You may or may not remember your first craft beer—but you probably remember the first one that really made an impact on you. Especially if that impact was roughly comparable to smoking peyote. At my niece’s birthday party about a decade back, I was first introduced to Victory Brewing Company’s Golden Monkey. I had no idea what a Belgian tripel was at that point, and perhaps I drank too much of it, but it definitely made a firm impression.
Those who know me often accuse me of not liking Belgian beers, but that’s not totally accurate; I just have a smaller flavor target for them. Two of my favorites are the aforementioned Golden Monkey, and Allagash Tripel. What follows isn’t a clone, per se, but it creates a tripel that emulates these two: fruity, dry, bready, and with good alcohol warming, all without drifting into “drinking cologne” territory.
Tripels are in the Trappist or Abbey beer family, being one of the styles originally brewed by monastic breweries, though they’re now a staple for many breweries. They’re pale in color (someday I’m going to learn why there’s a weird color oscillation in Abbey-style beers), and relatively strong, usually coming in at the 8–9% ABV range. Commonly, they feature fruity and spicy flavors, particularly coriander and pepper. Like many Belgian ales, they should also be quite dry in the finish, despite the impression of sweetness that alcohol and esters can impart. The dryness counteracts the sweetness that is often aided by high levels of carbonation, for a nice bite on the tongue. There are lots of things on the table here—banana, clove, nectarine, and orange. I should caution you at the outset that my recipe is rooted in getting a few specific flavors—not all the accepted flavors—but they might still come through!
The grist for my Golden Falcon Belgian Tripel is pretty typical for a Belgian beer. I start with 12 lb (5.4 kg) of German Pilsner malt (blasphemy, I know…), and add on ½ lb (227 g) of Aromatic Malt and another ½ lb (227 g) of Victory malt. I also add, before the boil but after the mash, 1 lb (454 g) of ordinary table sugar. You can try to get cute with this and use paler versions of Belgian candi sugar (liquid or rock), but I’ve never found much difference, except that it sometimes made the beer seem sweeter, which is definitely not something you want. That should get you to a starting gravity of about 1.076—a little low, but doing so limits both fusels and sweetness, and you won’t notice the difference while drinking!
Hopping is mostly about accents—they’re not driving the flavor, but they add some interest (especially since, as you’ll see, I chose a pretty tame yeast). You can bitter with just about anything—I usually use my big bag of Nugget—at 60 minutes with a target of 30 IBUs, and then at 5 minutes (or flame-out, if you whirlpool) add a straight ounce (28 g) of Crystal blended 50/50 with Mt. Hood, for example, for contrast.
And for yeast, boring as it is, I stick with my Wyeast 3522, Belgian Ardennes. Two reasons for this: first, it’s my standard Belgian yeast, so I can more easily predict how it will behave; and second, it adds a clear citrus ester profile with just a touch of pepper. Some recommend the Trappist High Gravity yeast, but I’ve noticed a really wonky flavor (technical term) in a high proportion of beers that were made with it—it just tastes too clove-heavy and oddly sharp to me. Others go with the Belgian Strong Ale yeast, but I don’t like its history of stalling, and it adds little that I don’t get out of the Ardennes yeast.
And then there’s the question of spicing. I have a spice grinder loaded with a four-pepper blend about 99 percent of the time. The 1 percent when it doesn’t is when I’m grinding coriander for this beer. About ½ tsp of the ground coriander, with the residual pepper that drops off the grinder top, seems to be perfect. If you don’t have the same setup, add the same ½ tsp of ground coriander and then give one short, quick half-turn of the pepper grinder into the wort. Done.
Mash as usual—you should get plenty of attenuation here, given that the OG is on the lower end, so your standard mash will be fine (unless you have a history of attenuation problems!). Likewise, boil as usual, adding the hops and spices as noted above. This beer, like many Belgians, will really be made in fermentation.
Usually I’m the “ferment colder” guy—not this time. I start at 68°F (20°C), and hold it there indefinitely. Primary fermentation doesn’t take long, and after the activity in the airlock stops, I leave it be for another week and then cold-crash to help clear it (though the yeast is a pretty good flocculator on its own).
Carbonation should be high-ish, but think twice before getting too spritzy. I like 2.75 volumes for two reasons. First, I know my bottles can handle it. Second, I find that too much carbonation can actually ruin this beer. I know that many of the classics are absurdly high in CO2, but I’d rather land on the safe side of that divide—a little too soft is better than a little harsh, in my book, and given that the alcohol is relatively low in this Tripel (though it’s still a strong ale), there’s less sweetness to counteract, and you might end up over-correcting.
This version of the style will give you all the key Tripel flavors, but it emphasizes grainy, bready malt flavors and citrus esters. The peppery herbal hops flavors and aromas, and even the coriander, are all great supporting players, but when I dislike a Belgian beer (much like when many dislike a Pumpkin Spice beer), it’s usually because some backup singer is forcing his/her way to center stage. Resist the impulse, and I think you’ll be glad for it.