This week’s Know Your Styles is being brought to you by John Steckert (vyvvy on the forums). Without any hyperbole, John is probably one of the most knowledgeable beer guys in St. Louis, so I’m excited he helped out with this series!
Just northeast of Antwerp, Belgium in the town of Malle is the quiet area where Belgium Tripel began, the Westmalle Abbey. Westmalle first became a monastery in 1794 by monks from La Trappe who fled La Trappe due to the adverse climate towards monks. In 1836 Westmalle became a Trappist Abbey as well as brewed their first beer. Initially the beer was only brewed for the monks themselves. Beer was not sold to the public until 1856 and even then it was sporadic. As the popularity rose in their beer they began to sell it with more frequency and their production grew leading to expansions of their brewery in 1865 and 1897. In 1921 Westmalle finally entered into the beer trade industry and built the brewing hall in 1930 that is still currently in use.
The first tripel brewed by Westmalle was in 1934 according to their website. However, there is speculation that the style could have been brewed as early as 1906. According to Michael Jackson the first tripel may have been brewed by Hendrik Verlinden, who was later a consultant for Westmalle, in a suburb on Antwerp. The Westmalle brewery was modernized in 1956 and the recipe for the tripel has remained unchanged since that time. Draft magazine’s May / June 2008 edition gave Westmalle’s tripel a score of 100. This was the first time the magazine had given a 100 score.
Four of the beers sampled for this were from Trappist breweries – Westmalle, Chimay, La Trappe and Achel. There are only seven Trappist breweries in the world – the above four and Rochefort, Westvleteren and Orval. Three of the criteria the beers must meet to be Trappist are 1) The beers must be brewed in the Trappist abbey either by the monks or under their supervision, 2) The brewery must be controlled by the monastery and the business culture must be compatible with the monastic project and 3) The purpose of brewing is not for profit; the income is to take care of the monks and the upkeep of the abbey. Money left over is to be used for charitable purposes, social work and those in need.
Initially the definition of a tripel came from the strength of the beer. The singel would be the lowest alcohol beer produced, followed by the dubbel and the strongest as the tripel. However, each of these has now is more characterized by the type of beer it has become associated with. The tripel is now associated with the characteristics listed below. While between the three it is generally the highest in alcohol, it is no longer the determining factor of the label ‘tripel’. Most tripels today are between 8%-10% alcohol.
The beers sampled were Westmalle tripel (9.5%), Chimay tripel (8%), La Trappe tripel (8% and aged about five years), Achel blond (8%), St. Bernardus (8%), Mardesous 10 (10% – two bottles sampled one was a couple month old and the other 1 year old) and Tripel Karmeliet (8%). The first four are Trappist ales, the second two are abbey ales and the last is from a commercial brewery.
What you should be seeing
Belgian tripels are deep yellow to deep gold with good clarity and can be quite effervescent. The head should be long lasting, creamy, rocky and white. Many times they will give ‘Belgian lace’ as the beer is consumed so you can see the different level the liquid was in the glass. Bottles should be stored upright and poured carefully to leave the bottle conditioning yeast in the bottle.
There was quite a bit of differentiation in the beers sampled here. There was a deep yellow / golden in the Westmalle and Tripel Karmeliet to a copper / bronze color for Mardesous and La Trappe. Most of those sampled had a dense white head except for the aged La Trappe which had very little head at all.
What you should be smelling
Belgian tripels are generally quite complex. They should contain moderate to significant spiciness, moderate fruit esters, low alcohol aromas, minor hops that can be spicy, floral or purfumy, a spicy peppery character that can be clove-like phenols, banana notes and low malt.
Banana notes were found in the Westmalle, St. Bernardus, Mardesous and Chimay. It seemed that the older the beer was the richer the banana. Also the beers with a bit more age showed caramel and doughy traits. The La Trappe had become very heavy with alcohol and caramel and had really lost complexity. The younger beers smelled much more crisp and lively. The Tripel Karmeliet even had some stone fruit traits.
What you should be tasting
There should be low to moderate spice, fruity flavors supported by the soft malt along with some acceptable soft alcohol presence. Esters of orange or banana are acceptable. Tripels can be a bit sweet and low in intensity for the amount of alcohol present. The bitterness is generally medium to high from the hop bitterness and yeast produced phenols. There is usually quite a bit of carbonation and a dry finish.
Most of the examples tasted had a bit of breadiness to them. The youngest ones, Tripel Karmeliet and the young Mardesous showed no bready traits, but had toasty malt. The La Trappe had become thin, sour and alcoholic and had lost all distinctive tripel traits. There were hops noticeable in almost all of the beers sampled that were on the spicy side – the younger the beer the higher the hop presence. Alcohol was noticeable in all of the examples, but it was welcoming in all except for the La Trappe.
How you should be drinking
Tripels are best served in a fairly wide mouthed glass. Trappist glasses, tulips or other examples of wide-mouth stemmed glass work great. Belgian tripels go very good with a number of rich desserts, high fat cheeses and as an after dinner digestif. The Chimay Classic and Grand Cru cheeses at The Wine & Cheese Place went great with these tripels.
What you should be buying
For Trappist ales only the four mentioned above brew tripels – Westmalle, Chimay, La Trappe and Achel. Other Belgian tripels to try are St. Bernardus, Mardesous 10, Watou, Tripel Karmeliet, Gouden Caroules and Corsendonk pale ale. There are also many respectable tripels brewed in the U.S. including Allagash Tripel Reserve, Victory Golden Monkey, Boulevard Long Strange Tripel and Schlafly Tripel. And don’t forget about our friends up north with Unibroue’s La Fin Du Monde from Canada.
Belgian Dubbel, Belgian Singel, Belgian Blond, Belgian Golden Strong