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No Rests for the Wicked: Fit for a Chalice

Belgium’s dark, strong ales are among the most complex and impressive beers in the canon—yet extract brewers can tackle them as well as anyone, as long as we pay attention to a few key points.

Annie Johnson May 2, 2022 - 10 min read

No Rests for the Wicked: Fit for a Chalice Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves/mgravesphoto.com

Equally enjoyable at a festive gathering or as a quiet nightcap, Belgium’s stronger, darker Trappist ales—think Rochefort 10, Westvleteren 12, or Chimay Blue—are among the richest beers from one of the world’s richest brewing traditions. Yet, by understanding a few key points, even beginning homebrewers can produce something that tastes as great as it looks in the glass.

These beers are dark and complex, yet light and lively for their extraordinary strength; some call them “quadrupels”—taking a cue from the Dutch Trappist brewery, La Trappe, but also following the logical sequence beyond singles, dubbels, and tripels. Even if American brewers and geeks have taken to calling them “quads,” Belgian brewers generally don’t use the Q-word. Instead, they let the dark color and high strength do most of the talking.

These delightful ales are full of rich flavors and history. Anyone who knows me—old-school master that I am—knows that I appreciate history and hold a reverence for older styles. So, let’s dive into this big, rich, boozy tradition.

The Trappist Tradition

This is a style rooted in monastic brewing. Hey, monks get thirsty, too—and more importantly, in the old days, they had pilgrims and other guests to look after. However, those surely would have been lower-strength ales. The French Revolution and anti-Catholic movements took a heavy toll on the abbeys, but in the 1830s a couple of the Trappist abbeys in Belgium—Westmalle and Westvleteren—began to brew for themselves again using modern techniques. Achel, Chimay, and Rochefort followed in the decades to come, as each eventually began selling small amounts to the public to help support themselves and their communities.

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The Trappist designation means only that they were brewed on the grounds of a Trappist abbey. The monks protect that designation, so that similar ales produced by other breweries are known as abbey beers, or abbey-style.

The stronger, darker ales were 20th century creations—Westvleteren 12 in 1940, Chimay Blue in 1948, and Rochefort 8 and 10 in the 1950s. These were special brews often released for the holidays, then eventually brewed more often as their popularity grew. They were also unique, with each brewery’s ales highlighting different characteristics. Westvleteren’s gold-capped 12 is the most sought-after, being highly regarded, produced in limited quantities, and officially available only at the abbey itself.

The good news is that most of these special beers are available at better bottle shops. I highly recommend picking up bottles of both the Trappist strong, dark ales along with a few of the American-brewed “quads,” so you can note the differences in flavors. The better versions will find their balance with good attenuation and a dry finish—these beers should never cloy—despite layers of character from malt, dark sugar, and fermentation. There should also be high carbonation and ample foam that follows you all the way to the bottom of the glass—when, against your better judgement, you seriously think about having another one.

With all that in mind, let’s brew.

Brewing It Dark, Strong, and Drinkable

While this beer tends to have a complex malt character, you can brew it perfectly well as an extract beer with specialty grains. Ready to join the ranks of thirsty, wannabe monks?

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Let’s break it down: The typical bill for these includes mostly pilsner malt, a small amount of caramel or other specialty malt, and a healthy dollop of flavorful dark sugar. The point of adding the sugar, besides adding flavor, is to boost the alcohol while lightening the body. Belgian brewers sometimes refer to this lightness as “digestibility,” implying an ease of drinking despite its strength. The amount of sugar in these beers is often 10 to 20 percent of fermentables.

In Belgium, that means candi sugar made from beets, often in syrup form. Table sugar lacks the flavors you can get from some of the darker Belgian candi sugars and syrups that are available and add both color and depth. The company called (simply) Candi Syrup produces a range of products with different colors and intensities of flavor; I find that a combination of D-90 and D-180 works nicely. Add the syrups or sugars with 10 minutes left in the boil. If you’re using turbinado, “rock,” or other crystalized sugars, go with the darkest color you can get, and dissolve it in a bit of hot water before adding it to the kettle, to help avoid scorching.

About the malt: For the base, I suggest using pilsner dry malt extract (DME) if you can’t get fresh liquid extract. I’ve had the issue of occasionally getting oxidized LME, and it ends up quite pronounced in the final beer. For steeping malts, a bit of Munich will add malt depth while a touch of Special B can bring raisin, fig, and other fruit flavors. However, adding too much will add body and sweetness, interfering with that goal of attenuation and drinkability. Where many recipes go wrong is clouding up the flavors with specialty grains—having a big, alcoholic raisin-juice-in-the-glass would make any Belgian monk sad.

American-brewed versions can sometimes lean sweeter and stronger; they might also get fruits, spices, or time in spirits barrels. It’s your choice—hey, Belgian brewers are the OGs of creativity, and even Chimay now has a special rum barrel–aged version of its Blue—but try to keep balance and drinkability in mind.

Ultimately, these ales are more fruity than spicy in their profile; a yeast that helps push fruit esters over spicy phenols works best. Go for an available strain associated with Trappist or abbey beers. Do not use clean American strains, not even for a “quad.” My preference is Wyeast 3787 Belgian High Gravity or White Labs WLP530 Abbey Ale, both possibly derived from the Westmalle strain. Omega OYL-018 Abbey Ale C is another that leans more fruity than spicy. If you prefer using dried yeast, SafAle BE-256 is a nice choice with its own fruity profile. Self-styled yeast bandits, beware: Culturing up dregs from a bottle will often get you the strain they use for bottle-conditioning instead of what they use for primary fermentation.

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Also important here: pitch rate. We want high attenuation for a high-alcohol beer, and that means pitching plenty of healthy yeast. If you’re not making a big yeast starter (say, four liters), you’ll want to pitch at least three packages of yeast. Attenuation is the key to this beer not winding up thick and syrupy.

For hops, stick with Noble varieties—Styrian Goldings, Tettnanger, and Saaz are excellent choices. This is not a hoppy beer; two or three modest hop charges will get you there. The hops support and balance the other flavors. You can add kettle finings and yeast nutrient with about 10 to 15 minutes left in the boil—about the same time as you add the sugar.

Fermentation temperatures should be in the upper 60s Fahrenheit (19–21°C) for the bulk of the fermentation, then warmed to the lower 70s Fahrenheit (22–23°C) to finish—that will help keep the esters and spicier phenols from getting out of hand. After packaging, give it some time: A long maturation period in bottles or keg really helps round out the flavors and mellow the alcohol of a dark strong ale. That alcohol is part of the profile, for sure—but it should be a pleasant warming sensation, rather than a throat-burning hot mess.

Want to brew a bolder, brasher American-style “quad”? Here are some things to consider. If you don’t have a barrel handy, soak two ounces of medium-toast American oak chips in your favorite spirit—dark rum is super tasty—and add them to the finished beer, conditioning for a week or so, or to taste. If fruit is your passion, choose wisely; fruit that pairs with the beer’s dark stone-fruit flavors, such as figs or plums, can work nicely.

These are beers that present well from the bottle and can be cellared for one or more years. I like to put them in previously emptied Belgian beer bottles or champagne bottles. These should be highly carbonated, so heavy-rated glass bottles work best.

Don’t skimp on the glassware, either—this beer deserves a chalice or goblet, and a moment of quiet reverence. You don’t have to think like a monk or drink like a monk to brew these, but maybe it helps. Happy brewing!

Annie Johnson is an experienced R&D brewer, IT specialist, and national beer judge. Her awards include 2013 American Homebrewer of the Year honors.

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