Style Profile: Why is it called Belgian Tripel?

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Illustration by David Witt, DWITT All-Purpose Illustrations

“Why is this beer called a ‘tripel’?”

I am asked that question a lot. There are nearly as many explanations for the Belgian style designations “single,” “dubbel,” and “tripel” as there are drinkers who love imbibing them. Is it called a tripel because it’s brewed with three times the grain? Is it boiled three times? Triple-fermented? Maybe it’s three times as strong as other beers?

The name probably goes back to earlier times in brewers, when a method called parti-gyle was used to make different-strength beers from the same mash. The runnings from the first mash yielded a rich, high-sugar wort. The grains were then mashed again, often multiple times. Each successive mash gave a weaker wort. The resulting worts were then blended in different proportions to create beers of different strengths. Brewers often assigned letter designations to each type of beer they made—for instance their pale beer might be called X. And so, X, XX, and XXX were different strengths of that brewer’s pale beer: single, double, and tripel.

Belgian tripel is one of the styles often associated with the monastic brewing tradition. Many Trappist breweries make one. Those not brewed at monasteries often feature images of monks on the label. Though that tradition has deep roots, the tripel as we know it today is of much more recent provenance.

By the late 1920s, the pale lagers of Germany were finding increasing popularity across Europe, including in Belgium. In the early 1930s, brewing scientist and yeast specialist Hendrik Verlinden of the Drie Linden Brewery formulated a golden ale to combat this encroachment. The product of his labors—the first modern tripel—was released in 1931 by the Slaghmuylder Brewery in Ninove, Belgium. It was called Witkap Pater and was initially marketed as a Trappist beer.

Although the “Trappist” label was not yet trademarked in 1931, members of the monastic order did look askance at its use by non-monks. Verlinden , however, had been consulting for the brewers at the Trappist brewery Westmalle for some time and because of this relationship he was the sole non-Trappist brewer allowed to market his beer in that way.

The monks at Westmalle first brewed their tripel in 1934 and released it under the name Superbier. In the 1950s, the recipe was modified with the addition of more hops and the name was changed to Tripel. It has remained unchanged ever since. Westmalle Tripel was the first authentically Trappist tripel and is still considered by many to be the benchmark for the style.

At 7.5% to 9.5% ABV, one might expect Belgian tripel to be a rich, full-bodied ale. The contrary is true. The use of highly fermentable, adjunct sugars results in a very high level of attenuation. The tripel is sneaky. So light and refreshing, it will seduce you to drink two or three. Which is all well and good, until you stand up.

The 2015 Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) guidelines describe Belgian tripel as a dry, strong, pale ale with a somewhat spicy and fruity profile. It has generous pepper and clove aromatics along with ample orangey citrus and occasional banana. Malt aromas are soft and grainy, with light honey notes. Spicy hop aromatics might also be apparent.

The flavor of Belgian tripel follows suit, offering a “marriage of spicy, fruity, and alcohol flavors supported by a soft, rounded grainy-sweet malt impression, occasionally with a very light honey note.” Spicy hop flavors are usually present, and hop bitterness is medium to high, supported by peppery fermentation character. The finish is dry and bitter with lingering spicy and fruity flavors.

Belgian tripel is the perfect Thanksgiving beer. From the soft grainy malt to the spicy, fruity yeast flavors, it has something to complement everything, from asparagus and Brussels sprouts to pesto, lemon chicken, and even apricot tart.

Vital Statistics

OG: 1.075–1.085
FG: 1.008–1.014
ABV: 7.5–9.5%
IBU: 20–40
SRM: 4.5–7

Examples

Belgian: Westmalle Tripel, La Rulles Triple, St. Bernardus Tripel, Chimay Cinq Cents (White), Watou Tripel, Val-Dieu Tripel, Affligem Tripel, Grimbergen Tripel, La Trappe Tripel, Witkap Pater Tripel, Corsendonk Abbey Pale Ale, St. Feuillien Tripel

North American: New Belgium Tripel, Boom Island Brimstone, Boulevard Long Strange Tripel, Unibroue La Fin du Mond, Weyerbacher Merry Monks, Tallgrass Velvet Rooster

Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint About Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint

Michael has a passion for beer. He is Minnesota's first Certified Cicerone (think sommelier for beer) with the Cicerone Certification Program, and a National Beer Judge with the Beer Judge Certification Program. In addition, Michael is himself an award-winning brewer. He writes a monthly column on beer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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