Stealing Home After a Trippel

Be sure your quadrupel lives up to its name.

Everyone knows second base is better than first base, but as regards Belgian brews, the difference between a dubbel, a tripel, and a quadrupel stands a bit murky. If you're an American, a quadrupel must be twice as good as a dubbel, right? It's the whole "mach/triple/turbo/extreme" theory of advertising. Not so with these beers, which have distinct flavor profiles and personalities to correspond with their numerical badges. To say that the number in the title of the beer corresponds to the number of fermentations the beer goes through is the easiest way to explain the differences among numbered brews, with the final fermentation taking place in the bottle. A beer's specific gravity (its weight, generally measured in relation to water) marks another characteristic important in separating these styles. As breweries outside Belgium have adopted Belgian styles and nomenclatures, the definitions have blurred and the rules for defining numbered styles have become a matter of taste. The number of fermentations and the beer's gravity both point to one characteristic: alcoholic strength. The more fermentations a batch of beer must undergo, the more fuel needed to produce them. More fuel equals more alcohol in the end result. So the terms dubbel, tripel, and quadrupel act much like the star system in a Thai restaurant. Two stars means mellow, three means spicy, and four means anyone of delicate nature should beware (and give up your keys). The same tool used to measure specific gravity, or density, also can indicate a liquid's alcohol content. Density, a sensation to which alcohol content contributes, is something many beer and wine tasters refer to as weight, in the same way cream is weightier than skim milk. The following beers, both domestic and Belgian, embody their corresponding numerical badges to a tee: Dubbel. I'm stuck on Allagash Brewing Company's Dubbel like Lionel Ritchie. The color of fine vintage teak, this dubbel gives off a warm, spicy vibe, hiding its alcohol quite well (in general, dubbels hover around 6% alcohol). This beer is all about malted milk balls and spice. Tripel. If any beer embodies all that a tripel could ever hope to be, it's Westmalle Tripel. I describe the color of this traditional Belgian ale as sweet-potato pie, because to me it also delivers the aromas and flavors of my favorite dessert. Tripels come off rich in character and alcohol, leaning more toward 8%, but they have a lesser caramel-nut characteristic than dubbels and a lighter fruit profile. Somewhat surprisingly, they are also lighter in color. A tripel's fruit character is more in line with that of blonde dessert wines. The sophisticated Westfalle Tripel emits bourbon-laced fruit with hints of spiced nut. Whenever anyone tells me "I'm really not a beer drinker," I stick this ale in their pinot noir glass and watch them choke on its nuances—and their words. Quadrupel. When attempting a quad for the first time, I must refer you to the Reverend, from Colorado's Avery Brewing. Served at the appropriate temperature (68 degrees, or basement temp), the Reverend gives off the unmistakable aroma of bananas Foster, with caramelized fruit and a huge malty presence. Quadrupels have characteristics more aligned with brown dessert wines like tawny port, and an alcohol content near 10%. This is a beer that can stand in for a port, as well as for any big red you might serve with a honking lamb shank. Incidentally, if you'd like to do a tasting of the entire dubbel-to-quad spectrum, the Maine-based brewery makes a home run called the "Allagash Four," which you can pick up at fine beer suppliers like 99 Bottles in Federal Way.

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