Beer Style Guide: Abbey DUBBEL beer

Rory Lawton

abbey dubbel

Not only for monks. But also for them: Belgian Abbey Dubbel. (Photo: StP)

The Belgian Abbey DUBBEL style is for you if you:

  • enjoy the rich complexity of Belgian ales
  • want to try a dark beer, but find German Dunkels & Bockbiers too sweet/malty and porters/stouts too roasty/bitter
  • wish to explore a distinct, historic beer style created by a Belgian Trappist monastery

Style History

The chestnut brown Abbey ‘Dubbel’ beer is an older beer style than the relatively modern, blonde Abbey ‘Tripel’ and has its roots in the mid nineteenth century, when most beers brewed across Europe (including Germany) were top-fermented and dark. In 1856, the monks at the Trappist Abbey in Westmalle (northern Belgium) first brewed a stronger ‘Dubbel’ beer, a step up from their table beer. The recipe was adapted in 1926 to make an even higher-gravity version with caramelised sugar syrup and in this form, the 7% ABV Westmalle Dubbel has become the beer that defines this style.

As with the stronger, blonde Tripel style, there are a few stories about the origins of the name Dubbel, most of them inaccurate. What is undeniable, however, is that a series of beers were brewed in abbeys with varying strengths: a single, a Dubbel (double) and in the 20th century a Tripel (triple). These could all be light or dark ale recipes. The original name merely denoted the gravity and/or alcoholic strength. However, today Dubbel and Tripel have become very distinct styles.

A Dubbel is brewed with pilsner malt and a small percentage of dark caramel malts. Most of the dark colour of the finished beer comes from the addition of 10-15% dark sugar syrup, used in order to boost the alcohol and impart some complex aromas not attainable with malted barley alone, while keeping the body relatively dry. (As with the Tripel, this is a crucial part of the recipe, often ignored by German brewers attempting this style, even though sugar is allowed in top-fermented beers!). Hops such as the English Fuggles and continental Tettnanger, Saaz and Styrian Goldings are used. The right Belgian yeast strain is perhaps the most important aspect of brewing this style, along with the careful fermentation management to allow the yeast to work overtime to produce the fruity esters and spicy phenols. The Abbey Dubbel should be complex, rich and malty, but without the sweet malt character of German dark beers or the roast malt character of porters/stouts.

It is worth mentioning that many beer writers and beer geeks naively and incorrectly lump beers into the Dubbel style, simply because they are Belgian, dark and strong. (Examples include Westvleteren 8 from St. Sixtus Abbey and Brother Thelonious from North Coast Brewing). A Dubbel is only a Dubbel if a skilled brewer deliberately brews a beer with this specific style as the goal.

Beer Style Guide

Appearance:Light-brown to dark mahogany in colour. It should be possible to see red highlights at the edge of the glass. The head should be large and fluffy due to the relatively high carbonation levels.
ABV:Typically 6.5-8.0% ABV
Aroma:Some pear and banana esters, some raisin and plum, hint of spice, some continental hop spiciness.
Flavour:Rich malty body, with dark fruits and pear being the dominant notes. Roast malt character should be entirely absent. Long, complex flavour evolution, leading to herbal/spicy hop finish.
Body:Medium body. Although the sugar syrup boosts the alcohol and contributes nothing to the body, the high carbonation levels give extra body and effervescence.

Recommended Abbey Dubbel beer examples:

  • The original: Westmalle Dubbel – Abdij der Trappisten van Westmalle (BE). This beer, the archetype of the style, really demonstrates master brewing. Complex and rich, this beer – still one of the darkest of the style, sets the bar high. Fruity esters dominate and it is worth leaving this warm in the glass to see how the flavours change.
  • The lay Belgian interpretation: Affligem Dubbel – Brouwerij De Smedt / Brouwerij Affligem (BE). You don’t have to be a trappist monastery to brew a Dubbel and this interpretation by Affligem (bought by Heineken group) has been hugely successful in the United States.
  • German Dubbel: Bieré de Abbaye Double – Pax Bräu (DE). This seasonal brew from Pax Bräu is available in 1.0L bottles. Brewed with honey and coriander, it is a rare, uncompromised interpretation of the style from a German brewer.
abbey dubbel

Drink good beer. Always. Amen. (Photo: StP)