by Jim Dorsch
I had a vision. A vision of a beer that's big, brown, estery and malty, yet not so heavy as a barley wine. A vision of a beer topped with a beautiful, thick, creamy, tan head. A vision of a beer that can take the nip out of a cold winter night. A beer that's, well, heavenly.
That beer is Belgian-style dubbel.
As is often the case, no one seems to know the style's origin. Of course, it's inexorably linked with Belgian monastic brewing. Who knows? Perhaps it's a product of divine intervention.
Dubbel is distinguished in several ways. A portion of the fermentable materials comes from candy sugar. In The New World Guide to Beer, Jackson explains that these sugars were commonly produced by Belgian farmer-brewers by making a syrup from beets and allowing it to crystallize on strings. Whether caramelized and brown or just plain white, candy sugar contains proteins and salts that contribute to its flavor. Jackson maintains that candy sugar adds to a beer's head retention, flavor, aroma and texture.
Perhaps most important is the yeast. Typical of Trappist ales, it's top-fermented, but not with any old yeast. A dubbel fermented with Chico ale yeast will scarcely resemble its brethren. Dubbel is fermented with yeasts that ooze with esters and funky Belgian character. Fermentation is often at high temperatures that accentuate these characteristics even more.
As a Trappist or Abbey style, dubbel is traditionally primed with a solution of fresh yeast and sugar and bottle-conditioned. But homebrewers often keg their dubbels.
Taste the Difference
Keith Chamberlin of Riverdale, MD, brews dubbel from a base malt and three or four specialty grains. "I typically use pils malt," he says. "It might attenuate a bit better, but there's nothing wrong with pale malt."
Special B malt is essential. Use up to a half-pound in a five-gallon batch for its unique burnt caramel flavor. Otherwise, try brown malt, which has a toasty, malty character. Chamberlin typically adds aromatic or biscuit malt for melanoidins and a malty mouthfeel; Munich malt for creaminess and body; crystal malt for sweetness and color; and perhaps 2 ounces of roasted barley in a five-gallon batch for complexity, and to aid in conversion.
Chamberlin acidifies his soft water with 1/8-teaspoon of lactic acid per five gallons, bringing the pH down to 5.5. This low pH ensures that harsh tannins aren't extracted from the malt. He employs an infusion mash at 152-153 degrees F (67 degrees C). Alternatively, try a step mash with a protein rest at 130 degrees F (54 degrees C) and a saccharification rest at 152 degrees (67 degrees C). There's a possible lack of clarity without the protein rest.
For sugar, Chamberlin says "candy sugar from Belgium is nice, but I see little difference from dextrose. Some say they can taste the difference." Chamberlin has won awards with dubbel made with corn sugar. He recommends up to two pounds of sugar-about 15 percent of fermentables-in five gallons of beer.
In accordance with style parameters (see sidebar), Chamberlin hops the beer lightly with Styrian Goldings or Saaz.
Yeast selection is critical. "You won't get the character without Belgian yeast," says Chamberlin. While dubbels tend to show sweetness, Chamberlin prefers an attenuative yeast. 'You don't want it to be sweet due to lack of fermentation," he says. "You want it to come from the malts." Chamberlin likes to use a yeast like that used in the Belgian Roquefort. "It has a unique character, but never wins," he says. He also likes Wyeast 1388 Belgian Strong Ale, and notes that some brewers achieve success with wit yeast.
Spices? "Not for a dubbel," Chamberlin says. "I never have." Typical of the brewers we interviewed, he believes that spices propel one into the realm of Belgian strong ales.
Fermentation proceeds for two to three weeks at 70 degrees F (21 degrees C), perhaps lower if the yeast is particularly fruity. Chamberlin usually kegs the beer, in which case it's ready to serve. Bottle-conditioned beers should rest for at least two to four weeks.
Andy Anderson of Alexandria, VA, uses a grain bill similar to Chamberlin's. Biscuit malt gives a toasty flavor-"It really helps a dubbel." Aromatic malt provides a malty taste similar to what one might obtain from decoction. The obligatory Special B is there; "People sometimes don't use enough," says Anderson. CaraMunich provides color, and Anderson likes the flavor better than that of British crystal malt.
Anderson used to pack his suitcase with candy sugar when returning from Belgium, but he's not sure that it matters. "I can't say it's the most critical thing," he says. "There are some unfermentable bits that add to flavor."
There's a more practical side to the debate. Candy sugar's resemblance to C4 explosive material could cause extensive delays at airport security checkpoints.
