TRAPPIST DUBBEL AND 1800s BELGIAN BIERE DOUBLE
Belgian sources from the 1800s show that bière double, or double beer, was a known expression, as in French brewing. Here is an example (pg. 225) from 1856, from well-known brewing writer Georges Le Cambre. He refers there to bière double de Diest, or the double beer of Diest. He used “double beer”, as did other Belgian writers, to mean strong beer. Sometimes they used the literal French term for that, bière forte.
Usage of the double beer term was erratic and inconsistent. Double beer – dubbel in Flemish – was not a thing in 1800s Belgium when abbey brewing was being revived after Napoleon and the French Revolution. In a word, it was not a style of brewing. It simply meant the strong version of any particular type of beer. So, you might find a bière double de Malines, for example, being strong brown beer from Malines, or Mechelen in Flemish.
Compare this to Paris in the same period. Bière double de Paris was the proper name of a beer made in Paris that was top-fermented, brown, and reasonably strong (although sources are somewhat contradictory on that). It wasn’t a world-beater, but it had a modest identity within the modest world of French brewing. In Belgium, perhaps due to the famous diversity and regional character of its brewing scene, double beer was just a strong beer. It was made like the weaker beer in the brewer’s range, but with more malt to yield more alcohol.
I’m not going to claim strict distinctions here. In Lille, a bière double de Lille was known. I would consider this a Flemish specialty really considering the Flemish regional character of Lille and environs. I think it’s fair to say though, by virtue of its mention in numerous texts, including some English sources, that the double bière de Paris had more identity and recognition than the others, perhaps due to the large conurbation Paris always was.
The ancestor of Westmalle dubbel of today was first made by the fathers in 1856. It was stronger than an earlier, golden beer the fathers made for their use. How strong is not known, perhaps 6% abv. It seems dubbel as a slogan wasn’t used until after 1926, when the beer was reformulated to be yet stronger (now 7% abv). Indeed dubbel as a descriptive term in the market was not in general use until after WW II. Chimay didn’t call its beers dubbel even in the early years of the craft and small brewery revival. But now its Red and Blue labels are regarded as full members of the dubbel family, and properly so having regard to their characteristics.
In this 1890 Flemish-language glossary published in Brussels, see the upper right of the page linked. It is stated in French that the town of Menin had beers called by various names including keute and double bière, but since the 17th century they are called simply brown beer, white beer, small brown beer, and small white beer. The old term double beer, whatever its distant origin, had fallen away in Belgium. The term was still used here or there, but probably had no significant public recognition.
The same thing happened in England. By the 1700s, you don’t read much if anything about double beer, this is a term of the Tudor and William Shakespeare’s time. Even in Georgian England it had a period ring, akin to quaint terms such as huff-cap and hugamatee – and three threads and other multiples, I might add.
Still, in Paris, the term as a name for a defined beer – bière double de Paris – had currency until about 1850. After that you don’t read much about it, no doubt because the new bottom-fermented beers helped push it out. The Paris double beer, like most top-fermented beers of the time, suffered from instability, it tended to go sour. What is admired by some today, tart beer, was disdained by brewing technologists who said the people drank them because they had no choice.
What this suggests is, when monks in Belgium created their new brown beers in the restored or new abbeys of the 1800s, they weren’t taking inspiration from a contemporary Belgian style. Most Belgian beer then was sourish, and fairly weak. Modern Trappist brown beer is neither and likely never was.
No, those monks were looking to monastic tradition for guidance. Monastic brewing had a venerable history in some Christian orders. It was well-developed amongst the Benedictines, in particular. Monks didn’t need to call on Caesar to learn about brewing and good beer. And latterly to inspire them in their own tradition was the notably successful Dieulouard brewery of Saint-Laurent Abbey in Lorraine. What had the Dieulouard brewers made? Brown, strong, well-conditioned beer they called double beer, or bière double, as historian Gustave Clanché confirmed in 1933. The Belgian monks called their new, similar beers the same thing, initially within their own precincts, but finally to the public.
This is underpinned by the fact that the Trappist beer signature, dubbel, has a distinct identity. Adam Lindgreen and Michael Beverland, in their 2009 article Hush, It’s a Secret: How Trappist Breweries Create and Maintain Images of Authenticity Using Customer Experiences, called the unifying elements of Trappist brewing a “tone”. This has changed a bit with the expansion of the number of Trappist breweries, but I am speaking of the Belgian group essentially, the old guard. They share the dubbel style and the tripel style, for the most part. (Orval deviates from the pattern). And most have a father’s beer, pale or brown, of modest gravity. So two main styles, and a weaker pater or father’s beer if one wants to view that as a third style.
The various dubbels of the Trappists don’t taste identical but in their strength bands they are quite alike in many ways, with a similar estery yeast background and a colour and taste that partly depends on brewing sugars. All are bottled unfiltered and are top-fermented. None feature a big American pine-and-grapefruit aroma, certainly. There are no porters or stouts. No lagers. No “sours”, wild beers, or fruit beers despite their pre-eminence of Belgian terroir.
Dubbel is a thing, again, but why? Because while it emerged within Belgium, it is a product of the insular yet brewing-aware, trans-national character of the Trappist order. Just as Trappist cheese assumed a common identity in Trappist monasteries regardless of country based on the Port Salut model, so has beer.
Tripel, the extra-strong aromatic blonde beer devised by Westmalle in 1934, was the last big innovation. The older dubbel style, common to most of the original Trappist group, stretched back to Dieulouard Abbey’s double beer, which in turn issued from the heyday of English monastic brewing before 1600.
Dieulouard’s beer was brown, strong, well-conditioned, and traveled well – it did not go sour. Trappist dubbel is brown, strong, well-conditioned, and not sour.
Those who might think this an over-estimation of the importance of a long-disappeared abbey brewery in France might ponder this statement of T. Leo Almond in 1895 in the Downside Review, Volume 14. He was a member of Ampleforth Abbey, successor in England to Dieulouard:
Not only were the community the foremost brewers of Lorraine, with a monopoly for the supply of the ducal court, but they were actually the introducers of the hop into Lorraine, thus founding one of its principal industries. This strikes us as a unique episode in monastic history, far more important than the invention of a liqueur [no doubt Benedictine liqueur is meant here], which seems by some fatality to be a monastic privilege … I really think we have established a claim to some monumental recognition by France of the services of our Congregation.
In light of this high regard shown for the achievements of the Dieulouard brewery, it is impossible that monks in Belgium, a mere generation or so after Dieulouard was suppressed by the French Revolution, would not have been aware of its status as a monastic brewing star and sought to emulate its very special double beer.
Note re image above: the first image shown, of old Diest, was sourced from the auction and vending site www.delacampe.net, here. The second, of a secular brewery in Mechelen, was sourced here. Both are believed available for educational and historical use. All feedback welcomed.