With its signature rich, malty flavor, medium bitterness, and impressive ABV, the Belgian quad is a beer which has stood the test of time – literally. A subcategory of Belgian strong ale, the quad or “quadrupel” has a fascinating history and delectable flavor profile. Both make learning about this storied European style worthwhile. And of course great reasons to try a few.
A Brief History of Belgian Quads Starts with The Trappists
The Belgian quad has roots dating back to the sixth century in Europe when monks brewed beer.
“Historically, a quadrupel is a Trappist style of brewing,” says Rick Debar, Director of Operations at Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, NY, well-known for its Belgian-style quadruple ale called Three Philosophers.
What exactly is a Trappist beer? To answer that, we need a bit of a history lesson.
Trappists, also referred to as the Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, emerged after the Roman Empire crumbled in the fifth century.
During this time, the Catholic Church underwent a period of great change. And St. Benedict emerged with a set of rules for monastic life. Known as the Rule of St. Benedict, these regulations were adopted by different monasteries and spread across various parts of Europe.
As monasteries changed over time, some loosened their adherence to the original rules. But some monks yearned for the return of the stricter Rule of St. Benedict. Like those who founded The Abbey of Citeaux in 1098 in southern France. These Cistercians are the ancestors of today’s Trappists.
Accordingly, the term “Trappist” comes from a Cistercian monastery in Normandy, France called La Grande Trappe Abbey. Here, during the seventeenth century, a movement started to return to this austere way of life and religious practice. Those involved earned the nickname, “Trappists.”
The name stuck.
Okay, But Why Are The Trappists So Important? And What Do They Have to Do with Quads?
Because quadrupels are a type of Trappist beer!
Historically, Trappists began brewing in monasteries as a way to create potable water. But it was also a means to generate income for the monastery and local community.
Monasteries in general brewed beer as early as the sixth century. Trappists, like those at La Grande Trappe, are on record as operating a brewery around 1685.
“A true Trappist quadrupel carries the distinction of having been warm-fermented and bottle conditioned within the walls of the monastery brewing operations,” says Debar.
Over time the tradition of brewing within monasteries grew.
Famous Belgian Trappist beers including dubbels and tripels began to emerge in the mid-1800s from monsastaries such as Westmalle and Westvleteren (a monastery that makes one of the rarest beers in the world today).
However, the quadrupel wouldn’t make an appearance until 1991 when De Koningshoeven Brewery, a Dutch Trappist Brewery in the Netherlands, brewed the first quad called La Trappe Quadrupel.
Though technically a brewery in the Netherlands brewed the first quadrupel, the majority of modern quads are made with Belgian yeast. And it is commonly understood that quads are a beer of Belgian origin.
How the Belgian Quad Came to America
The first Trappists fled to America in 1803 to escape Napoleon’s persecution in Europe. And they brought their brewing traditions with them. First, to the Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, and later across the country.
Today, there are Trappist monasteries throughout the United States. But only one is recognized by the International Trappist Association: Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA, which brews Spencer Monks’ Reserve Ale, a Trappist quadrupel.
However, it was that inaugural La Trappe Quadrupel of the Netherlands that helped the Belgian quad gain roots in America and beyond. Since then this beer has influenced a generation of brewers. Inspired by the complex flavors from the unique Belgian ingredients in quadrupels, brewers across the United States have dabbled in creating delicious offerings of their own.
Belgian Malt and Candi Sugar Define Belgian Quads
Even though they often clock in at 9.1%-14% ABV, the process of brewing quadrupels is not very different from other beers. It’s the ingredients that truly define this style.
“The main difference, and what makes a quad, is you are using Belgian malts and Belgian yeast,” says Travis Camacho, Director of Barrel Aged and Specialty for Drake’s Brewing in San Leandro, CA, who says the brewery has a history of brewing quads as a barrel-aged offering.
Quads walk a very fine line of complexity and balance of flavors for a dark beer. Camacho enjoys brewing them because of how the sweet, fruity, dark crystal malts change as they age.
Similarly, at Brewery Ommegang malts are an important part of their Three Philosophers quad. “Quads typically require fifty percent more malt per Hectoliter (hl) than standard beers. We also use a significant amount of roasted malt to create the mouthfeel and flavor profile of the beer,” says Debar.
Another characteristic of Belgian quads are the fermentable sugars.
“Quads typically use some sort of 100 percent fermentable sugar in addition to the malt bill – usually Belgian candi sugar,” says Jeremy Grinkey, Director of Production for The Bruery in Placentia, CA.
