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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.

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Driving through southwest Belgium, one is easily enchanted by the rolling hills, dense forests, and small quaint villages dotting the landscape.  This rugged region is known as the Ardennes.  Nestled in this magical landscape is a valley called Vallée des Fées or “Valley of Fairies”, and within this valley is a small town named Achouffe.  This fantastical locale is the home of and inspiration for a relatively young brewery on the Belgian beer scene – Brassiere d’Achouffe.

The Ardennes is a place that in many ways has escaped the touch of time.  While the consequences of modernity are, of course, ever-present, the people continue to hold on to the values and traditions that have marked this land for centuries.  Folklore still grips the hearts of those who live here – tales of fairies, dwarves, and gnomes flavor the local imagination.  In this milieu of fantasy, inspiration for a distinctive local take on the Belgian brewing tradition emerged.

In 1982, two local brothers-in-law set out to make their mark on the Belgian beer world.  They founded the small, independent Brassiere d’Achouffe naming it after their beloved hometown.  Naturally, the face of their new brewery drew from these same fairy tales and folklore that stamped their cultural surroundings.  It wasn’t that far of a leap either – Achouffe is very similar to the local word for gnome, which is chouffe.  The gnome became the symbol of the fledgling brand.

It is inspiring that this small brewery could make an impact on the beer scene so quickly.  To put it mildly, Belgian craft brewing is an intensely competitive market.  It surely wasn’t easy developing new and original ideas among perhaps the most sophisticated beer-drinking public in the world.  They carved out their niche by developing unique brews that combined the best of the Belgian tradition with ideas borrowed from beer offerings from around the world.

Their aggressive expansion beyond Belgium also helped their cause.  Today they are an anomaly in their home country having over 60% of their production destined for foreign consumption.  Achouffe is the only Belgium brewery that actually has more sales in the Netherlands than in Belgium itself.

In 2006, the two brothers-in-law sold their interest in the brewery to the Belgian beverage conglomerate, Moortgat.  It was disappointed learning that this traditional, family brewery had some time ago fallen into the corrupting influence of big business.  That suspicion was quickly allayed when I realized that Moortgat is the same company that controls Duvel and Maredsous.  The brothers still continue the day-to-day operation of the brewery ensuring the continuation of their exceptional craft.

So, what about the beer?  All of the offerings from Achouffe are firmly in the Belgian brewing tradition – top fermented ales that are unpasteurized and bottle conditioned.  However, this brassiere also has found inspiration from other brewing styles from around the world that they have incorporated into their beers, creating some original and innovative brews.

The flagship beer of Brassiere d’Achouffe is their La Chouffe, a Strong Belgian Pale Ale consisting of a classic Belgian pilsner malt with Tomahawk and Saaz hops spiced with coriander.  The brew pours a lush orange-yellow color with a light, foamy head.  What stood out immediately in the taste was tropical citrus like pineapple.  There was a definite herbal hop flavor in the middle which is where you get a sense of the coriander.  The taste then moves into a strong grassy hop finish.  The brew is a complex beer and a strong contributor to the Belgian ale style.

The great mystery of the bunch was their Mc Chouffe.  The mystery was, namely, what exactly is it?  RateBeer.com lists Mc Chouffe as a Scotch Ale whereas BeerAdvocate.com has it down as a simple Strong Belgian Ale.  According to the story, the brewers at Achouffe were inspired by a Scottish friend of theirs to bring a Scotch Ale flair to a traditional Belgian ale.  The result was the brown ale called Mc Chouffe.  Dried fruits, caramel, and earthy hops dominate the flavor of this beer.  Although it has a robust 8% ABV, you hardly notice any alcohol, which makes it one of the easiest beers from Achouffe to drink.  Think of this one as a Scotch Ale with a spicy Belgian take on it.

You wouldn’t be a Belgian brewer if you didn’t have a seasonal winter ale, now would you?  Achouffe, therefore, gave us their brew N’Ice Chouffe.  In this one, you find all of the usual suspects: nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon.  This spicy profile is supplement to a malt flavor centered around notes of dried fruit and caramel.  I’m usually not a big fan of Christmas beers, but this one was nice.

For me, the All-Star of the lineup from Brassiere d’Achouffe is their Houblon Dobbelen IPA Tripel.  The idea behind this beer was to combine a strong American style Imperial IPA with the Belgian Tripel.  With this beer, the story is the hops.  The brew has an amazing hop profile which is achieved mainly through their use of the American Amarillo variety, which passes on a very strong aroma and bitter flavor character.  This beer has it all.  Right out of the bottle there is a fresh aroma of floral hops and orange citrus.  The taste has the big malt body found in the best Tripels which then shockingly moves to a pronounced hop bitterness leading into a dry finish.  This brew is easily one of my top 5 favorites of all time.

When you’re talking about Belgian beer, it’s really easy to get overwhelmed with the vast amount of quality brews that come out of that small country.  Although Brassiere d’Achouffe only has 5 offerings (their fifth beer, Chouffe Bok 6666, is only sold in the Netherlands), they consistently produce amazing beers that are hard to match.  They have honed their craft well.  I hope someday to make my way over to the Ardennes to visit the small town and its brewery.  Until then, I’ll just have to rely on Deutsche Post to bring me bottles from this magical maker of beer.

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