age, some for as long as ten years! These aged beers end up being even more complex than their younger brethren. Back in May, I had the opportunity to taste a ten year old Tripel from Chimay, and its taste still sits in my sense memory, what with its smooth dry finish, yet with hints of marshmallow on the back of the throat. Marshmallow!

If you’re looking for something different in your beers, I highly recommend you giving both Dubbels and Tripels a try. While every style of beer has things about them that make them interesting on some level, these beers are, to me, the most interesting beers I have come across. They are definitely worth your time, particularly those from the Trappists.