One of the subplots in the story of Belgian tripel is that most examples don’t quite follow the original script. Even in Belgium, tripels tend to be sweeter, softer, and spicier than the Trappist archetype from Westmalle—whose balancing bitterness can be surprising, especially when fresh.
Much like the United States—but on a smaller scale—Belgium had waves of small, independent breweries appear over the past 40 years. Meeting the niche demand for strong specialty beers, many of those breweries made and continue to make tripels. While there are some fun deviations, most follow that softer, sweeter, spicier path (think Tripel Karmeliet).
A handful of others took another road—hoppier and drier—to arguably wind up somewhere nearer to Westmalle Abbey, whose famous Tripel clocks in at about 39 IBUs. Examples of this approach include Jambe-de-Bois from Brasserie de la Senne (about 45 IBUs, packed with floral-spicy German hops) and La Rulles Triple (39 IBUs, with some citrus zing via Yakima-grown Amarillo).
A beer that arguably paved the way for those and others is Guldenberg, which was the first beer produced by De Ranke founder/brewer Nino Bacelle in 1994. It checks in at 40 IBUs, its bitterness balancing the restrained sweetness and alcohol and providing ample herbal-floral hop character via Belgian-grown Hallertauer Mittelfrüh.
Bacelle says he started with a tripel for a couple of reasons. One is historical: His hometown of Wevelgem was home to the Cistercian Guldenberg Abbey as early as 1214. (Today there are only scant remains, including a large stone gateway that now has a restaurant attached—it’s called the Abdijpoort, or “Abbey Gate.” And yeah, it serves Guldenberg.) That abbey was almost certainly the first place in the area to brew beer.
The other reason is personal preference. Bacelle’s favorite beers at the time—and he still enjoys them—were the Trappist ales Westmalle Tripel and Orval, and Dupont’s abbey-inspired, tripel-esque Moinette Blonde. “So, my first ambition was to make a concoction of the three,” Bacelle says. He wanted the strength and richness of Westmalle and Moinette, but with the bitterness and aromatic dry hopping of Orval. The latter is really what sets Guldenberg apart.
“I think what makes it very different is, first, it’s more bitter than most tripels,” Bacelle says, “although, I think in the past, tripels were much more bitter than they are now. Most tripels are sweeter now. And my inspiration always has been hops. I like hops and was inspired by hops, and we live so close to the hop region…. We could see the hops growing [from] our backyards, as you say. And the smell of hops is so nice—I need that in a beer. So, Orval inspired me in that way.”
De Ranke brews about 15 different beers these days, including seasonals such as Père Noël. The best seller is XX Bitter—the quenching, rustic, herbal-bitter pale ale. However, Guldenberg remains popular, often found on the beer lists of Belgium’s hundreds of specialty beer cafés. It accounts for about 40 percent of the brewery’s sales.
De Ranke’s approach to hops is so pure that it might be considered eccentric these days.
First of all, since 1996, all the hops have come from one farm. It’s located fewer than 20 miles west of the brewery, along the French border north of Lille. Thus, the Hallertauer, Brewer’s Gold, Styrian Golding, and other varieties that De Ranke uses are all Belgian-grown.
Second, De Ranke uses 100 percent whole cones—no pellets. In 2002, De Ranke installed a large freezer that can hold a year’s worth of hops, which arrive at the end of harvest time. Bacelle simply prefers the smoother, finer hop flavor that he says he gets from whole flowers—and to him, it’s worth the 5 to 7 percent loss in wort that the kettle hops absorb.
That locally grown Hallertauer Mittelfrüh—Bacelle says he prefers it to Saaz because he finds it “more refined”—is the only variety in Guldenberg. “In fact, it’s a single-hop beer. Also, a single-malt beer,” referring to the pilsner base. The fermentables also get a boost from sugar—typical in stronger Belgian ales—to add strength while drying the finish and lightening the body.
The mash is also typical for Belgium: three temperature steps using moderately modified Belgian pilsner malt, aiming for fermentability and world-class foam stability. The house yeast is a 50/50 blend of two fairly common Belgian strains—one offers fruitier esters but flocculates poorly; the other leans spicier but contributes better sedimentation. Together, they offer complexity to complement the hops while flocculating reasonably well.
Primary fermentation lasts a week or more, before a long dry-hopping period (four weeks) at cooler temperatures. They fill the tanks completely, so that the dry hops are totally submerged and not floating on the surface. The tanks also have strainers at the bottom, so the hops can go in loose instead of in a bag. “We found out that if you put them in a bag like at Orval, it’s difficult to get the flowers open and in contact [with the beer]. Or it becomes almost impossible to get the bags out after because they’re so heavy. So, the way we do it is quite practical. Of course, we have to go in after to clean the tank. But that’s a habit. It’s quite easy to do that.”
Like most Belgian ales, the Guldenberg is bottle-conditioned (or keg-conditioned) with a relatively high level of carbonation that supports the foam and aroma. These days, it can be found on draft as well as in 33 ml (11.2 oz) bottles. But its classic format is in 75 ml bottles, meant for sharing over meals, snacks, stories, or in pockets of geeky conversation. The bitterness and herbal-floral hop character are ample but integrated and smooth, balancing the modest alcohol sweetness, and it drinks too easily for 8 percent strength. A second bottle is virtually inevitable.