Few beer styles are as categorically revered as the Belgian tripel.
A TRIBUTE TO TRIPELS
Belgium has had considerable influence on the craft beer world. The diminutive nation boasts a bounty of 450 different beers and a rich brewing history. One of the most highly acclaimed and beloved Belgian beers is the tripel — an alluring, golden elixir with dazzling complexity, generous effervescence and a light body that belies its hefty alcohol content.
The best examples of the style are devilishly deceptive, with none of the telltale, boozy characteristics you'd expect from a beer with 8-12 percent ABV. The uninitiated may be surprised at their level of intoxication after imbibing in a few of these easily drinkable, yet potent brews. That's probably the reason Belgian beer cafes clearly specify alcohol content on their beer menus.
In recent years, some breweries have added coriander for flavor, but traditional tripels are not spiced. The style is flavorful and complex, often described as biscuity, fruity, flowery and spicy. Tripels have high malt content and a generous amount of Belgian candi sugar, which increases the level of alcohol, gives a hint of sweetness and imparts a dry finish.
The Trappist monks of the Westmalle Abbey in Belgium are generally credited with creating the first tripel, a strong blonde ale, which was first dubbed “Superbier,” around 1934. The Westmalle Abbey was founded in 1794 by a group of Cistercian monks fleeing the French revolution. It is one of seven (soon to be eight) abbeys in the world allowed to feature the "Authentic Trappist Product" logo on their beers. For a brewery to be blessed with this privilege, it has to meet strict standards. Monks must oversee the brewing process, for example, and the beer must meet high quality standards. In addition, profits from sales have to go back into the brewery, be used for the abbey or go to charitable works. Today, the Westmalle Tripel remains a superior standard by which the style is judged.
Many believe that the tripel got its name because it contains three times the malt of an enkel (single) — the old term for a basic Trappist beer. Michael Jackson, the acclaimed beer writer, suggests that the name is derived from the practice of marking casks with crosses as a simple method to indicate their strength — a trio of crosses would indicate a tripel.
Tripel at the Table
Wine drinkers who don't normally drink beer will appreciate the Belgian tripel because, like wine, it is extra-ordinarily complex and proves a versatile match for food. Belgian beer cafes often serve it with pungent cheeses such as aged Gouda or salty nuts. Its citrus and grassy notes pair well with shellfish. Its herbal qualities will pair well with basil-centric dishes, such as pesto pasta or spicy Thai basil beef. For dessert, try pairing tripel with fruity desserts like fresh raspberry pie.
Serving tip: Belgian tripels are bottle-conditioned beers, which means they contain yeast sediment. Be sure to store the beer upright and leave that last bit of sediment in the bottom of the bottle (drink the yeast separately for a healthy dose of vitamin B). Let the beer warm up for a few minutes if it has come directly from the fridge and serve it in a goblet, chalice or tulip-shaped glass for optimum enjoyment.