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Classic Beer of the Month April 2014: Westmall Dubbel, 7%

Trappist breweries seem to be popping up all over the place at the moment, what with Stift Engelszell in Austria, St Joseph's in the USA and Kievit in the Netherlands joining the monastic beer party recently.

Westmalle DubbelUnderstandably, these newcomers take their lead from the long-established Trappist brewers in the Low Countries, with Westmalle, in particular, providing a blueprint to follow.

The monks at Westmalle, just east of Antwerp, began brewing in 1836, the year that the abbey became part of the Trappist order. In those 178 years, they've perfected two beers that are widely seen as archetypes of their styles.

In 1934, they developed a golden beer that was hoppy, dry and formidably strong. They called it Tripel and this is, today, the beer that everyone looks to as the benchmark when considering tripels from other breweries.

Earlier, however, they developed a darker beer they now call Dubbel. It roots lie in 1856 but the recipe was adapted in 1926 into the beer we know today – or perhaps we should say two beers we know today, as the draught and bottled versions are subtly different.

On draught, the beer is offered young and fresh, meaning lots of unfermented sugars and a restrained ester character. In bottle, the beer, as it ages, becomes drier, losing sweetness and malt depth. The esters blossom as the fermentation continues and the beer becomes ever more complex.

Banana Aroma

Pouring a deep claret colour, the bottled version presents a prominent banana aroma, backed with bakers' spices and a musty yeastiness.

In the mouth, the beer has notably less body than anticipated from the rich, dark colour but is saturated with carbon dioxide for a bubbly, airy texture.

There is a touch of toasted grain in the flavour but this is well overshadowed by an aniseed-like spiciness and estery notes of banana, raisin and bubblegum. Falling just on the bitter side of bittersweet, it develops more character the more you sip, with hints of cola and a little sourness adding to the mix.

The finish offers a great illustration of how Belgian brewers cheat their way to strength by adding sugar at the end of the copper boil. Instead of the thickness of lingering malt that you might expect from a beer of this strength, a thin dryness characterises the aftertaste as a result of the sugar being eaten away by the yeast.

Aniseed notes continue to feature as bitterness gathers hold, but the finish is not particularly deep or lasting, making this a very quaffable ale for its strength.

Westmalle Dubbel is a classy beer, one of the bedrocks of the Belgian beer scene. Even if you can't make the trip to sample the draught version, you should have little trouble discovering the beer in bottle close to you.

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