You shouldn't look at a twelve-ounce bottle of Belgian dubbel and think, "For that much money, I could practically get a six pack of my regular beer." It depends on your priorities (and your regular beer), but this week's tasting convinced me that a single goblet of Belgian dubbel is an experience well worth the expense. Besides, you'd probably spend that much on the same quantity of mediocre wine for a dinner party without thinking twice.
And these beers are anything but mediocre. They're rich and deep, nuanced and a bit mysterious, with musky roasted malt and sweet raisiny flavors balanced with a touch of bitterness. They're the kind of beers you want to sip slowly, maybe with a plate of creamy cheese or some lamb chops topped with wild mushrooms. Some say that the name "dubbel" describes the number of fermentations this style of beer goes through, while others claim that "dubbel" and "tripel" describe the strength of the beer—brewers probably labeled the barrels "X", "XX", or "XXX" so they'd remember what was inside.
Of the Belgian dubbels we tasted, one received our very highest rating, and all of the others received an enthusiastic score of "really awesome." Some of the American examples we tried didn't quite stack up; this is a very difficult, complex style that few American breweries attempt. And it's not like the monks who've been brewing beer to fund social work and support their abbeys since the middle ages are giving away their recipes and their special strains of yeast.
When you're buying a Belgian Dubbel, you may want to look for the official "Authentic Trappist Product" seal. Only the beers from six Belgian monasteries (and one from the Netherlands) can receive this label, which is some guarantee of quality and prevents other breweries from misusing the name. (It's a bit like getting an AOC label in the wine world.)
That said, our favorite beer in this tasting was from St. Bernardus—a brewery without trappist certification. At one point a nearby monastery contracted out their brewing to St. Bernardus (and it's possible that the head brewer from the abbey helped the brewery along with special yeast and recipes for their beers), but the brewery no longer has any association with a monastery. Nevertheless, their dubbel is a delicious example of the style.
Serious Beer Ratings
***** Our new favorite **** Awesome, worth remembering *** We'd consider buying this again ** There are probably better options * No, thanks, I'll have water.
Ratings are subject to personal taste.
We're in Love
St. Bernardus Prior 8 Belgium 8% ABV This is a beautifully harmonious beer. Toasted coffee, brown sugar, yeasty bread, and figgy dried fruit flavors are lifted by delicate carbonation and just enough crisp hoppy bite. The herbal spiciness seems somewhere between peppercorn and star anise. The powerful flavors mingle and shimmer; this is a concentrated, complex beer that manages to be both rich and refreshing. *****
Anyone Want to Plan a Trip to Belgium?
Trappiste Rochefort 6 Belgium 7.5% ABV This well balanced beer is aromatic and herbal, with hints of cloves and a musty flavor that reminded some tasters of bay leaves. The funkiness is balanced with gently sweet dried fruit flavors and fizzy carbonation on the tongue. ****1/2
Westmalle Dubbel Belgium 7% ABV The trappist abbey of Westmalle was actually the first to brew the dubbel style, and this complex dubbel is delicious. It's a little more spare and slightly less fruity than some of the others, with a bit of roasted coffee/chocolate flavor and creamy, smooth mouthfeel. It has a classic "barnyard scent," a hint of smokiness, and more pronounced bitterness than some of the others. ****
Chimay Rouge Belgium 7% ABV If you've only tasted one Belgian dubbel before, it's likely that this was it. While possibly not quite as complex as the dubbels listed above, it has a rich raisiny flavor and a hint of warm spices. It's a slightly sweeter interpretation of the style, with notes of bready yeast and nice bright hops at first taste. This is a smooth beer with caramel notes, and it's quite effervescent. ****
Most Impressive American Dubbel
Ommegang Abbey Ale New York, USA 8.5% ABV This brewery is run by former beer importers who know their Belgian ales, and it shows. This dubbel has a beautiful richness and warm fruit flavor that reminded one taster of apple cider and another of dried prunes. It's not quite as refined as its Belgian forebears, and has a few rough edges, but the malty flavor is especially delicious with food. This was the best American interpretation of the Belgian dubbel that we tried. ***1/2
Give Them a Break, They Haven't Been Doing This For Hundreds of Years Yet
Brother David's Double Abbey Style Ale Anderson Valley Brewing Company (Boonville, California, US) 9% ABV This creamy, malty beer tasted a little like dried fruit and burnt caramel. The creamy texture and hints of molasses seemed to be missing the high notes a little—it could use some bright hops to balance it out. While this wasn't as complex as the dubbels above, we liked this one with food. **1/2
Abita Abbey Ale Louisiana, US 8% ABV We were struck by the scent of honey and lavender in this beer. Smooth and nutty, it had nice malt and apricot flavors but lacked the dark roasted flavors we found in the other dubbels. Several tasters found this one a little too sweet and less dynamic than the others we tasted. **