4×4: Quads Compared – La Trappe v Ommegang v Straffe Hendrik v St Bernardus
In general, one does not associate Belgium with extremism, but they have given the world some wonderful strong beers. Zak Avery says in 500 Beers that “the journey up the intensity scale from dubbel to tripel must logically conclude with quadrupel”. However, reading about the style you could be forgiven for thinking the debate about “black IPAs” is merely a little local difficulty. Much of the literature (excluding Zak, of course) displays a weary disapproval of the naïve, American-influenced neophyte, fooled into drinking and enjoying an inauthentic beer style.
One struggles to find a proper definition, and Ratebeer would seem to suggest that there are two distinct styles or sub-styles: dark, maltier Abts (eg Westvleteren, St Bernardus) and paler “peachy” Quadrupels (eg that of the Dutch Trappist brewery, La Trappe). Other accounts would have it that “Abt” (“abbot”) or “12” is merely the original Belgian designation for the style described as “quadrupel” elsewhere, the latter term originating with La Trappe.
However, reading about beers is a poor substitute for drinking them, and I had accumulated four quadrupel/abt style beers. Given the pleasing symmetry, I thought they were worth trying and comparing over a few nights.
La Trappe Quadrupel (10% ABV)
Pours russet, with a large dense, lasting cream-coloured head. Sweet malty aroma. A rich taste with a lot of sweetness up front quickly revealing a toast (actual buttered toast) and caramelised sugar flavour. Not especially bitter, perhaps just enough to add a bit of definition to the finish. Although it has a thick, oily mouthfeel, it’s actually quite mellow and enjoyable in a warm butter croissant way, although I was left wondering whether there was anything to distinguish it from an English barley wine.
Brewery Ommegang 2011 Three Philosophers (9.8% ABV)
This American quadrupel is actually mixed with 2% cherry kriek. The big head is slightly fluffier and a touch more nicotine-stained than the La Trappe. The aroma shows off a tart sour fruitiness at the edges of the sweet maltiness. In colour it’s slightly darker and redder than the La Trappe. In comparison the taste is still sweet but less so; deep and drier with a kriek tartness. I’d like to try a version without the cherry, but suspect the flavour would be more elusive.
Straffe Hendrik 11° “Brugs Quadrupel Bier” (11% ABV)
When we did the brewery tour in Bruges last summer, they told us that this relatively new beer had been suggested by their American distributors. The very big fluffy loose head has a bit of yellow to it. This is obviously a much darker beer than the previous ones: deep reddy -brown that looks beautiful held up to the light. There’s not really much of an aroma, perhaps slightly of malt loaf. The taste is immediately warming and alcoholic, a tingle in the mouth. The sweetness is vinous but tart: almost a hint of brandy, perhaps fortified red wine, and a little dark chocolate. It’s really very enjoyable, a warm bath of a beer.
St Bernardus Abt 12 (10% ABV)
St Bernardus is brewed by the commercial brewery that held the licence to produce St Sixtus beers, before this was withdrawn and the “Westvleteren” beers, including “Abt” (Ratebeer’s best beer in the world) were taken back in-house, or rather in-abbey. As to how similar the equivalent Westvleteren and St Bernardus are, see this post from Boak & Bailey. St Bernardus scores very well on Ratebeer too, although it commands less mystique than the hard-to-find Westvleteren.
St Bernardus pours with a relatively light-coloured head, the beer as dark in colour as the Straffe Hendrik, but less red. The aroma is more upfront, signalling the sweet, dark, vinous maltiness within. It has a similar character to the Straffe Hendrik: a little bit of red wine, some dark chocolate, raisins. There’s something else there though, a little spicy, lifting the taste: vanilla, maybe even cardamom. This, and a less thick body than you might expect from the ABV, makes it very drinkable.
In conclusion it does seem to me that there is a definite difference between the La Trappe Quadrupel and St Bernardus Abt 12, most evident in the colour, but also the taste. My personal preference is for the darker, deeper “Abt”, and it’s a style/sub-style that I’ll definitely be coming back to.
For another comparison of this style of beer, see this post from Mark Dredge, the comments to which display some of the best and worst of online beer discussion.