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Homebrewing: Belgian Tripel
The Trappist monks of Westmalle Abbey have produced the Tripel as their premier beer style for over 70 years. This pale, strong beer of is recognized by its fruit and spice aromas and sweet malt flavor that seems to quickly dissipate from the tongue. The simplicity of the base recipe makes this an excellent style for the beginning homebrewer, but it will also push the limits for the advanced homebrewer trying to capture that perfect Belgian yeast character.
Let's take a look at the basic components of a Trappist Belgian Tripel and a recipe that will start you on the path of brewing like a monk.
About The Ingredients
Pilsner malt should be the primary grain in any tripel recipe, and is often the only grain. If any other grains are used they should support of the character and aromas of the Pilsner malt, but never be immediately discernible in the final product. The simple grain bill produces the light color that is expected in this style.
Candy sugar is a consistent ingredient in many Belgian beer styles, and it is especially important in the Tripel. The fast-fermenting simple sugar will increase the alcohol content and help produce a dry finish. Belgians traditionally use a beet sugar, but white table sugar can be substituted without a significant flavor difference. Sugar is usually added to the wort with about 15 minutes left in the boil, and it's important to stir the wort until the sugar is completely dissolved so it does not scorch the brew kettle.
Hops for a Tripel recipe, like for most Belgian styles, should have a low alpha acid content and be primarily used at the very beginning of the boil. Varieties such as Hallertau, Spalt and Saaz (known as Noble Varieties) are traditional.
Belgian yeast character is the star of the show and where the brewer can exercise flexibility and creativity. Both of the major beer yeast producers, Wyeast and White Labs, have many varieties that originate from Belgian breweries. Wyeast 3787 and White Labs WLP530 are from the Westmalle brewery and will produce a clean and subtle fruit character. For a more intense Belgian spice and fruit character, you can use the Chimay strain sold as Wyeast 1214 or White Labs WLP500. If you're interested in reproducing the character of a particular Belgian brewery, this guide provides an excellent reference for each of the available yeast strains and the breweries where they originate.
Before You Start
If you don't have a lot of experience with Belgian ales, it's best to purchase and taste a few commercial examples for homebrewing research before you brew one. Start with the Westmalle Tripel, and Chimay Cinq Cents (white label). Other traditional Belgian tripels that you might find at a specialty beer store or bar are St. Bernardus Tripel and Tripel Karmeliet. Some American breweries have also done pretty well with this style, including New Belgium's Tripel and Allagash Tripel ale which are readily available in beer stores.
Ready to brew? This tripel recipe was given to me by the person who taught me how to homebrew. I've tried several variations, but I've found that the simplicity of the original produces the most authentic and best tasting homebrew tripel. You may be surprised at the deliciously complex flavors that develop from a base that consists only of Pilsner malt, candy sugar, noble hops and Belgian yeast. This beer will age well in the bottle, and if stored in a cool, dark place, the flavors will continue to improve for up to a year.