The Bruery has made several quads, including the seasonal Seven Swans a Swimming, Quad Kisses, and Quadrupel Tonnellerie.
The sugar comes in different grades, which Grinkey says usually has to do with the color or source of the sugar.
But when it comes to Quads, it’s not just the Belgian malt and candi sugar that’s important. It’s also Belgian yeast.
Belgian Yeast Is Also Very Important for a Quad
“Belgian yeast is known for being very flavorful and, depending on fermentation, it can produce a ton of fruity esters and spicy phenols which influence the beer quite a bit,” says Camacho. “Other yeasts make esters and phenols, but none to the level and flavor profile of Belgian yeasts. That’s why you can’t brew a Belgian-style beer without Belgian yeast – it’s probably one of the most important parts.”
He adds that substituting for a non-Belgian yeast would alter the flavor completely.
Grinkey agrees, “Quads are uniquely Belgian, and I believe they are best done with a nod to the old world. Belgian yeast is key, in my opinion. Although it can be made in several ways, it is not a Quad if it is not brewed using Belgian yeast.”
At Ommegang, to tease out the fruity esters they desire from the yeast, Debar says he ferments at higher temperatures over the course of ten days. And during the post-package fermentation, or bottle conditioning, the beer is held in a warm cellar for an additional ten to fourteen days before being released.
It’s the art of classic Belgian yeast playing off the darker crystal malts that Camacho looks for when brewing a quad.
“Generally, the Belgian malts are a little sweeter and fruitier, and the yeasts are fruity and spicy. To balance that out, you want the beer to perhaps be a little bit drier than you would a normal stout, by mashing in low and using candi sugar,” he says. “I like to use even darker crystal malt than may be traditional to get more of those subtle fruity coffee notes, instead of just the dark fruit, plums and figs that might be more traditional.”
What’s the Typical Quad Appearance, Aroma, and Flavor?
Ranging from amber to dark brown in color, quadrupels have a distinct flavor all their own.
Debar says quad drinkers can expect a rich roasted malty character with a medium- to full-body, along with some fruity notes, including spicy darker fruits.
“Our well-loved Three Philosophers is a quadruple blended with a touch of cherry,” says Debar. “Each January brings a special release. This year, we released Three Philosophers Double Chocolate, which was a partnership with Taza Chocolate and included the addition of cocoa nibs.”
Debar explains that quads have a relatively low perceived hop character but require a fair amount of bitterness to counter the residual sweetness.
Flavors from dark fruits such as figs, raisins, dates and plums are often noted, adds Grinkey, alongside good Belgian yeast characteristics.
“I like the relative lighter body to alcohol strength,” says Grinkey, who also notes its the history of the beer that makes them even more enjoyable. “Belgian beers are some of the oldest beer styles and have been hugely inspirational to American craft brewers.”
Today, with such great access to Belgian quads, Camacho urges people to take advantage of the offerings.
“I would encourage people who are not as familiar with the style or maybe not familiar with the classic examples to go grab a couple of bottles because they are damn fine beers,” he says. “Barrel-aged quad is life.”
How to Drink a Belgian Quad and Some Good Belgian Quads to Enjoy
Belgian quads should be enjoyed chilled, either straight from the bottle or poured from the tap in a tulip-shaped glass. As a hearty beer, they can be drunk on their own or paired with cheeses such as Gouda.
Bierbrouwerij De Koningshoeven
La Trappe Quadrupel – This is the original that started it all. Brewed by Brewery de Koningshoeven in the Netherlands. The OG has a full, mild, and pleasantly bitter taste – 10% ABV.
Monks’ Reserve Ale – Spencer Brewery, a brewery at Saint Joseph’s Abbey, the only Trappist monastery in the U.S. officially recognized by the International Trappist Association, brews a malt-forward quad with a warm finish – 10.2% ABV.
Three Philosophers – A blend of Belgian-style quadrupel and Belgian kriek from Brewery Ommegang. Malty depth and gentle sweetness enhanced by sparkling carbonation and a touch of cherry – 9.7% ABV.
Quadrupel Tonnellerie – The Bruery crafts a sour and funky barrel-fermented Belgian-style quadrupel with blackberries – 10.2% ABV.
Drake’s Brewing Company
San Leandro, CA
Island Diaries – Drake’s crafts a barrel-aged Belgian-style quadrupel with notes of coconut, banana bread and rum spice – 10% ABV.