“Let’s Talk Beer Styles” is a monthly feature that accompanies Paste’s large-scale blind craft beer style tastings/rankings. The first month covered the history and modern role of American pale ale, while the second covered black IPA. The latest covers Belgian quad/dark strong ale, of which we just blind-tasted 32 examples.
The beer world is a strange place, one where oral tradition and commonly held and repeated adages are often held up and cited rather than history or more substantive research. Look no further than IPA as a style, where hundreds of breweries still use PR copy about “ships to India” as the genesis point of the style, despite the data provided by actual historians such as Martyn Cornell that has long since shown otherwise. But good stories are good stories, and if something is repeated enough, it gains a life of its own.
I’m using this as a backhanded way to introduce the fact that although we’re talking about Belgian quads in this piece, whether or not “quad” even exists as a distinct style is still a subject of healthy debate. That’s not to say that there’s no way to categorize famed Belgian ales such as Westvleteren 12 or St. Bernardus Abt. 12, but rather that “Belgian quadrupel” may not be the right words at all, or they may be words that were never necessary. All of these beers have simply been Belgian Dark Strong Ales all along.
You may be thinking now that “quadrupel” is a style steeped in history, and although the beers now referred to as quads may be, the word itself is apparently not. In fact, as far as I can tell, La Trappe’s Belgian Quadrupel was the first-ever bottled representation of the style to bear the word “quadrupel,” and it was released … in 1991. Which is to say, I myself am significantly older than the term “quadrupel,” as applied to beer, while these beers were simply known as “strong dark ales” for almost two centuries before that point. My point is this: It seems pointless to divide these beers into multiple styles, or act as if “quad” is notably distinct from “strong dark ale.” Although modern breweries may cite ephemeral differences, none of these differences are universal, and really—what’s the point? The real factor driving whether any brewery calls its product “quadrupel” or “strong dark ale” at this point is simply a matter of style and marketing.
But enough about names. Let’s dive into the history of this heady, spicy, fruity, bready, rich, boozy beer style.
The Origin of Quad/Belgian Dark Strong Ale
As long as there have been people brewing in Belgium and The Netherlands, than there have certainly been dark, high-gravity beers made with estery, or possibly wild, Belgian yeast strains. However, it’s difficult to imagine whether any of these beers could have been comparable to modern styles of Belgian dark strong ale until roughly 1830, the year of Belgian independence and secession from The Netherlands. At about this time, technological modernization of the brewing industry was moving through Europe, bringing “modern” brewing techniques and equipment with it. At the same time, the reestablishment of monasteries shuttered by the anti-Catholic movement of the French Revolution gave rise to the setting for many of today’s iconic Belgian breweries.
The first of the modern monastic breweries to begin actual brewing operations seems to have been Westmalle, in 1836. It was followed in brewing by Westvleteren in 1839, Achel in 1852 and Chimay in 1862, which was the first to begin selling its beer to the general public to support the monastery’s operations. La Trappe, meanwhile, moved to The Netherlands and began brewing there in 1884, while Rochefort began brewing in 1899, and Orval in 1932. Most, such as Westvleteren, Rochefort, Chimay and La Trappe, make beers that we today categorize as Belgian dark strong ales.
These beers later came to America and small craft breweries alongside the popularization of other traditional Belgian ale styles during the first phase of the craft brewing revolution. Special credit should probably go to Michael Jackson, the legendary “Beer Hunter” and author, whose Discovery Channel series and landmark 1977 book The World Guide to Beer provided initial background in Belgian ales for an entire generation of American brewers. In fact, Jackson’s contributions were deemed so influential that he was appointed an honorary Ridderschap van de Roerstok, essentially a knight of Belgium, in 1997.
