Beer styles are fluid designations (literally and figuratively). Like trying to categorize art (What separates Dada from Surrealism? Does Abstract Expressionism really mean anything?) or film (What genre is Inglourious Bastards? A war picture? A comedy? Revenge porn?), beer styles are somewhat of a lazy shorthand. They’re a way for us to categorize brews into neat little compartments when, in reality, the broad spectrum of beer-kind is far messier than that.
Take the Tripel (well…don’t actually “take” it…I’m still planning on drinking it). What does that designation mean? It’s a Belgian term…kind of. Or maybe Dutch. But it’s also used frequently in American craft brewing. There are a few theories as to where the term came from. Some believe it refers to the markings on the front of the bottle (X for the weakest beer, XX for medium strength, and XXX for the strongest). Others believe it refers to the multiplier describing the ABV (3% for the simple or Enkel beer, 6% for the Dubbel, 9% for the Tripel). But those theories just describe the brew’s strength which is only one of many aspects that defines a beer’s style.
The version I prefer is that the “multiplier” actually refers to the amount of malt used in the brewing process (so the Tripel has three times as much malt as an Enkel). This makes sense since the more malt, the more fermentable sugar. And of course, more sugar means more alcohol. It also explains why the higher up the chain you go, the fuller the body and malt profile of the beers. So that explains the term (at least to me), but how do you define the style itself?
Wikipedia defines a Tripel as a “strong pale ale, loosely in the style of the Westmalle Tripel”. Gee…thanks, Wikipedia. A strong pale ale? So do Scotch Ales, American Strong Ales, English Strong Ales, Barley Wines, Old Ales, and Double/Triple IPAs count as Tripels? According to the first part of that definition, why not?
The second part gives a bit more clarity…” loosely in the style of the Westmalle Tripel”.* The Westmalle is a classic, Belgian beer with a distinct flavor so that helps a little. The golden, sparkly brew is made with pale candy sugar which gives it a delicate, sweet aroma and taste. Styrian Goldings and Saaz (one of the nobles) hops are added to cut the sweet maltiness and balance the beer. The highly drinkable result is also an ass-kicker at 9.5% ABV.
*Interesting to note that Westmalle only makes three styles of beers…supposedly to represent the Holy Trinity. So I guess that means that Tripels are beers that taste like the Holy Spirit. And Dubbels are essentially Jesus in a bottle.
The problem is that word “loosely”. While all Tripels tend to have high-alcohol content, the truth is that they vary widely in flavor. And while some mimic the Westmalle Tripel faithfully, others are much darker, or sweeter, or hoppier, or more effervescent, etc. It’s all a little confusing, and when you buy a Tripel, you rarely know exactly what you’re going to get. Basically, if it’s a very strong Belgian-style ale, it’s probably a Tripel. Wait…unless it’s a Quad. Damn you, Quad!*
*Note: I’m not actually angry at you, Quad. I love you.
As I said earlier, it’s pretty messy. But in general, if you need to categorize the Tripel, it’s a strong pale ale (8-10% ABV), gold or blond in color, with a big, sweet malt profile, a touch of hops, and a good deal of spice and fruit. If it’s a sharper, lighter-bodied blond ale, it’s probably an Enkel (or Belgian Blonde). If it’s a sweeter brown ale, I would guess a Dubbel. And if it’s a dark, warming, aggressively spicy beer with a huge ABV…that’s a Quad, my friend. One oddity you might note from these descriptions is that the Enkel and Tripel are golden beers while the Dubbel and Quad are dark. Why? No clue…and the monks who invented the system ain’t talking. My theory is that the Trappist monks have a light side and a dark side (like Star Wars) and each side keeps trying to one up the other with a stronger beer. So look for a golden “Quint” in the future that is around 15% ABV and can lift an X-Wing fighter out of a Dagobah swamp.
And now for a tasting note:
The Boulevard Brewing Company is the biggest craft brewer in the Midwest. Located in Kansas City, it is officially the largest independent brewery in the state of Missouri thanks to the sale of the evil, swill-producing conglomerate known as Anheuser-Busch to the Belgian giant, InBev. Boulevard’s sales are dominated by their flagship Pale Ale and highly-popular Unfiltered Wheat Beer…two fairly standard offerings. But the brewery decided to expand their portfolio in 2007 with the addition of their bold, aggressive Smokestack Series brews. Included in this series are an Imperial Stout, Double IPA, a Quad, a delicious Farmhouse Ale called Tank 7…and the Long Strange Tripel.
The Long Strange Tripel is a perfect example of why it’s so hard to define the Tripel style. It’s a strong beer at 9% and it certainly has the coloring (cloudy gold) that you would expect from the Tripel. But the brew is far smoother and mellower than most Tripels I’ve had.
It poured from a 750ml bottle with a hazy, golden hue and a massive, but quickly dissipating head. The nose hinted at the style immediately. A big malt aroma with a ton of yeast and fruit (mostly bananas and apricots). While Tripels have more hops than Dubbels and Quads, this one had virtually none. Even more surprising for such a strong brew is that I didn’t get any nose-burn from the alcohol.
The flavor of the beer was less complex than I would expect (and want) from a Tripel. On the other hand, for the style, the Long Strange Tripel was impressively easy-drinking. The dominant flavor was the maltiness I got in the nose which also gave the beer a wonderful full body and thick, but not cloying mouthfeel. The fruit esters were not as readily apparent as in the nose, but some very nice phenol spiciness came through. There was certainly some bitterness…mostly from the alcohol burn, but I actually did get a little bit of hops which was nice. Overall, these notes couldn’t compete with the sweet (albeit slightly citrusy) maltiness.
Minor quibbles aside, the Long Strange Tripel is as drinkable and smooth a representation of the style as you’ll find. Perhaps it’s not as complex or multi-layered as I’d like from a Tripel, but it’s still a very tasty beer. That, plus an awesome name, make this a 3 Hops beer from Brother Barley.