Belgian “Dubbel” (Double Beer): First English, Then French, Then Belgian

Eduard_von_Grützner_MönchInternational Brewing Culture Isn’t New

I have argued that the dubbel style of beer, associated today with Belgian beer and in particular Trappist brewing, derived from the Elizabethan and Tudor eras when double beer was a standard designation for beer in England.  It is almost trite to say double beer is an old English term. Many standard beer and brewing histories, e.g., by S. Corran, H.A. Monckton, confirm its existence. The term appears in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II: “a pot of good Double-Beer”.

There is some uncertainly how strong it was. It is difficult to know since even when credible recipes are followed, it is unclear what starch content barley and other grain had at the time. Some brewer-historians have estimated the kernels had half the usable starch of today’s malting barleys, which if true means one must halve the amount of grain in a recipe. Not doing so would affect the strength by almost doubling it. People have made beers, or deduced their strength from records, at from 3.8% to over 8% abv using standard recipes of the mid-to-later 1500s. Recipes, that is, for beer which was neither small beer (very weak) or extraordinarily strong.

In terms of monastic brewing, it seems from medieval times monasteries typically made three kinds of beer: the strongest for sale to the public or special occasions; a mid-grade for their own use (think Chimay Gold of today); and a weak beer to give to the poor.

The beer that made Dieulouard Abbey famous from the early 1600s to the French Revolution was probably at the strong end of this range. I’d estimate it was 7% abv, as Chimay abbey’s beer was known to be in 1877. It was very likely dark as well. Beer from the same brewery in Dieulouard in 1885 (then not owned by ecclesiastics) was described by an English observer as “dark”, and also “heavy”, which meant at the time strong. Given the strength of English beer in the 1880s, strong probably meant 7%, perhaps a little less. The double beer recipe brought to Dieulouard by English Benedictines would have been the same, as I doubt the brewery even 100 years later would have changed the formulation. The beer’s religious history, which had to be a marketing advantage for the brewery, would have militated against this.

At all events I doubt Dieulouard abbey’s beer was under 6% abv, as the beer was said also to travel well and to support dilution with water: both require beer to be reasonably strong.

Numerous press accounts for the release of Ampleforth Abbey’s “double” beer in 2012 refer to “double-fermented”, as I believe the Abbey has itself in some statements. On the label itself, the nomenclature is “double” and the Flemish translation, dubbel, also appears.  This usage of double, not qualified that is, is entirely correct.

In a 50-page book on the history of the Dieulouard brewery written in 1933 by a long-lived curé called Gustave Clanché (1869-1957), the monks’ beer is called “double bière“. Not even bière double, which seems more correct grammatically. I have not been able to source the book itself, called “Histoire de la Bière des Benedictins anglais de Dieulouard” (History of the Beer of the English Benedictines of Dieulouard), but extracts appear on this historical webpage, in which it is stated:

Cette histoire de « la bière des Bénédictins anglais de Dieulouard » – et de leur abbaye – a été reprise, en 1933, avec de très intéressants détails, de nombreuses illustrations et un plan du monastère, en une brochure in-8 °, de 50 pages, par M. l’abbé CLANCHÉ, curé de Dieulouard (1).
« A l’époque actuelle, où la bière de Lorraine est reine partout et où l’on en boit tant, écrit l’Auteur, dès les premières lignes, il ne sera pas sans intérêt de rappeler que c’est ici même (à Dieulouard) une réapparition. Durant deux siècles, en effet, au XVIIe et au XVIIIe, la « double bière de Dieulouard » a eu, sur toutes les autres, la priorité, la célébrité, non seulement dans la province, mais aussi dans les contrées avoisinantes.

Per Father Clanché: (my translation):

At the present time, when beer made in Lorraine is so popular everywhere [i.e., in France] and so much of it is drunk, it may be of interest to point out that here in Dieulouard, it’s merely a second phase. For two centuries, the 17th and 18th ones, the ‘double beer of Dieulouard’ had, over all others, first standing and fame, not just in its own region but in neighbouring territories.

If anyone knew how to research Dieulouard’s beer, Curé Clanché did: he lived and served in the town, and was a historian who published many books on regional church and other history. He would have known the brewery as a young man, which was still operating in 1885 at least. If he called it double beer – not double-fermented beer, not dubbel beer (suggesting a non-English origin), he had a reason. Of course, this is subject to anything to the contrary in the full text, but given who started brewing at Dieulouard Abbey (founded 1608), I doubt a meaning connected to fermentation is mentioned or anything other than what double beer meant in England in the 1500s: strong beer. Certainly the definition in French dictionaries, 1700s-1800s for bière double accords: strong beer.

To be sure, the idea of double-fermented has a certain appeal, and there is good evidence Dieulouard beer was well-conditioned, meaning it underwent a secondary fermentation. I don’t doubt the term may well appear in some of Ampleforth’s old records. But I don’t think that’s the real origin of “double beer” as used to describe la bière anglaise of Dieulouard.

It is entirely possible, in fact I don’t doubt, that in other French brewing districts and before Dieulouard was founded, the term bière double was in use. But if it was, it came from England, I believe, just as the French colloquial terms “goudale” and “godaille” did (good ale). Beer was never as highly specialized and important a business in France as in England. English beer always had special repute in France (and Belgium), and its terminology was influential. Thus, the term bière double of Paris, of there are numerous citations to early in the 1800s, and which was a brown beer, was I apprehend English originally – certainly the term and probably the beer too.

Anyway within the confines of monastic brewing, the fame of Dieulouard’s avowedly English-origin double beer had to influence brewing by fellow monastics in Belgium after 1789. It doesn’t matter that Saint-Laurent Abbey at Dieulouard, as for its successor at Ampleforth, was not Trappist or even Cistercian. The fellowship of Benedictines, sharing as they did, and do, St. Benedict’s Rule, went much further than that. Modern proof is available by the close cooperation Trappist breweries gave Ampleforth when the latter’s beer was being formulated.

English Benedictines were also at Paris and Douai before the Revolution. Whether they brewed there I can’t say, but post-Napoleon restoration of monastic brewing would have taken succour from all earlier examples of English religious brewing in France given the pre-eminence of the Dieulouard brewery. Monks fleeing to Belgium, as they did amongst other places of refuge, would have known of this background. On top of this, English brewing had a presence at Melleray Abbey in Brittany from 1817, so more current information was available to monks setting up brewing in Belgium on English beer and its history and nomenclature.

In a word, the Belgian dubbel was preceded by the French double of Lorraine which was preceded by Elizabethan and Tudor double beer.

Note re image above: it is a genre painting by the German painter Eduard von Grützner and was sourced from Wikipedia, here. It is believed in the public domain and available for educational and historical use.  All feedback welcomed.