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.
Most pale beers of that era reflected a dedicated effort to use traditional, regional ingredients in the beers, which created a definitive, national character. English pale ales and bitters relied almost exclusively on Fuggles and Kent Goldings hops and ale malt, German and Continental lagers employed their own products for their brews. Belgian brewers, as much out of necessity as anything else, took an eclectic approach to hopping their brews.
The fact that the Westmalle tripel was pale and had superior depth was something of a novelty. This propensity for Belgian brewers to eschew convention and brew outside the lines is what makes them unique. Would German brewers use English or American hops to make their lagers? Would English brewers use pilsner malt to make a pale ale? The answer to both of those questions is obvious.
Belgian brewers have distinguished themselves for many reasons. On top of the list, of course, is quite simply the overall quality of their beer. Based on ingredients and technique, one could cite the dichotomy of outside-the-box thinking and a simultaneous commitment to the guidelines of the brewing gods as a curious mix of art and skill that takes them to another level. This reconciliation of paradoxes is what one would consider the definition of religious experience, and nowhere in the church of beer is this manifested more elegantly than in a finely-crafted tripel.
Part of the mystique of a tripel is the color. They are pure gold or deep-gold, a trait that hides their formidable character, but showcases the softness. This color is achieved by the use of pilsner malt almost exclusively. Any deep hues come from the sheer amount of malt used, or an extended boil. The absence of any character malts will result in a highly-fermentable wort, heightening the alcoholic strength, but lightening the body.
Most have a fairly liberal dose of candi sugar (sucrose, up to 20 percent) in the kettle, which takes the strength and body in opposite direction, just like the pale pilsner malt. Though the body is light, it is not necessarily a thin beer, as brewers tend to balance the mouthfeel by using a slightly elevated mash temperature. On average, a tripel will ferment out to about 7.5 to 10 percent ABV, a strapping level that belies the coy facade. The supple pilsner malt aids in the drinkability, the light body, and the appetizing quality of the brew.
They are generally quite effervescent, which is not normal for a beer of such strength, so they should be poured in a wide goblet or tulip to both accommodate the mousse and allow the multifarious aroma to be appreciated.
Like most Belgian (or New World Belgian-style) ales, the aroma is a complex mixture of both yeast and hop character. Often, a yeast is selected that offers a spiciness to the brew, with pepper, clove, nutmeg, cinnamon and even some estery citrus or banana notes. It often lacks the earthiness inherent in many other Belgian ales. A higher than normal fermentation temperature augments the yeast character even further. Tripels are apt to show off a hop character as well. Blends of various German noble hops, Czech (Saaz), and English (Fuggles, East Kent Goldings), and Slovenian (Styrian Goldings) are frequently used. Multiple additions during the boil ensure a wonderful continuum of hop profile, from a quenching, bitter finish, through a tongue-teasing flavor, and finally a fragrant hop perfume. The alcohol warmth is fleeting rather than balmy.
Always bottle-conditioned, tripels are an ever-evolving beer, with some aging qualities that can withstand prolonged cellaring. The name tripel itself is derived from an old Belgian classification system that would roughly equate to the alcohol by volume content. Degrees of 3 (single), 6 (dubbel), and 9 (tripel) were the standard measure of the beers, with a tripel having about 3 times the amount of malt as a single. Whether the brew is produced in Belgium, Canada, or the USA, they are almost always designated tripel on the label.
It is a bit of oddity that a beer of such origins would be such a tempting, unassuming, and ultimately, devilish brew. But for the original producers, it is a symbol of firm sustenance, contemplation and pleasure. Open a tripel, contemplate its complexity, and enjoy the experience. You might even find it spiritual.