In the realm of Belgian-style beers, the quadrupel is king. I love the big roasty malt flavors, the dark stone fruit nose, and the port-like finish. They are not for everyone though, and for many, one goblet will probably make you wobble a little bit. But what exactly is a quadrupel? If you are already well versed in the lexicon surrounding Belgian beers then go ahead and skip on down a paragraph or two. If not, allow me to bore you with useless knowledge that I read about in pretentious, pseudo-academic books about my favorite beverage.
The taxonomy of Belgian beers, more specifically Trappist beers, is often obscure, sometimes perplexing, and frequently random, but the quadrupel name has a simple meaning as do the dubbel and the tripel. In short, they are so named based on the potential alcohol content which you may see measured in terms of “gravity.” A beer’s gravity is the measure of how much sugar is contained in the wort before fermentation. It is not an exact measure of final alcohol content by today’s standards and fairly rarely used for that purpose. Traditional monastic breweries used the Belgian degree system but a more contemporary measure of gravity is expressed using the unit “Plato” which is something you may see on beer cans or brewery chalk boards on occasion. The Belgian degree and the Plato are not equivalent, but you get the idea.
So when it comes to Trappist beers you may frequently see numbers prominently displayed on labels. For instance, one of my favorite beers, the St. Bernardus Abt 12, has a specific gravity of roughly 12 under the Belgian system. You may also be familiar with the Rochefort 10 which is another high gravity quad. La Trappe originally coined the term quadrupel to describe a strong, dark ale and other breweries have followed suit. In general, it is simple enough to think of dubbels, tripels, and quadrupels in terms of increasing gravity respectively. Curiously though, dubbels and quads tend to be dark beers while tripels are golden in color – which I often experience as more yeasty and spicy. There is no real reason for this other than simple stylistic tradition. There is no reason that there couldn’t be a dark tripel or a golden dubbel. Some American breweries have started brewing lighter colored quads such as the Victory V12 which is a gorgeous deep amber quad as smooth as it is potent.
With all of that said the original Ommegang Three Philosophers has a great deal in common with the Abt 12. It has an unmistakably luxurious, dark cherry character that melds beautifully with the sweet malts. It is vinous in an intoxicating and pleasing way. You will not need any silly numbers or plato units on the label to know that this is a high gravity beer.
The Barrel Aged version takes the Three Philosophers to a whole other level of smoothness that is uncharacteristic of traditional Belgian, or Belgian-style quads. It retains its deep color and the strength of a Belgian strong ale but it is mellowed and rounded out by the casks. The dark fruit abdicates to the warming subtle notes of bourbon and tobacco. The head is lacy, luxurious, and thick. It is a refined and complex enough to be loved by quad drinkers but smooth and drinkable enough to be enjoyed by less experienced palates
The Barrel Aged Three Philosophers is a very limited release that first hit the market in February of 2016. We were fortunate enough to be in Cooperstown, NY, home of the Ommegang Brewery, around that time for a beer festival and just happened to find this poured in their taproom. I fell immediately in love. I bought a couple of bottles and determined that I would make another pilgrimage the next year. We watched for the release and spent a cold and snowy weekend in Cooperstown to stock up again. Except for some very limited distribution to select retailers in NYC, it is only available at their brewery in Cooperstown beginning in late winter/early spring (which is still pretty much just winter in Cooperstown). If you can find some, it is a great beer to age in your cellar. I am trying to retain a bottle from each year to age if I can resist drinking it all tonight.
If you want to try to find some this coming February you can check out Ommegang’s beerfinder on their web page. If you do, let us know what you think.