As a beer writer, my interest is always immediately piqued when I learn that an “old guard” American craft brewer, one that represents the pinnacle of success in the craft beer industry, is redesigning one of their classic beers. These types of things, after all, don’t happen without good reason.
And so, I thought it was curious to see an email in my inbox from New Belgium a couple weeks ago, explaining that the company was tweaking the recipes for their classic Abbey Ale (dubbel) and Trippel. These are venerable recipes, ones that began their lives as homebrews some 25 years ago. That might as well be “B.C.”, as far as the American craft beer industry is concerned. In their professional versions, they’ve both been on BeerAdvocate since around 2001, which is again like eons in this market. You won’t find too many that have been around longer, especially among American-made Belgian ales.
So, what does this tell us? The fourth-largest craft brewer in the country wouldn’t tweak these classic beers for no reason. The rationale would presumably be related to the overall advances and evolution of the craft beer market. As American beer consumers continue to expand their tastes and boldly strike out into more adventurous beers, it’s possible that New Belgium’s more traditional abbey ale styles (dubbel and trippel) were being left behind.
Of course, it’s also possible that the impetus was less economic and more artisanal in nature. I can tell you as a seasoned Belgian beer drinker that despite enjoying a great dubbel, I haven’t reached for a NB Abbey Ale in a while. Thanks to their size in particular, and their ability to offer that beer at a very competitive price point, I’ve come to think of NB Abbey Ale as a “good value dubbel” in Belgian beer. It’s something I would bring to a party, or use as an approachable introduction when explaining abbey ale styles to a craft beer novice. Perhaps New Belgium wanted to update their recipes in hopes of altering that perception of these beers—to push them forward once again into the limelight, or invite comparisons to the Belgian classics?
The brewery says the changes “highlight advances in hop and malt production,” allowing the malty and hoppy characteristics of each beer to shine through. I decided to taste each of the new ales to see how they’ve evolved.
New Belgium Abbey (dubbel)
I’ve always thought the name of this beer was a little confusing, given that both dubbel and trippel are “abbey ales,” so I sort of wish NB had taken this opportunity to simply rename it “dubbel.” Regardless, their description seems to imply that they’ve added a bit more complexity to the malt bill:
On the nose, this beer is a bit spicier than I remember, with clovey aromas and a mix of pepper and coriander notes that are probably more Belgian ester-related than from actual spices. Searching deeper, there’s a very pleasant maltiness, deep and nutty, with very dry cocoa and some ripe banana. It’s quite an appealing nose, as you’d see on any great dubbel.
The deeper maltiness carries over into this beer’s flavor, with toasty grain and a definite roasted nuttiness. Sweetness is moderate, and helps lighten that nuttiness into a “hazelnut coffee” character. There’s no missing that this is a Belgian dubbel, between the semi-dry, toasted quality and the follow-up of banana fruitiness and lingering peppery spice and clove. Notable is the fact that it’s still a bit lighter of body than you might expect, which adds to drinkability. All in all, it’s an impressive balance between richness and approachableness. It really is a rock solid dubbel, especially at this price point.
Dubbel rating: 8.1
New Belgium Trippel
I will be honest in admitting that I always found the dubbel to be the superior beer in the previous generation of New Belgium’s abbey ales, and this holds true in the new version, although not overwhelmingly so. First, NB explains the update:
The ABV jump here from 7.8 to 8.5% is significant, bringing the beer more in line with the ABVs one normally sees in American craft tripels, and yet what it actually does in the beer is interesting. Tasting the old trippel and the new side-by-side, one notes that the new beer is actually significantly drier and comes across as less boozy, despite the higher ABV. The replacement of some of that melanoidin-rich Munich malt with the pilsner malt thins the body of this beer in an appreciable way, increasing drinkability even as they’re boosting the ABV.
Aromatics are spice-heavy, with a prominent note that is very much like fresh ginger. It’s comparable to a higher-ABV Belgian wit, with citrus and peppery spice chasing the ginger, which is still the signature note.
On the palate, the spices are again assertive, with big, exotic coriander flavor and a reprise of that ginger note. The sherry-like booziness of the original trippel is softened and made more crisp, pushing attention toward the spices and Belgian yeast character. It’s a little bit less harmonious than the dubbel, but of the two I believe the trippel has had the bigger degree of improvement in this recipe reformulation.
Trippel rating: 7.4
All in all, though, I feel like both of these beers have been improved in their new format. The dubbel in particular remains something that seems like an excellent value in the American craft beer market. If it’s been a while since you had them, you may want to refresh your memory.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor. You can follow him on Twitter.