To many, the discovery of Belgian beers is a moment of great enlightenment, and to those of us who came to know them long ago, they are still amazing. The integration of technology, moxie and charm forms a righteous trinity, one that is orchestrated in the brewhouse. In Belgium, those brewers might be monks or engineers, oftentimes intertwined to brew the revered and unrivaled Belgian ales. Style and method are similarly shared by monastic and secular artisans to bring us some of the most artful and flavorful beers of the world in dubbel, tripel and quadruple. Modern tripel is the youngest of the trilogy, and the very apex of brewing art, deceptively potent, with a deep golden color and soft, enticing drinkability. It is also among the most-brewed types of Belgian ale in North America. The tripels were first composed less than 80 years ago, masterfully devised by an esteemed secular brewer and popularized by the monastic vision, ingenuity and finesse that so often has made them the patrons and guiding spirits of the industry.
Why is tripel so adored? Much of the mystique comes from the innocent deep golden color, soft maltiness, and customary, intriguing yeast stamp.
European monastic brewers are in many ways considered the forefathers of modern brewing, having refined the art within cloistered abbeys and with minimal outside influence. Supreme dedication and adherence to a philosophy of self-sustenance and craftsmanship, an intellectual approach and trust in divine guidance made them brewers without peer through most of the Middle Ages. Over the past 200 years in particular, the Trappist Order has been the most influential in establishing several Belgian beer styles now emulated at home and abroad. Their greater story of brotherhood and perseverance over the past millennium is dynamic and inspirational, an allegory of the current state of brewing.
The origins of the Trappist Order were set in Monte Cassino, Italy, in 529 A.D., when the paternal rule of Saint Benedict was written and the first Benedictine monastery was founded. The first challenge to the tenets came in 1098, when The Cistercian Order was established by St. Robert, abbot of Molesme, France. He sought a return to the original paradigm, thinking the Benedictines had strayed from that. He believed an agrarian existence was the most pious. In 1659, The Cistercians splintered further, settling in La Trappe, France, as the even stricter Trappist Order. They were subsequently driven out of France during the French Revolution, fleeing to points east, and returning to Belgium at Westmalle in 1802 (brewing began there in 1836). When Belgium gained its independence in 1830 and a long-overdue measure of stability, the Trappists started settling in dormant and active abbeys alike, establishing brewing endeavors over time at Orval, Westvleteren, Chimay, Achel, Rochefort and La Trappe (The Netherlands) as well as the founding Westmalle.
As was the custom in Belgium during this period, many breweries labeled their products based on strength with simple designations such as single, dubbel and tripel, approximately corresponding to 3, 6, and 9 percent ABV, respectively. They might also have been marked as X, XX, and XXX. By all accounts, these were all darker brews that varied only in strength, and often made in the parti-gyle method. Tripel would only become a pale, strong beer later, designed by a brewer who was advising the brewers of Westmalle.