“Scotch on the rocks. Give me a double.” We’ve all heard that one before, and we all know what it means: double the number of shots. Is there some sort of equivalent in the world of beers?
Sort of. You can’t actually walk into a bar and ask for a saison or a lager and add, “Give me a double.” But you can ask for a dubbel. Or a tripel. Or a quadrupel. And, with the way beer envelopes are constantly being pushed, no one will gawk in a decade’s time if there is a quintupel and a sextupel and beyond!
If you used the spellings above in a formal paper, you’d appear like you needed remedial English lessons. The spellings are borrowed from the Flemish/Dutch and have since been accepted as legitimate words in their own right in the beer universe.
The terms are Trappist beer naming conventions and not all that old in the scheme of things. The accepted origin of the dubbel comes from the Trappist Abbey of Westmalle. For over twenty years, the abbey had been brewing a sweet, low alcohol brown beer mainly consumed by the monks. In 1856, the monks brewed a stronger version of this brown beer, which over time was reformulated to become even stronger.
Dubbels follow the usual storyline. A different type of beer emerges, the public likes it, other breweries imitate it, and a new style is codified. After the Second World War, abbey beers became more popular in Belgium, and dubbels along with them. Trappist breweries like Chimay, Koningshoeven, and Achel wanted a piece of the pie and introduced their own strong brown ales. Abbey breweries like Affigem and Grimbergen followed. Now, the style is so accepted, secular breweries outside Belgium are dubbeling up, too.
The generally accepted definition of dubbel in the modern world is a brown ale with 6-8% ABV, understated bitterness, and a fruity cereal character. Dubbels tend to be heavy with hints of plum, dates, fig, and caramel.
Once a dubbel was pulled out of brewery’s hats, it was inevitable that a tripel would follow, and what more apropos brewery to do it but the brewery which first introduced the dubbel, Westmalle? In 1956, Westmalle, at the stroke of a pen, renamed the strongest beer in their range. Bye bye dubbel, hello tripel, with 8-10% ABV.
Okay. It didn’t work out exactly that way. No one woke up one morning and decided to invent the tripel. In the 1930’s, Westmalle introduced a very strong beer called superbier. In 1956, the superbier recipe was modified to include more hops and thereafter became known as the tripel. A lesser known brewery might not have been so successful getting itself identified with a style it actually evented/discovered. Tripels are not just hoppier stronger dubbels. Most of the time they are lighter, with flavors of pear, banana, citrus, and spices. Yet there are tripels which don’t conform to this mold.
What about quadrupels? Westmalle wasn’t as lucky getting itself identified with this ultra strong style. Fellow Trappist brewery De Koningshoeven in the Netherlands is most closely identified with the quadrupel with their beer La Trappe Quadrupel. The ABV in these exceeds 10%, but beyond the powerhouse strengths, there is no agreed upon convention what constitutes a quad. Most of the breweries putting out quadrupels make them in the same style as the dubbels – double dubbels, if you will.
Now while this explanation of when and how these stronger and stronger brews appeared is fairly accurate, it doesn’t address why these beers were given these names. Why dubbel? Why not some new word?
A half-assed theory suggests that way back when, the majority of people were illiterate. The easiest way to mark the strength was one X for lighter alcohol and multiple X’s for stronger versions. A little too pat. Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc-Moctezuma in Mexico, founded in 1890, manufactures a beer with two X’s on the label. This beer’s name, when translated into English, is Two X’s, not Dubbel. In 1924, a beer brand with four X’s on the label was introduced in Australia. It became widely known as Castlemaine 4X, not Quadrupel.
A better theory, put forward by the Master Brewer Association of the Americas, is based on technical aspects. In the now outmoded parti-gyle system of mashing, you drain off the first run of wort and keep it separate from the rest of the mash. The first running contains a fermentable sugar content of 22.5%. The second wash has only a strength of 15%, and the third wash, a sugar content of about 7.5%. Working in reverse, the dubbel has twice the amount of sugar as the single, and the tripel, three times the amount as the single. This theory makes more sense because the terms double, triple, and quadrupel only mean something when they’re relative to something else. This separate wort run system is no longer employed today, but it certainly was when dubbels first showed their stronger faces in the marketplace in the nineteenth century. Brewers most likely used the term informally-behind the scenes.
One thing is sure. Dubbels don’t have double the malt or double the alcohol of regular beers. Tripels are not triple fermented. Quadrupels are not four times as tasty.
Believe it or not, there is actually a style called a singel, too. Often referred to as a pater beer, this is lower alcohol beer reserved for monks. They’re rare pale ales with ABV’s of 4-5% and not promoted to the wider marketplace. To sample one, you have to show up at the monastery’s café. Witkap is a commercial brewery which makes a beer mimicking this style. Some have posited this style got its name because the monks can never marry. However, if that’s true, there should also be beer styles known as separated, divorced, and promiscuous.