It would be hard to deny that Belgian ales are often a spiritual experience—both literally and figuratively. Because of the alliance that many breweries have with religious abbeys, brewing is seen as equal parts technology and divinity, with some of the brews being downright sublime. Even so, many of Belgium’s secular breweries also seem blessed with a bit of otherworldly guidance.
Trappist breweries are not the sole producers of tripels, nor do all of them produce one. Some of the best triples are made by other abbeys and secular breweries.
The beer that is considered by many to be the zenith of the Belgian brewer’s art is tripel. Initially brewed in one of the legendary Trappist monasteries, tripel is now brewed by a multitude of abbey and secular brewers in Belgium, and increasingly in North America. Tripels are potent—deceptively so, with their light color and superb drinkability—spicy, and bottle-conditioned. It is hard to imagine that a beer can be this subtle, yet so heady and thought provoking. A relative newcomer to the beer world, the best tripels are some of the most sought-after ales, and across the board, some of the most critically acclaimed.
Six abbeys in Belgium and one in Holland may call themselves “Trappist.”
These are exclusively male institutions, closed and self-sustaining. Their credo of living off of the hard work of their hands is adhered to much as it was by their Benedictine predecessors of 1500 years ago.
About a thousand years ago, some monks within the Benedictine order broke away from their brothers, concerned that their paternal order was becoming too lenient. One such group settled in La Trappe in Normandy, France, instituting the Trappist order. Later driven out of France by Napoleon, they settled in Belgium and the Netherlands. As beer was the preferred drink of the locals, brewing was a logical choice as a means of support. Considering the lengthy history and single-mindedness of monastic purpose, it should come as no surprise that monks perfected their skills as premier brewers.
Trappist breweries are not the sole producers of tripels, nor do all of them produce one. Some of the best triples are made by other abbeys and secular breweries. It is important, however, to define the Trappist tripels relative to their influence on Belgian brewing, and also because one, Westmalle, produced the first tripel less than 70 years ago.
Westmalle was founded in 1794 and began brewing for its own consumption in 1836. Beer sales were initiated in 1856, but only at their gate, and they progressed to commercial brewing in 1921. It wasn’t until 1936 that the tripel was born. What made it unique was its complexity.