What is a Tripel: Although the origin of the term Tripel (not triple) is unknown, the term is said to have originated in the “Low Countries” of Belgium and the Netherlands. One story says that the Belgian ales brewed in various Trappist monasteries were marked with the letter X to indicate the alcohol content. The more Xs, the stronger the ale. A tripel (XXX) is generally a Belgian style ale with an alcohol content of 8% or better. Other styles in the category are called Dubbel (XX) and Quadrupel (XXXX). A single X is simply called a Belgian Ale. Each type is qualified as Belgian Ale with complex flavors that will please all who seek it.
History of the Westmalle Tripel: First brewed in 1934 in Westmalle Abbey, the Westmalle Tripel is clear and golden yellow. The ale undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle reaching a final A.B.V. of 9.5%. As the Westmalle web site states, “It is a complex beer with a fruity aroma and a nice nuanced hop scent. It is soft and creamy in the mouth, with a bitter touch carried by the fruity aroma. An exceptional beer, with a great deal of finesse and elegance. And with a splendid long aftertaste.”
Why brew a Belgian Tripel: I decided to take on the task of brewing a Belgian Tripel last year when I picked up a book on cloning beer. The book contained a number of recipes with various Belgian styles. The recipe that intrigued me most was the Westmalle Tripel. Mostly because this tripel is considered the “mother of all tripels.”
The Ingredients: Not a cheap beer, the ingredients listed on the right and displayed here cost about $100. A Belgian Golden Candi Sugar was substituted for the Clear Candi Sugar as clear was not available. This produces a more golden ale as opposed to a lighter blond ale; but the flavor remains as expected. Other ingredients include 9 pounds of dry malt extract, Belgian Rock Candi, and four different kinds of hops.
Cleaning and Sterilization: The first and most important step in the brewing process is cleaning and sterilization. All of the equipment, including brew pot, fermentation tank, spoons, etc… must be clean and sterilized. I use a no-rinse agent containing Sodium Percarbonate. This step should not be rushed or bypassed. Without sterilization, bacteria or fungi could infect the wort and distort the beer flavor. Sterilization must occur not only when brewing; but when racking to the secondary fermenter and when bottling.
Steeping the Grains: The recipe calls for 4 ounces of Belgian aromatic malt. This small amount of kilned barley malt gives the tripel a strong, aggressive malt aroma and rich color. Only a small amount is needed to provide the full rich flavor desired. The grains are steeped for 20 minutes in ½ gallon of water at 150oF. After this, the grains are sparged using another ½ gallon of water. An additional ½ gallon of water is added to a volume of 1 ½ gallons. This mixture, called wort, is brought to a boil.
Adding the Sugars: The sugars are the primary food used by the yeast to make alcohol. The type of sugar also contributes to the color and overall flavor of this ale. 9 pounds of light DME help to produce over 9% alcohol by volume while keeping the color light. 1 ½ pounds of liquid Belgian Candi Sugar produces a golden color that is indicative of the Belgian tripel. Once all of the sugars are dissolved, 1 ½ ounces of Styrian Goldings hops are added to produce a mild bittering flavor. Before going any farther in the process, 4 cups of wort must be removed from the mixture.
Caramelization: Caramelization is the process where a significant amount of the water in the wort is boiled away. Caramelization causes the sugar crystals to oxidize, thus deepening the color and producing a nutty toffee like flavor. The process is not only time consuming; but requires constant and complete attention. 4 cups of wort are heated and boiled, while constantly stirring to prevent boil over and scorching. Once the mixture is sufficiently caramelized, it is added back to the wort.
Boiling and Flavoring Hops: Once the caramelized wort is mixed back into the original wort, more water is added to bring the full volume up to 3 ½ gallons. This is brought to a boil and boiled for 45 minutes. After 45 minutes, it is time to add the various flavor hops. ¼ ounce Hallertau and ¼ ounce Tettnanger. At this time, adding 1 teaspoon of Irish moss will help to clarify the ale. This is boiled for another 10 minutes before adding ½ ounce of Czech Saaz aroma hop. After 5 more minutes of boiling, the brewing process is complete.
Cooling the Wort: Before the wort can be added to the fermentation tank, it must be cooled. Hot wort could potentially crack a glass carboy and will kill any yeast. The brew pot is placed in a sink or tub with cold water and ice. This water must not be added to the wort. After cooling the wort for 15 minutes, the wort is strained through sanitized cheese cloth to remove the leafy hops from the mixture. The strained wort is added to the fermentation carboy and cold clean water is added to the mixture to a volume of 5 gallons. The wort must now cool until it is below 80oF.
