Call to mind a Belgian tripel, and two images are likely to appear: The first is a goblet of liquid gold, bubbling like a cauldron, topped with a head of snow; the second is a monk moving deliberately among brewery vessels in meditative concentration. Both reveal something essential about the development of this classic style. The question of color fixes the style in time, as does the image of those credited with first brewing it.
As Belgian styles go, tripels are not especially old, dating to fewer than 90 years ago. Until well into the 20th century, Belgium’s barley-based ales tended heavily toward amber and brown, colors that signal full, rich flavors. As in neighboring Germany, drinkers seeking pale beers often turned to wheat. (Compared to the deeper color of barley beers, they looked white or “wit.”) Brewing strong ales of pale color was flirting with gimmickry, and the early examples in the 1930s remained curiosities for decades. Nevertheless, the people most responsible for popularizing tripel—the Trappist monks of Westmalle Abbey—saw the future of beer, even if it took a long time coming. And because they were patient, they had time to refine their unusual beer, preparing it for the moment flaxen Belgian ales would supplant brown ones.
Double Ales, Yes. But Triple?
A pub-goer in 19th century Belgium would be familiar with “double” beers (or “dubbel,” in Dutch). Beers such as uytzet and gerst and Diest all came in ordinary and strong versions. The “double” in the title may have seemed slightly mysterious to drinkers, but to brewers it referred to process. It indicated gravity, but not in the way our 21st century brains might imagine. In a modern brewery, the way to moderate a beer’s strength is via the amount of malt in the grist. The difference between a session and imperial IPA is a matter of pounds.
To our eyes, the Belgian brewing process of that time would appear strange and convoluted. Brewers used odd vessels, pans, and paddles to mash their beer—a process that took hours. Governments taxed brewers based on the size of their mash tuns rather than how much beer they made, so most had small vessels, tightly packed with grain. Instead of mashing and rinsing the grist with water, they steeped and then drained the tun, repeating the process multiple times, drawing off weaker worts each time—something like very elaborate batch-sparging. For the popular uytzet style, for example, brewers drew four or five worts off the same mash; they combined the first two in the kettle to make double uytzet, while the remaining worts made the ordinary version. So “double” didn’t so much mean the strength of the beer as the relative gravity of a given wort.
I have encountered no mention of tripels before the 20th century. Brewing wasn’t as efficient then as it is now, and high-gravity beers were less common. George Lacambre, the brewing scientist writing in the mid-19th century, documented two dozen Belgian beers, and the strongest were about 19˚ Plato (1.078), but these all-malt beers were poorly attenuated, finishing at 8–9˚ Plato (1.032–1.036). It would have been more expensive to make a “triple-strength” beer, but brewers using only the first wort might have pushed the gravity high enough. Most double ales were specialty or export beers. If anyone made a tripel, it would have been special indeed.
By the 20th century, breweries understood more about chemistry and yeast—and they had begun to add easily fermented sugar to their kettles as well. Brewers at Drie Linden were selling a tripel-strength beer then called Witkap Pater by 1932, and Westmalle soon followed with its “Superbier.” A chemist and fermentation expert named Hendrik Verlinden owned the former and consulted with the latter; he may well have invented the style. Both were pale and strong, but Westmalle’s became the standard.
Jan Adriaensens, who has overseen brewing at Westmalle since the 1980s, describes the beer’s evolution: “The formulation of the Tripel was first developed in 1936, when the monks of Westmalle built a new brewery with a higher capacity, for funding projects like new monasteries.” The use of “tripel,” even in 1936, was probably an evocation rather than a description of the old batch-system of brewing. As is typical with the Trappists, however, refinement followed, leading to the more modern process the brewery still uses. “In 1954, it was Brother Thomas Sas who developed the tripel as it is today,” Adriaensens says. “I never updated the recipe, which is something the monks explicitly asked me [not to do].”
Westmalle weighs in at a hefty 9.5 percent ABV, but it possesses one of the hallmarks of modern Belgian beer. Unlike the full, rich brown ales of earlier centuries, it’s light-bodied and highly effervescent. It also exhibits the expressive, yeast-driven fruity profile that is characteristic of many Belgian ales refermented in the bottle. I detect a rich bouquet of orange, banana, rose, peach, and a hint of ripe pear.
In those ways, Westmalle resembles the myriad tripels that it has inspired. However, the stiff dose of hops that Westmalle gets makes it something special. “The bitterness is very important, which is around 38 to 40 [IBUs],” Adriaensens says. Hop oils collect on the bubbles in the foam, giving it an herbal zest that carries into the beer. Westmalle uses multiple varieties dosed throughout the boil, and they provide a layer of bitterness that is unusual in traditional Belgian ales. They also create aromatics that inflect and intermingle with the yeast’s fruit esters. To Adriaensens, this is critical to the beer’s character: “Yes, we have ‘hoppy’ beers,” he says, “which is not the same as bitter beers.”
For whatever reason, most of the tripels it has inspired over the years have not followed quite the same example. They tend to be sweeter, often finding balance with spicy yeast notes. The Tripel Karmeliet from Bosteels is both sweeter and spicier. The entry from St. Bernardus also leans sweet but draws more of its subtle spice from the yeast. Even comparatively dry examples such as Chimay’s Cinq Cents have sweeter elements—in this case, a prominent candied-orange note.
By contrast, Westmalle achieves more complexity by including the peppery bite of hops. “As we also have a very fruity beer,” Adriaensens says, “the hop balance is very important and not easy to achieve. The right balance between fruitiness, bitterness, and hoppy flavors needs constant [attention].”
Making a Better Tripel.
Tripels are one of those styles that pack a punch, and it’s easy for brewers to impress with a gale of flavors. The boozy plume that carries the aromas to the drinker’s nose and the warmth that tripels carry on the way down also inspire awe. Yet the best examples find harmony through restraint. There’s a reason why Westmalle is routinely cited as the standard for the style: It is complex but not overwhelming; it is integrated and refined.
A dry beer, Westmalle Tripel finishes around 1.009 (2˚P), which leaves its flavors exposed. To restrain the yeast, brewers start fermentation at 64˚F (18˚C) and stop it at 68˚F (20˚C). The roughly 40 IBUs of hopping is mediated via multiple additions throughout the boil. Brewers referment at a lager-like 46˚F (8˚C), which smooths and softens the beer as it ripens. The result is worth studying closely, for it illustrates how to integrate strong, rich flavors in a beer with remarkable depth and complexity—yet it drinks like a much weaker, simpler beer. It’s a hard trick to pull off, but the Westmalle monks have had 84 years to perfect it.