Double Beer in France and Its Origins


A follow-up to my last post: Citations for “bière double/double bière” appear regularly in French sources going back to the 1500s at least. A beer at Paris was known by such names according to some writers on French beer in the 1800s. The beer was, typically, brown and reasonably strong, and one gravity table from a French science dictionary, 1823, suggests Paris double beer was equal to English “ale”: thus 6-7% abv, sometimes higher but probably not often. Some reports put the range much lower though, as this one (1856). It is always hard to tell, but in general I believe these beers to have been reasonably strong.

As I said in my last post, it is not unusual that the old English term, double beer, had analogues elsewhere, even in France. There are two issues here: what is the proximate origin of the emerging Belgian dubbels of the 1800s, an era when the beers of the people were often sour and half the strength of Chimay (7.2%) in 1877? And what was the ultimate origin of the term double beer/bière double?  It’s two separate questions. For the first one, unquestionably in my view, the monastic double beer of Dieulouard abbey, 1608-1789, had to influence what Westmalle and Chimay brewed in the 1800s. The geographic, temporal, and cultural factors (Benedictine link, departure of French monks for greener pastures in Belgium after 1789), all coincide.

The fact of strong brown beer having apparently had currency in Paris, called by the same name, may have been a contributing factor. My sense is monastic communities by their very nature tend to rely on their own resources and history, not those of a commercial market, but anyway that is possible.

One interesting source, a 1580 book called “L’Agriculture et La Maison Rustique” by the French physicians and writers on agriculture, Charles Estienne and Jean Liebault, described bière double as of English and Flemish origin – thus not French. (The first letter of “bière” in the link is obscured due to the scan but numerous other editions clearly state “double bière”).

They bracket this term, or double beer in English, with the French terms “alle” and “gutalle“. These were colloquial terms, indeed alternate spellings, meaning ale and good ale. To me, all this suggests an ultimate English origin for double beer and the equivalent French word. But in light of the authors’ suggestion of a possible Flemish connection, I acknowledge that dubbel bier in Flemish, and maybe bière double in Francophone Belgium, may have come first. After all, the Flemings brought hopped beer to England.

I’ll set aside whether Dieulouard’s beer, or Westmalle’s and Chimay’s, was ale or beer in English terms. The distinction was losing significance in England anyway let alone France and Belgium where the history and terminology were different. I will also not discuss, here at any rate, doppelbock beer, although I believe it is likely a monastic version of Trappist dubbel and Dieulouard abbey’s  earlier double beer.

I doubt it will be possible to sort the second question out given the very distant eras being referred to. If dubbel bier/double beer/bière double was originally Flemish, its memory may have lingered on in the Belgian lands. Of course, Rochefort abbey for its part has been brewing since the 1500s with a lapsus of about 100 years after the French Revolution. It now issues beers to the public of this description, since 1952.

But again: the signal success of the Dieulouard brewery to sustain the Saint-Laurent Benedictines there was unique to my knowledge. They used the term double beer, this is known as a fact as I explained earlier.  We cannot ignore the likelihood that this successful application of St. Benedict’s Rule was impressed upon Westmalle, Chimay, Achel and Rochefort when they started brewing in the 1800s.

Note re image: the image is of the Chateau in Dieulouard, Lorraine, France, before WW I. It is in the public domain and was sourced here.