A Homebrewing Recipe for Sweet, Sweet Nectar
by Michael Dawson
The youngster in the family of Belgian monastic beers, Tripel is attributed to the Trappist abbey of Westmalle, where it was first brewed in the early 20th century as a response to the soaring popularity of pale lager. Unlike its antecedent – Dubbel, with its deep russet appearance and chewy, malty, dark fruit character – Tripel was formulated to emulate the light color and translucence of continental pilsners, but at a much more “De Luxe” gravity.
Some Tripels (and the secular, but related Belgian strong golden ale style) make use of spices like coriander and orange peel to enhance their spicy, peppery, flowery bouquet. Others eschew botanicals and achieve complexity through yeast selection alone. For this month’s brew session, we’ll harness the power of orange blossom honey as a post-boil addition, to imbue a Tripel with a copacetic floral-citrus aroma and flavor, as well as to ramp up the fermentability of the wort.
Going by numbers
With an Original Gravity of 1.075 to 1.095 and an ABV in the 8 to 10% range, this is what I like to call a “sitting-down beer.” Its winelike ABV%, highly sparkling carbonation, and complex aromas make it a great beer to pair with food.
Bitterness runs from 20 up to 40 IBUs (International Bittering Units), which is fairly high for a Belgian ale. Remember, its inspiration is in hoppy pilsners. But the hop presence on the nose is quite subdued, letting the yeast character take center stage. Also taking its cue from pilsner, regular or honey Tripels are pale in color – sporting a strawlike 4.5 up to a rich gold 7 SRM (Standard Reference Method).
What makes it tick
Like the pale lagers that inspired it, Tripel is brewed with pilsner malt and low-alpha noble hops. The ale strains used by Tripel brewers are characteristically spicy, estery, and phenolic with high attenuation and alcohol tolerance. And there’s one more key ingredient – sugar (for fermentability, of course).
Belgian brewers and beer lovers talk about the idea of “digestibility” in their strong beers. Compared to many styles with similar original gravities – the Doppelbocks of Bavaria, barley wines of England, Wee Heavies of Scotland – the strong ales of Belgium, Tripel included, are downright dry and crisp. The effect in the glass is that these beers are highly drinkable despite their elevated ABV – less filling and great tasting. And the method in the brewhouse which achieves this is the addition of a healthy percentage of sugar.
Simple sugars – whether sucrose (table sugar), dextrose (corn sugar), or the fructose and glucose of honey – are 100% fermentable, while the cereal-derived sugars in a malt-based wort, even under the most extreme conditions, will come in somewhere under that. Because of its fermentability, adding sugar to beer wort not only increases alcohol content, it also thins the body and mouthfeel and lowers the final gravity.
But, because brewing is process-driven, when the sugar is added, as well as how much and what kind, needs to be considered. Our Tripel will get dosed with honey not in the kettle, but in the fermenter. There are a couple good reasons for adding sugar post-krausen instead of to the boil for a beer like this:
- The first and most important reason is to preserve aromatics – it’s a waste to utilize an expensive and expressive sugar like single-source honey, only to have its character scrubbed out by heat, boiling, and/or the rapid evolution of CO2 in the early stages of fermentation.
- The second and slightly more involved reason is that if the yeast is given access to the honey’s simpler sugar molecules early on in the fermentation, they will preferentially metabolize those ahead of the more complex malt-derived sugars. The worst-case outcome in this scenario is that, as the fermenter environment becomes increasingly toxic to the yeast as the alcohol level rises, the cells will weaken before maximum attenuation is reached, leaving behind a portion of those malt sugars and creating an undesirably syrupy-sweet honey Tripel with a high final gravity. Adding the sugar to the primary fermentation after a significant fraction of the malt sugars have already been broken down into CO2 and alcohol helps ensure thorough and complete fermentation of our high-gravity wort. In the interest of a “highly digestible” orange blossom honey Tripel, it’s worth our while to encourage the yeast to get the hard work out of the way first, while they’re still in peak condition.