The Role of Belgian Quads in American Craft Beer
In the U.S., there’s no doubt that “quadrupel/quadruple” or simply “quad” has become the more common nomenclature, and it’s not that hard to see why—it’s easy to explain to a drinker the progression from singel to dubbel to tripel to quad, and quite frankly the term just sounds a bit cooler. Regardless of whether “quad” was ever used to describe high-gravity dark ales with original gravities greater than tripels, the name has come to stick in American brewing.
The actual beers, though, do tend to differ from their Belgian brethren. With the exception of certain “American Belgian” breweries such as Allagash or Ommegang, American-made quads have a tendency to be less expressive/cleaner in their yeast profiles, even though they’re also using Belgian yeast strains. Their fruit flavors are often juicier or fresher, and there’s less of the subtle, age-added character derived from oxidation. To sum up in a sentence: An American quad often feels younger, bigger and more brash in its flavors, while the Belgian classics are more reserved, contemplative and subtle.
A large portion of this perception is no doubt due to the omnipresence of barrel-aging in the current American craft beer market, and quads, like most other high-gravity styles, often see time in a barrel. In the course of our recent blind-tasting of 32 quads, we came across American barrel-aged quads of nearly every variety—rum barrels, bourbon barrels, rye whiskey barrels, wine barrels, brandy barrels and more. We also tasted American quads spiced with cinnamon and chiles, finished with whole fruit and blended with other barrel-aged ales. It’s exactly what you would expect from the American variants of a classic Belgian style, a diversification and certain irreverence for tradition that is the backbone of the way American craft brewers innovate.
Three Essential Quads/Dark Strong Ales You Need to Try
La Trappe Quadrupel
If it’s the very first beer to carry the word “quad” on the label, you can’t very well NOT try it, right? The nice thing about most of these Belgian classics today is that they’re readily available in any decent beer store. While the craft beer world has continued to spin and obsess about the newest thing, these timeless beers have endured. In reality, though, La Trappe’s offering really isn’t much like other quads or Belgian dark strong ales. It’s significantly lighter in color, for one, and almost seems to share more in common with a malty tripel than what we currently think of as a quad. The nose is uniquely different, full of spicy esters and farmhouse-like aromatics, while the malt is soft and toasty. A herbaceousness not found in most examples of this style is also present, making it a fascinating comparison with all the other Belgian classics labeled as quadrupel or dark strong ale.
St. Bernardus Abt. 12
An undeniable classic of the style, St. Bernardus is born of out a sprawling history connected to that of fellow brewery Westvleteren. Indeed, although Westvleteren 12 is often considered the finest quad/Belgian strong dark ale in the world, St. Bernardus’ equally acclaimed Abt. 12 is said to come from the exact same recipe and yeast strain, or at least that was the case in 1945. In that year, Westvleteren brewmaster Mathieu Szafranski became a partner in Bernardus’ business, bringing along with him the recipe and famed St. Sixtus yeast strain. The resulting beer is wonderfully complex, with dark, bready malt flavors, dried, raisin-like fruit and delicate spiciness that works in beautiful conjunction with the high ABV. Many a night has been whiled away by Paste staffers over the years drinking St. Bernardus Abt. 12, the house brew of our local craft beer bar The Brick Store’s second floor Belgian Bar.
Gigantic Brewing Co. Brain Damage
If the third option is supposed to illustrate to you just how different an American interpretation of the style can be, then there’s no better beer to submit here than Brain Damage, a monstrous bourbon barrel-aged quad from Portland’s Gigantic Brewing Co. Everywhere that a beer like St. Bernardus Abt. 12 is subtle, this one punches you in the face with flavor, but it does so with just enough consideration that it’s not completely and totally overwhelming. The huge nose and flavors of gingerbread, brown sugar, maple and raisin reminded our tasters closely of Samuel Adams’ 20-plus percent ABV Utopias, which should tell you how decadent an experience it is to drink. If the American adage is that bigger and bolder is better, Brain Damage is an incredible example of that philosophy at work. And dear lord, what a label.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he’s looking forward to the next two entries: classic pilsner and American IPA. You can follow him on Twitter.