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.
Hendrik Verlinden of the Drie Linden brewery, brewing scientist and yeast specialist, had been formulating a golden ale to combat the celebrity of pale beers in Europe in the early 1930s (he helped Westmalle in the 1920s as a consultant of sorts). In 1932, he released Witkap Pater (now Witkap Tripel). His beers were marketed as Trappist, which wasn’t altogether apropos with those monasteries, but because of his earlier role in assisting their brewing, he was the sole non-Trappist brewer allowed to market his Witkap Pater as a Trappist-style beer. His role in helping Westmalle develop its tripel is nebulous, but it is known that the monks were also tinkering with this new style by 1931. Westmalle introduced its tripel, and newly built brewhouse, in 1934. It is still considered the standard by many. Ever the perfectionists, Westmalle’s esteemed Brother Thomas tweaked the recipe to include more hops. It has remained unchanged since 1956.
Tripel has become a stalwart among the Belgian exports. Four of the seven Trappists make one, as do dozens of abbey and independent brewers. The rejuvenation of brewing in Belgium, with established breweries expanding their portfolio and the founding of new ones, has resulted in a few more in the past 30 years. Tripels are highly popular among beer lovers worldwide, and in North America, even as the import business is as robust as ever, microbrewers are increasingly dabbling in Belgians.
Why is tripel so adored? Much of the mystique comes from the innocent deep golden color, soft maltiness and customary, intriguing yeast stamp. That is followed by a sucker punch in the range of 8 to 9.5 percent ABV, a combination that offers culinary-quality complexity rivaling any darker brew. The burnished golden color, sometimes glinting of orange, comes from a hefty grist of predominantly mellow, clean Continental pilsner malt. Small amounts of character malts, rarely exceeding a few percentage points of the grain bill, may include light crystal or aromatic, or even other flaked or malted grains like oats or wheat (Tripel Karmeliet has barley, oats and wheat). Many are made with pilsner malt only. The character is further lightened with the light candi, or white, sugar that Belgian brewers are so fond of, and may comprise up to 20 percent of the fermentables. Though tripel is a fairly lithe beer, there should be some malt presence, a light, but firm mouthfeel and nary a trace of alcohol content. Bottle conditioning is essential, furnishing some texture, exuberant effervescence, cellar metamorphosis, nuance and depth. North American tripel is sometimes kegged as well as bottled; in the latter case, the beers are treated just as their Belgian counterparts, naturally conditioned in the bottle.
Hops can have a prominent presence, with bittering rates as high as 40 IBU. Most are less than that, but in a beer unobstructed by dark malt, the hops are usually conspicuous in aroma, with just enough bitterness to play off the light malty finish. Like most Belgian beers, hop varieties could be indigenous, or are more likely imported from England, Germany, The Czech Republic, Slovenia (Styrian Goldings), and even France (Strisselspalt), and used in various combinations, displaying that classic floral, herbal quality that we associate with other beers of note from Europe.
The typical spicy yeast that has come to define many Belgian beers is in full glory with tripels. Though the house yeasts will vary somewhat from brewery to brewery, they share many of the same fermentative byproducts, and undoubtedly some ancestry. It is imperative that they have a noteworthy to aggressive and unmistakable effect on the finished product. Spice notes include cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg and clove. Banana is also a common descriptor, and entirely a product of the yeast, as are whispers of orange or lemon citrus. The combination of the pale malt, sugar, and yeast might even offer hints of apple, pear, peach, or apricot. Clearly, these yeasts are not chosen to simply complete the yeoman task of gobbling up sugar, but also are valuable for their distinctive imprint. These are industrious little workhorses indeed. The clove and banana notes can also be found in the top-fermenting wheat beer yeasts of Belgium and Germany, suggesting some common lineage among these venerable styles. Small amounts of actual spices may be included in the kettle, though this is unusual.
Few beers demand the uncompromising respect that a great tripel does, suitable for celebration or contemplation. Poured into a chalice, the beers have a sparkling, illuminating color and ornate ivory crown that puts them among the most majestic and divine of all beers.