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Styling Nonsense

Abt or Quad?
Features January 4, 2010      
Written by JorisPPattyn

Wilrijk, BELGIUM -

I follow quite a lot of international fora on beer. Exactly on the one I’m most familiar with, Ratebeer.com, for not naming it, I recently read a posting that - seen the late hour - kept me unpleasantly awake. On a question concerning beerchoice, some anonymous rater deemed it necessary to warn his fellow rater, I quote:

"On this site, Abbot style and Quad style are lumped together, but they really are not very similar".

Honestly, I read it thrice, to see if the poster might have attempted irony - but of course, he was serious as hell. Now here’s the "style" Abt/Quadrupel, whose very right on existence I’ve been debating for at least a decade, in the vague hope to see it carried to its well-deserved grave. But here somebody would clone and split it as a yeast mitosis, and get two separate little "stylies’ out of it. Lord Gambrinus, have mercy!

Having been asked more than once to judge beers in competition, I became a member of the MGBJ group - the Mondial Group of Beer Judges, whole mouthful. I posted this remarkable clip on our message board, and got an answer from our informal senior admin, Jos Brouwer, eminent beer specialist from the Netherlands. Jos suggested that Abbot might be beers resembling Greene King Abbot Ale; and as to Quad - he supposed it might refer to a British hi-fi audio brand, maybe? Of course, his scathing reply is leaden with heavy sarcasm, but the quote above rings as pure nonsense in our ears.

Whence the names, in reality? Let’s start with Abbot. Usually - and in fact, so it is on Ratebeer - this is spelled in its Dutch/Flemish form Abt. Some beers, Trappists and abbey beers alike, have been dubbed with this moniker. Now, as you no doubt are aware of, monasteries know an hierarchy. Since time immemorial, different beers made in abbeys were marked with X/XX/XXX on the casks. I have repeated it - we’re talking about a vestige of mediaeval times, when a lot of brothers were illiterate, so this was an easy way of designating strengths beyond doubt. Later, XX became "Double", XXX "Triple", and on an unguarded moment, the Westmalle Trappist abbey used this age-old moniker for some of their commercialized beers. Starting a "style"-hype they never could have foreseen.

In other abbeys, the clerical hierarchy was used for the beers: we knew "paters", "abts", "priors", and more of that ilk, next to more worldly "Extras" and "Specials". Since, in most cases, the abbot is the big chief of the premises, it follows logically that "his" beer came out as the strongest, the top of the pyramid. I can see that, if somebody less accustomed to the mysterious ways of the cloister life, discovers the enigmatic word "Abt" on cap or label, this might have appeared as a more implicate indication on the kind of beer inside. Alas.

The first time I encountered this word, mis-used as a style indication, was in the book "Ales, lagers et lambics: la bière" from French-Canadian beerwriter Mario D’Eer (1998). He (to add insult to injury?) systematically wrote it as "ABT", in capitals, no doubt influenced by the capitals on the caps of Westvleteren. Whereever he saw the caption "ABT" on a Rochefort 10, or on Chimay Grande Réserve, is beyond me. He also added the caption "Quadruple" between brackets to the "ABT" name, indicating that this was an alternative. Small wonder, since that way, the La Trappe Quadrupel fitted itself into this category to perfection.

Which brings us to the second half-style. Get it straight from the word go. I’ve been on the look for older references, but I haven’t found any - the term "Quadrupel" is a commercial find from the guys at De Schaapskooi, later "Koningshoeven", selling the products of the Trappist brewery La Trappe. And to rub it in, they’ve trademarked the designation. Don’t be surprised to find a lot of Quadrupels in the US, however - as that country is well-known to respect only its own rules, never those of other people. Likewise, you’ll find "Trappist" beers from simple commercial breweries all over the place. But in tame old Europe, "Quadrupel" is the top La Trappe beer, and that’s it.

Nobody, nowhere, made ever any instructions as to how the top-beer of Westvleteren, St. Bernardus, Van Eecke, La Trappe, Rochefort, etc., etc., would have to be designed - unless the brewmasters themselves, individually. That is why a Rochefort 10 is miles apart from a ’t Kapittel Abt. They have little in common - well, searching very close, you could say they’re strong, they’re Belgian, and they’re dark in colour. Now there’s a fine style for you, innit? Oh, but by the way, ’t Kapittel Abt is NOT the top-beer of Van Eecke; for reasons unknown, they’ve named their ABV-flagship "Prior". And, horror of horrors - it’s pale!