Anderson prefers a double-decoction mash, but says it's not necessary. For enhanced foam retention, he recommends a two-step infusion mash. First he mashes for one hour at 148 degrees F (64 degrees C), then for a half-hour at 159 degrees F (71 degrees C), followed by mashout at 165-170 degrees F (74-77 degrees C). This regime is designed to produce a dextrinous wort. Mashing only at 159 degrees F (71 degrees C) leaves too many dextrins, while a 147-degree F (64 degrees C) mash produces a wort that's too thin.
Anderson limits hop bitterness to about 20 IBUs. "I use East Kent Goldings, or whatever noble hops I have left over," he says. "I don't use Saaz; there's some spice character I don't care for." The last hopping is 15 minutes before the end of the boil, which gives only a slight hop flavor.
Anderson looks for some characteristic Belgian earthiness in a yeast. He performed an experiment with four Wyeast products, listed here with the suspected source in parentheses: Wyeast 1388 Belgian Strong Ale (Duvel), 1762 Belgian Abbey II (Rochefort), 3787 Belgian Trappist (Westmalle), 3944 Belgian White Beer (Hoegaarden). Of these, he prefers Wyeast 1762 and 3787. He also likes La Chouffe yeast, which he obtained from the Yeast Culture Kit Co. of Ann Arbor, MI.
Fermentation temperature? Brewers often ferment Belgian-style ales at temperatures as high as the upper 70s [Fahrenheit], but it depends on the yeast. "With the Westmalle strain, you'll get pure bananas at high temperatures," says Anderson. "In the 50s and 60s, it's clean, but you lose some esters." Anderson prefers to ferment in the mid- to upper 60s. The beer ferments for three weeks before racking into a keg, where it's kept near 50 degrees F (10 degrees C) for a month, which smoothes out fusels. He doesn't want to cold-condition the beer, as this reduces esters.
Lots of Latitude
Gordon Strong of Beavercreek, OH, says the dubbel style guidelines "allow for quite a bit of latitude," although like others we interviewed, he hesitates to add spices, while admitting that style guidelines allow it. But Strong recommends that brewers be "very subtle" if they take that route. "My personal opinion," he says, "is that there is enough other stuff going on that you don't need it."
Strong likes to enhance complexity by using several malts; he advises brewers to use Munich-type malts-light Munich, dark Munich, and aromatic-to achieve maltiness without excessiveness sweetness. He's used CaraMunich to add a slight plum element.
Looking for some dryness, Strong prefers Wyeast 3787 yeast for its attenuation and alcohol tolerance. "It can generate a lot of phenolics," he says, "so a warmer fermentation should be used to favor ester development."
Strong likes the combination of Styrian Goldings for bittering and Saaz in the finish.
It's going to be difficult to attain an appropriate character with malt extract. "It will be tough to get the malty flavor and dry finish," says Anderson. "It's probably a good idea to do a partial mash." Strong suggests a very malty extract such as the Ireks brand.
Follow your Muse
There you have it. Follow your muse. Explore the following references. Seek your dubbel vision. Amen.
Jackson, Michael, The New World Guide to Beer, Running Press, 1988.
Parker, Jim (managing editor), North American Brewers Resource Directory (14th ed.), Brewers Publications, 1997.
Rajotte, Pierre, Belgian Ale, Brewers Publications, 1992.
Strong, Gordon, Belgian Dubbels, personal correspondence.
Jim Dorsch publishes Mid-Atlantic Brewing News
(information: Brewing News: North American's Regional Beer Newspapers!
According to the North American Brewers Resource Directory, 14th edition, dubbel has the following specifications:
Original Gravity: 1.050-1.070 (12.5-17.5 degrees Plato)
Final Gravity: 1.012-1.016 (3-4 degrees Plato)
Alcohol by Volume: 6.0-7.5%
Color: 10-14 SRM (dark amber-brown)
Bitterness: 18-25 International Bitterness Units
The BRD goes on to describe the beer's sensory qualities:
This medium- to full-bodied, dark amber- to brown-colored ale has a malty sweetness and nutty, chocolate-like and roast malt aroma. A faint hop aroma is acceptable. Dubbels are also characterized by low bitterness and no hop flavor. Very small quantities of diacetyl are acceptable. Fruity esters (especially banana) are appropriate at low levels. Head retention is dense and mousselike. Chill haze is acceptable at low serving temperatures.
SIDEBAR: COMMERCIAL EXAMPLES
Gordon Strong and a group of fellow BJCP judges in the DRAFT homebrew club tasted 17 dubbels. Top choices in the blind tasting were:
1. Westmalle Trappist Dubbel
2. Grimbergen Double
2. Affligem Dobbel
3. St. Sebastiaan Dark
3. Ename Dubbel
4. Corsendonk Abbey Brown Ale