When Pilsener Urquell introduced its clear golden lager beer in 1842, it started a revolution in European beer. Beers no longer had to be dark and cloudy or be hidden in pewter or earthenware drinking vessels. Over the decades that followed, the clear golden beers began to be served in glasses and became the rage in Europe. Everyone wanted pilsners. Darker beers - including many of the great traditional beers of Belgium - were waning in popularity. Belgian brewers needed to find ways to compete.
In the early 1930s, brewing scientist and yeast specialist Hendrik Verlinden of the Drie Linden brewery experimented with a golden ale to compete with pilsners and other popular golden lagers. In 1932, he released Witkap Pater, a tripel ale. He also helped the Westmalle Trappist brewery develop their Tripel, which they had been working on for some time.
At the time, it was commonplace for Trappist breweries to name their beers based on strength with the designations enkel (single), dubbel and tripel - corresponding to 3, 6 and 9 percent alcohol. All three strengths would have been darker beers. When Westmalle released its first Tripel in 1934, it was a strong golden ale - and proved to be a real game-changer. In 1956, Westmalle changed the recipe slightly to include more hops and it has remained unchanged since then. To this day, many consider Westmalle Tripel to be the standard by which all other tripels are measured. And there are many to be measured - from Trappist, abbey, secular and American craft breweries.
Tripels are strong beers that are bright yellow to deep golden in color with a big, dense, creamy ivory head. They have a spicy phenolic, fruity and complex aroma with a distinct Belgian yeast character. They aremalty and evenly balanced with hops and alcohol. Tripels get their rich maltiness from a high percentage (as high as 100%) of Belgian pilsner malt with a small percentage of specialty malts such as aromatic and light crystal. Some tripels - like Tripel Karmeliet - add small portions of wheat and oats as well. Tripels also include as much as 20 percent Belgian candi (beet) sugar to lighten the body of the beer and produce a dry finish. Tripels are typically in the 8 to 12 percent alcohol range. They have a complex, rich, sweet, malty flavor that finishes dry and clean.
Tripels are hoppy in their aroma with a substantial bitterness - up to 40 IBUs. The hops and the malt are generally in balance with additional bitterness provided by the alcohol, which tends to stay well-hidden. Hops are typically floral and herbal varieties from Germany, England, France, the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Belgian yeast definitely leaves its mark on tripels with spicy phenols (clove, nutmeg, pepper and cinnamon) and fruity esters (banana, apple, pear, apricot). Some brewers add small amounts of actual spices to their brew kettles for added depth of complexity. Most Belgian tripels are bottle conditioned (naturally carbonated in the bottle), which produces a soft texture, gentle carbonation, big pillowy head and added complexity.
Tripels are majestic beers. Both simple and complex - with high alcohol and restrained intensity - tripels are truly divine!