One, two, three, four…just doesn’t have the same ring, does it? Single, Dubbel, Tripel, Quadrupel. That’s better! If you made a list of the most sought-after beers in the world, a great many of them would be about as far from the hazy, wait-in-line New England IPAs as you could get. They’d be dark, dry, complex, and warm – they’d be Belgian Dark Strong Ales, or “Belgian Quads.” These “smooth and dangerous” beers (to quote the BJCP guidelines) are some of the best-drinking and most enjoyable beers you’ll ever drink, and they can be surprisingly easy to make if you build a good recipe and adhere to some, good, basic brewing practices. I can’t promise you that you’ll have the same following as Westy XII, but I can promise that you can get pretty darned close, and it may be easier than you think.
Belgian Dark Strong is a “Cadillac” beer style: it’s meant to show off the lengths to which beer can go, in both flavor and alcohol, and still be enjoyed by the chalice. It’s a traditional Abbey (or Trappist, depending on the brewery!) style, and it shares some obvious similarities to the other Belgian Strong Ale styles, particularly Dubbel.
It’s dark(er) in color, though not especially so – many are in the amber-to-copper range. It’s warm, with as high as 12 percent ABV. It features plenty of fermentation and yeast “action,” with lots of esters and phenols (though more peppery than clove-y). It’s also generally lighter and more effervescent than other “imperial” strength ales, and the classic Trappist versions (this recipe included) are relatively dry in the finish. That dryness can be tough to produce, though, given the alcohols present and the fairly limited IBUs added, so we count on spice, carbonation, and simple sugar additions to keep the beer from becoming too sweet and heavy.
There is a lot going on in this style, but it doesn’t have to be especially complicated to make. The monks are big on simplicity and parsimony, and we’d be wise to take their lead on this one.
The grist of this beer is fairly simple, especially given the complexity involved in the final product. Eleven pounds of Pilsner malt gives you plenty of sugar and a nice crackery base, with three pounds of Munich malt to increase the rich melanoidin profile. To that we add a quarter pound of Special B (any more and I’d start to get concerned about body). That’s it for the grains, but we want two pounds of near-100% fermentable sugars. If you’re risk-averse, you can use two pounds of Belgian dark candi syrup – if you’re more adventurous, though, consider a pound of the Belgian dark candi syrup and a pound of blackstrap molasses. The molasses gives the beer a punch of interesting burnt sugar flavor (rather than just the neutral caramel flavor of the candi syrup), and it complements the grist beautifully! That should get you to right about 10% ABV, potential.
Hopping isn’t particularly complicated here (there’s enough of that in the malt and sugar flavors): 30 IBUs’ worth of Hallertau Hersbrucker at 20 minutes remaining plus a half-ounce of Styrian Goldings at flame-out (or in the whirlpool, preferably, if you do one) will add some gentle floral and herbal aromatics to the finished beer.
Finally, yeast. Lots of Westvleteren and other Quad clone recipes will steer you towards the Wyeast Trappist High Gravity yeast, but (as I’ve noted before) I detect a very odd flavor, and not one in keeping with the style, in that yeast’s output, and not just one my system. Instead, I prefer the Wyeast 1214 Belgian Abbey yeast. It’s an attenuation monster, produces lots of interesting fruity notes, and a mild pepper phenol. The only hitch is that it takes forever to clear (at least when I use it), so I usually plan on a gelatin addition to help it along. If you’re OK with a beer that’s clear-but-not-bright, you don’t need to worry, but if you want those gorgeous garnet jewel tones, plan on hitting it with some additional fining agents.
I’d say to go ahead and mash this one low and slow, 148F or thereabouts for a full 90 minutes. It’s not a requirement, per se, but it almost certainly can’t hurt, and it might help. I always add my sugars in the lauter/sparge to be sure they fully dissolve (and that I don’t forget them), but be sure to take your kettle off of the heat first.
Fermentation follows the same routine as my Belgian Golden Strong, in that it starts relatively low but ramps up quickly. I start at 62F, but immediately allow it to rise by a degree or so per day. We want clean alcohols and some fermentation character, but letting it start too warm will increase your risk of fusels – it just isn’t worth it.
Cold crash after fermentation completes (plus two more days, just to be sure!), then carbonate to a nice, high 2.75 volumes of CO2 for that bright, spritzy Belgian Strong mouthfeel.
I hesitate to write this, but don’t be shy about trying out more intense versions of this recipe. If you can produce it with more character malts, higher ABV, and more hops while preserving it’s smooth and drinkable character, then go for it! But this will get you started with a relatively easy-to-produce version of the style that hits all of the key points and minimizes your risk. Enjoy!