For our second session of Beer Blogging Friday I went a little farther from home and chose an old favorite, Westmalle Dubbel. Dubbel, of course, doesn’t mean the beer is double anything, but merely that it’s stronger than the single and not as strong as the tripel. It’s all relative, meaning the strength of dubbels can vary widely. Nor should the dubbel be based on the single but is more often its own and very separate style, as opposed to an Imperial or Double IPA (which is at least based on an IPA).
Westmalle undoubtedly made the first modern dubbel shortly after World War Two, and based it on a heavier beer they began making in 1926, which itself was based on a darker beer pioneered around 1856. So there’s quite a bit of history in every sip, though I don’t know if the brewer originally had a limp or not. I make that comment in reference to a Publican article by British beer writer Ben McFarland where he essentially excoriates amateur beer snobs, going so far as to call them “condescending clowns” and other rather insulting word portraits of his vision of the classic beer snob. One of these was the beer snobs “patronising dismissal of any beer that isn’t brewed by a 16th century monk with a limp.” In a later rebuttal of sorts on Rate Beer, McFarland indicated he intended the piece to be a “light-hearted article” but also that he was trying to make the point that “beer snobs are damaging beer’s appeal by taking it too seriously.” I frankly thought his article was in fact damaging to beer enthusiasts and enthusiasm, and said so. Though I more often very much enjoy McFarland’s writing style — his piece in the new issue of the Celebrator, for example, is priceless — this one seemed more vindictive and spiteful than it did tongue-in-cheek or funny.
But Westmalle Dubbel is without question, if not a beer snob’s beer, certainly a beer for the enthusiast or aficionado rather than McFarland’s “everyday chap.” That’s too bad, really, as it should be more of an everyday beer. The monks assuredly don’t view it as anything too special, just another beer in the mix, though perhaps reserved for a particular day, Good Friday for example. But compared with so much of what passes for beer, it really is quite extraordinary.
Some form of this beer was indeed more than likely brewed in the 16th century by a Trappist monk — though the limp remains purely speculative. It was revived again during the 19th century’s industrial revolution when many Abbey breweries began to modernize and then revived yet again in its present form some sixty years ago.
Happily, I’ve got the right glass for this beer and it’s finally warmed up enough to open it. It’s quiet in my office, and I can hear the bubbles crackle as I pour it down the center to release the CO2. The tan head recedes after a couple of minutes, revealing a deep mahogany color. I grandiosely swirl the glass to enhance the aroma and inhale ostentatiously (note: in case you missed it, this last bit is sarcasm, it was a regular swirl and I used my everyday nose). The nose is sweet and malty with some underlying fruitiness — raisins? — with a hint of characteristic nuttiness. The first sip is a jolt of sweetness with a raisiny, prune-like character. In subsequent tastes, the beer dances on my tongue with a pleasant effervescence. The malt character continues to change with time and chocolate notes become more common, as do tiny hints of banana and some kind of berry or fig that I can’t quite put my finger on. The finish is clean and dry.
Westmalle’s Tripel deservedly gets a lot of attention, in the manner of a favorite son or daughter. But the dubbel is no Jan Brady, and has plenty of secret and not-so-secret admirers, of which I am unabashedly one. I’m sure I’m not the only person who will write about this beer today, as it is one of the truly great dubbels around.
But back to this question of beer snobs and how taking themselves too seriously might be “damaging beer’s appeal.” Westmalle’s Dubbel is, I think, a perfect example of a beer worthy to be taken seriously. Should that fact be off-putting to the novice or uninitiated? Must I tone down my enthusiasm for this beer so as not to scare off “potential drinkers?” Frankly, if anyone won’t try a Westmalle Dubbel because I waxed too lyrically about it or used “absurd verbal acrobatics” to describe it, then that person wasn’t ready yet anyway. I want to bring people over to the cause of better beer at least as much as McFarland does, possibly even more so, but I don’t think discouraging or disparaging a beer geek who’s stepped over the line into snobbery is a very helpful or effective tactic.
Like it or not, the people McFarland so disdains are the very people who can and will carry the message of good beer in their own personal missions. Will they always carry out their missionary work in a way we’d like, in the way we might do it, or even in a way that brings honor to the cause? Probably not, and at least not all the time.
But maybe, just maybe, those of us in the public eye as brewers or beer writers didn’t always know as much as we do today. Perhaps we once were empty vessels waiting to be filled, too. As I learned about better beer and began homebrewing, I tried to talk to anyone and everyone I knew about how good this stuff was, especially compared to the popular bile of the day. Did I make mistakes, overstep myself beyond what I really knew or make a fool of myself. Why yes, yes, I did. Was I a beer snob? Yes, from time to time I was insufferably so. Thank goodness nobody gave me the advice to just “shut up and drink it.” Because over time I learned more and more and made a fool of myself less and less. And I have personally introduced better beer to scores of people, who are today telling two friends, who in turn will tell two more, and so on and so on, dubbeling our pleasure at every turn.
Jim Olson (Bostonbeerman) says
Great article Jay. You provided a great review of an excellent beer, threw in some interesting history, and addressed the issue of beer snobbery–I really liked your take on that.