Editor's Note: We like beer. We like food. But if you're drinking something special, and want to make sure your food helps it shine, some tips might come in handy. Certified Cicerone Michael Agnew is here to help.
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Riddle me this. What beer style manages stratospheric alcohol content while simultaneously remaining fresh enough for summer sipping? Belgian tripel, that's what.
Of all the Belgian beer styles, tripel is perhaps my favorite. These beers boast bodacious amounts of booze—up to around 10%—and yet they are so darn drinkable. The secret is sugar. Belgian brewers don't shy from the use of simple sugars, including cane sugar. Unlike barley sugars, these saccharine adjuncts are 100% fermentable, boosting alcohol while keeping the body of the beer light. But that makes these beers a little sneaky. You can pretty easily knock back two or three—just be careful when you stand up.
The style is not an ancient one. It was invented by the monks at Westmalle in the 1930s. There are a number of explanations for why it's called "tripel." I think the best explanation lies with relative strength; Belgian single being the weakest, dubbel in the middle, and tripel rolling out with the highest ABVs. But as with all things in Belgian brewing, there is some overlap between the styles.
What can be said is that beers called tripel are golden in color and highly carbonated. They can range from sharply bitter to somewhat sweet, but all of them finish remarkably dry. That distinctive banana-and-spice blend of Belgian yeast is there; it reminds me a bit of cotton candy. There are often herbal flavors, too, and delicate stone-fruit notes like apricot complete the picture.
So what does one eat with a tripel?
Tripels love basil. You're good to go with anything pesto. Whip up a simple pasta dish with sautéed veggies, Swiss chard, and a pesto cream sauce. Pair it with Maredsous 10. Herb and spice flavors in the beer merge with the pesto while the mid-palate sweetness grabs hold of the veggies. High carbonation clears away the cream.
Tripels also love shellfish, and shellfish loves basil. Try a shrimp margherita pizza with the Allagash Tripel Reserve. The booze and bubbles will tackle the cheese, but the light body and light flavors won't overwhelm the pie.
For something spicier, go with Thai dishes like spicy basil chicken. Alcohol can sometimes become hot in the presence of spice, so Chimay Cinq Cents at 8% is a good choice with this zippy dish.
Ham and Cheese
Belgian Tripels absolutely sing with honey glazed ham. Sweeter versions of the style often have flavors reminiscent of the syrup that comes with canned peaches. It's a stellar complement to the glaze and an even better contrast to the salt. Dark Horse Sapient Trip Ale Belgian Tripel leans a bit sweet and makes a perfect partner for a ham steak at dinner or a ham and Swiss sandwich at lunch.
Tripels are also good with cured hams like prosciutto. They stand up well to the gamey, concentrated flavors of these meats. Pair the ham with a ripe triple crème brie and a glass of St. Feuillien Tripel for a match made in heaven.
The unusual flavors of brussel sprouts and asparagus always cause trouble when picking drinks. These veggies make wine people wince. But Belgian tripels have enough sweetness to balance a bitter sprout. Their herbal overtones and funky, fruity flavors do a dance with the, well...asparagus flavor of asparagus. Brussel sprouts are a natural with the sweet side of Weyerbacher Merry Monks Tripel. Try asparagus with the sharp and bitter Westmalle Tripel. It's the original and still the best. For an even better pairing, use sweet white asparagus and wrap it in ham.
Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth
Desserts that highlight stone fruits like apricots and peaches pair well with the stone fruit flavors and yeast character of Belgian tripels. Victory Golden Monkey is particularly heavy in those peachy flavors. It's the perfect pairing for peach cobbler. Try La Trappe Tripel with Amaretto apricot torte. The apricots and apricot almond liqueur hit all the right notes with the beer. Nutty desserts like pecan pie are also rockin' with tripels—keep a bottle or two on hand for Thanksgiving!
For a truly OMG pairing after dinner, try caramelized orange cheesecake with Tripel Karmeliet. Karmeliet has citrusy overtones with an unusual orange bent, and the two merge together until they're one amazing set of flavors.
These suggestions only scratch the surface of the pairing potential of Belgian tripel. Do you like this style of beer? What are your favorite foods to pair with it?
About the Author: Certified Cicerone Michael Agnew is the lead educator and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts beer tastings for private parties and corporate events. His beer musings can be read in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, his own Perfect Pint Blog, The Hop Press at Ratebeer.com, the City Pages Hot Dish Blog, and in respected national beer magazines. He is the author of an upcoming travel guide to breweries in the upper Midwest, due out this fall from the University of Illinois Press. Follow him on Twitter at @aperfectpint