For my most recent tasting of various Belgian Tripels, I tried to think of some clever way to introduce it all in this post. I wanted to come up with some sort of witty word play on triple, so I toyed with the idea of somehow referencing things like the triple play, Triple H, Triple Crown, triple lutz, and the Triple Entente. It was all pretty lame. This is understandable considering the creative and high reasoning center of my brain has slowly deteriorated over the last week due to near continuous exposure to music from Fisher-Price toys. So, I decided to just put creativity and wit aside and jump right into the nitty-gritty.
In a recent post, I described my disappointment in one very famous Tripel. I’m not sure if I had a bad batch or if the entire style just wasn’t my flavor. But, Westmalle’s version just didn’t sit well with me. It seemed so bland and monotone. Considering the reputation that Westmalle has in the craft beer world, I figured I must had missed something. I decided that I had to get to the bottom of this Tripel business, so I picked up a few more well-known examples in my recent shipment from the Bierzwerg.
It turns out that the story of the Belgian Tripel begins with the very same Westmalle brew that I found so uninspiring. The term as we use it today has relatively recent origins. In the mid-1930s, a Belgian brewery called Drie Linden first applied the term Tripel to a strong pale ale. The head brewer also was connected with the Trappist brewery of Westmalle, and through this influence the monks released their own version of the brew under the name Superbier. After World War II, Westmalle began tweaking their recipe by adding more hops which resulted in the Westmalle Tripel we know today. Since then, countless other brewers in Belgian have taken up the term Tripel to describe their golden, hoppy, stong pale ales.
As far as its characteristics are concerned, the Tripel is a very interesting style. Much like Pilsners, the Tripel should have a bright golden color with little to no haze. Aromas should be mainly fruity including bananas, lemon, or other citrus, depending on the make. There should be a fine malt-hop balance with a strong sweetness and corresponding bitterness in the finishing. The typical ABV range for most Tripels is between 8% and 11%, which means that the brew can carry quite a bunch for such a pale beer. Although the alcohol esters are certainly present, the best Tripels are able to balance and subdue their high alcohol content with their finely tuned malt bills.
My exposure to Belgian Tripels thus far has been very miniscule with only Westmalle’s and St. Bernardus’s versions counting toward my tasting experience. With these two samplings, I couldn’t have found two greater extremes. My opinion of the Westmalle was dubious at best, but I found the St. Bernardus offering to be a magnificent drinking experience. To widen my horizons, I was able to acquire three new varieties: Tripel Karmeliet, Kasteel Tripel, and the Maredsous 10.
First up in the Tripel taste test was the brew from the Brouwerij Bosteels called the Tripel Karmeliet. This beer has a tremendous reputation to say the least. Both BeerAdvocate.com and RateBeer. com each have this monster in their list of top five Tripels with it hitting the number one spot in the latter. The aroma was right in line with the typical profile for Tripels – strong fruit esters with an emphasis on citrus along with some nice spice notes. The taste is what actually surprised me about this beer. It can be best described as vinous almost like you were drinking a glass of wine. There was also some of that citrus flavor, especially lemongrass, coming out as well. On the whole though, I really wasn’t blown away by this take on the style. It definitely didn’t live up to the hype that I perceived surrounding this beer.
The next victim in the Tripel sampler was the Kasteel Tripel from Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck. This brew was probably the most disappointing from the bunch. The appearance and aroma were right in line with what you’d expect – golden clear with a nose full of citrus, other fruits, and spice. But, the taste left little to be desired. For starters, this beer clocks in at 11% ABV making it one of the stronger Tripels out there. Unfortunately, the brew didn’t do much to mask this high alcohol content, making the experience a little like drinking cough syrup. Sure, you had the usual suspects present – decent fruit esters with a nice medium hop bitterness in the finishing. But, the alcohol combined with a not so pleasant mouthfeel made this brew a chore to finish.
Finally, there’s the Maredsous 10 from the Brouwerij Duvel Moortgat. Since this brew comes from one of the largest beer conglomerates in Belgian, I actually had slightly lower expectations going into it. However, this beer proved to be a wonderful drinking experience and the winner of my mini Tripel taste test. Again, the appearance and aromas were right in line with the style description we’re familiar with. The taste is nice and complex with a wonderful balance of mild fruits including the typical citrus as well as grapes and a little banana. The surprise was in the hop bitterness towards the finish, which was much more prevalent than any the other Tripel I’ve had. It proved to add a very remarkable character to the beer.
Now that I have a little more experience with the style, it’s amazing to me just how diverse the various offerings out there are. In the few tastings I’ve had, I have had some exceptional brews and some not so noteworthy ones. For a style that enjoys such high regard, it surprised me that there could be so much disparity in not only the character but the very quality of the beers that I tasted. Disappointing beers included, I can say that the endeavor has been worthwhile. I’m happy to say that through the likes of brewers such as Maredsous and St. Bernardus, my appreciate of the Tripel has been opened wide.