Tripel is a strong, golden-colored ale that was first commercialized by Hendrik Verlinden at the secular De Drie Linden brewery in Braaschat, Belgium, as Witkap Pater in 1932. He actually had his beer trademarked as “Witkap Pater = Trappistenbier” (Witkap Pater = Trappist Beer), which was the first legal use of the name “Trappist” as a trademark. The Westmalle Trappist Abbey followed in 1934 with their Superbier that was modified by Brother Thomas and renamed “Tripel” in 1956. It is one of the most popular beer styles in Belgium and there are hundreds of versions brewed worldwide.
The term “tripel” refers to the amount of malt with fermentable sugars and the original gravity of the wort prior to fermentation. One theory of the origin is that it follows a medieval tradition where crosses were used to mark casks: a single X for the weakest beer, XX for a medium-strength beer, and XXX for the strongest beer. Three X’s would then be synonymous with the name “tripel.” In the days when most people were illiterate, this assured drinkers that they were getting the beer they asked for.
Tripel beers are traditionally brewed using soft water and approximately 80% pilsner malt for sweetness supplemented with fermentable sugar to lighten the perception of body (chaptalization). Hopping is done in multiple additions using classical aroma varieties such as Saaz, Tettnang, Spalt, and Styrian Golding, with flowers being preferred to pellets or extracts. Primary fermentation is done at relatively warm temperatures using Belgian ale yeast and is usually followed by a cool maturation of 2 to 4 weeks. The best versions are then bottle conditioned. The best tripels have 8%–10% alcohol by volume (ABV) and a gold to light amber color (10–20 European Brewery Convention) and are dry on the palate and well-attenuated, generously hopped using aroma varieties (30–40 International Bitterness Units) and highly carbonated using bottle conditioning (6–8 g per l/3–4 vol). Tripels should show dense and mousse-like foam, bright burnished golden color, and complex spicy, floral, orange, banana, and citrus notes. Flavors are fruity with alcohol and slight maltiness and are supplemented by hop flavor bitterness and spicy yeastiness. The body is medium because of high carbonation, attenuation, and hop bitterness. Despite the high alcohol content, a good tripel remains almost dangerously drinkable. The driest and lighter versions are not cloyingly sweet and are refreshing enough to enjoy as an aperitif, whereas the fuller and more alcoholic versions make an excellent nightcap.
Of all the Trappists, only Chimay sells its tripel in keg form.