People knowing me, might accuse me now of repeating myself. OK, but then, I’ve never done it in the form of an article. In my opinion, there might be only 5 major "Belgian" styles: Belgian blonde ale, Spéciale Belge (which is amber, and not unlike pale ale), Belgian dark ale, Belgian strong blonde ale, and Belgian strong dark ale (anything darker, than, say, Orval). As to the treshold between ale and strong ale, this is something totally arbitrary, and, with my Belgian stomach-feel, I’d place it somewhere at the 6.5/7% ABV threshold, which works for Ratebeer too. These would replace the 5 styles in use on Ratebeer (Belgian Ale, Belgian Strong Ale, Abbey Double, Abbey Triple, Abt/Quadrupel), PLUS all the (Belgian) beers that are dispersed over other styles, as Gold/Blonde ales, brown ales, etc.

Taken at face value, I’m not the only one preaching this. Another member of MGBJ, Dutch-Canadian Derek Walsh, used the, somewhat lower, 6% threshold, as well as light/dark (situated at 30 EBC, for the initiated), as main distinctions for categories, in his "Bier typen gids" (2002). Unfortunately for my exposé, he subdivided those main categories in other styles, including the infamous Quadrupel - but on the other hand, he didn’t stop at Belgian types. In his Group D (dark beers with more than 6%), for instance, you’ll find the Quadrupel, next to Barley Wine, Bockbier, Dubbel, Old Ale, Stout, Porter, Scotch ale and Flemish Oud bruin "bien étonnées de se trouver ensemble" (= quite surprised to find themselves together), as the French saying goes.

Now, those that are jumping up and down, with raised fingers, calm down. Yes of course, there are Belgian beers that go outside the five I’ve proposed above. Yes, there are typical "styles", that respect more or less historically imposed margins. To me, anything based upon spontaneous fermentation, lambic or other, doesn’t fit in ANY other category but its own. Likewise, Flemish Oud bruin, Saison (well , - maybe), or wheatbeers as Hoegaards, Dubbel Wit, etc. have their own niches. So, in my opinion, has "Scotch", Belgian style, and I’m probably forgetting some. But they were rather well-defined, at least at some time in the past, and they have earned a right on existence.

Now, for the bombshell at the end. Why, in the name of St. Arnoldus, am I so defiant versus more fragmentation of styles, definitions of new styles? Well, it’s very simple. As a beer judge, I’m more than often confronted with beers that are crossovers, beers that follow no particular BJCP delusion, beers where the brewer slightly or seriously "coloured outside the lines". Some of those are, interesting, to put it mildly, but others can be pure genius. And yet, because of some idiotic prejudices, I’m doomed to condemn those beers "not fitting in category". Bweuk!! Especially if this is about a couple of IBU’s too much, or some darker shade above the EBC limit imposed, I can get very annoyed.

Crossovers happened for centuries over here - Orval, is IMO, a Saison, but a very strong and rather darker one, historically speaking; Oudenaards bruin is not quite the same as the Oud bruin, made in the south of West-Flanders. Having said earlier something very critical about the American nation, now for the other side of the medallion: I admired the new American craftbrewers already twenty to twenty-five years ago, when they adopted European, dusty styles, and made their own interpretations out of them - with the above varied results. More power to them! And, by anything that is holy to us, beerlovers, let’s not muzzle them in any way. Let’s throw away all those silly definitions away - or, at least (and more realistically), confine them to more simple guidelines. Even when remindful of the risk of oversimplifying, or threading some established taboos. After all, does the same Mario D’Eer from earlier, not range "Kölsch" ales under the light lagers? He’s not totally daft there, I dare to say.

Joris P. Pattyn

December 2009



tdtm82 says:

Green King call IPA which actually isn't an IPA anyway so go figure. I don't trust Green King one bit.

148 months ago
JK says:

I believe I made the comment on Abt/Quad not being similar. It am happy it provoked such a thoughtful article. But if your justification of limiting the number of styles is based on your participation in BJCP events, it seems your problem is with BJCP and you have the issue backwards. BJCP should change. But we agree on Orval.

148 months ago
dpasotti says:

"the US...is well-known to respect only its own rules, never those of other people." Wow, seriously? Very few, countries respect trademarks and patents from other countries. Also, why single out the US? Have you never seen "Quadrupels" in other countries? Get over the inferiority complex and your nonsense attacks on perfectly decent American people.

148 months ago

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