Cooling Wort Waste Hops Finished Wort
Original Specific Gravity: Once the wort is in the primary fermentation tank, now is a good time to check the density of the wort. This provides a preliminary indication of how much alcohol might be produced during fermentation. This ale registered 1.09 units of specific gravity. Using a web based tool, this indicated the potential alcohol content to be 10.50%.
Pitching the Yeast: With the wort now below 80oF, it is time to pitch the yeast. The term pitch simply means to add yeast to the unfermented wort. As this is a Belgian Tripel, I purchased a Belgian Ale yeast WLP550 (White Labs). WLP550 is a good choice for any Belgian Ale as phenolic and spicy flavors dominate the profile. Phenolic flavors and aromas can be described as cloves or spicy. The yeast is poured directly from the vial into the fermentation tank. The tank must be stirred vigorously in order to properly oxygenate the wort and the yeast.
Fermentation Primary & Secondary: The fermentation process takes two weeks. The yeast should activate within about 10 hours with the most active fermenting happening over the first 2 days. As this is an ale yeast, it is a top fermenting yeast. This means the yeast floats on the top of the beer and the dead yeast (called trub) collects on the bottom of the tank. The yeast produces a significant amount of carbon dioxide and foam. Great care must be taken as the fermentation lock may clog with yeast and other matter. This may result in the lock blowing off. Fermentation settles down after 5 days and may appear to stop completely. After a week the beer is racked into a secondary fermentation tank. Another vigorous stir causes the yeast to once again activate. Temperature is key. A temperature of 70oF must be maintained throughout the entire two weeks.
Cleaning the Bottling: Bottling day starts with cleaning and sanitizing the bottles. Every bottle must be cleaned, scrubbed, and sanitized inside and out. If anything is left in the bottles, this will spoil the beer contained in the bottle. The bottle caps must also be sanitized at this time.
Final Specific Gravity: Bottling day is an exciting day. It is at this time when the final specific gravity is read and the ale’s overall alcohol content is determined. The final gravity for the Belgian tripel read as 1.02, thus yielding an alcohol by volume of 9.21%.
Racking the Beer: The secondary fermenter has sediment that should not be siphoned into the bottles. In order to limit the amount of trub getting into the final bottles it is necessary to rack the ale one last time.
Priming Sugar: In order for the ale to properly carbonate, a small amount of sugar must be added to the beer. This recipe calls for 1/3 cup of cane sugar and 1/3 cup of Belgian Rock Candi sugar. A small amount of ale is extracted during the final racking into a small sauce pan and heated to dissolve this additional sugar. Once the sugar is dissolved, this must be cooled and added back to the beer. Another vigorous stir of the bottle ensures the priming sugar is properly mixed into the beer.
Bottling: The beer is siphoned in to each bottle using a sanitized siphon hose with bottling attachment. The bottling attachment has a spring activated valve that only fills the bottle when the tool is pressed to the bottom of the bottle. This causes each bottle to fill from the bottom thus eliminating foam and allowing for better control filling the bottles.
Different bottle different flavor: It should also be noted that Westmalle is normally served in 330ml (just under 12 ounces) bottles. The Westmalle Abbey indicated that the tripel is also available in 750ml bottles (just over 25 ounces). They note that “It is remarkable that the beer matures differently in these larger bottles. The fruity aroma is somewhat softer and riper, and the beer gets a light touch of vanilla.” With this in mind, I decided to bottle my tripel in both 12oz and 750ml bottles.
Labeling and dressing the bottles: A Belgian Tripel deserves to be dressed up and labelled accordingly. The label is designed to pay homage to Belgian royalty. Each bottle is topped with gold foil with the Carey Crest adorns the top. The label has a gold and black tartan as the background border. The Carey Crest can be found in two different spots on the label. The dates of brewing and bottling are also indicated along with the percent alcohol an bittering units.
Aging: A Belgian requires a lot of patience. Once the ale is bottled, it has not finished fermenting. The fermentation process will carbonate the ale, add a small additional amount of alcohol, and change the flavor. This ale is meant to age in a cellar for at least 6 months before it may be enjoyed. The aging process will bring out the full body of the spice flavor produced by the yeast. The longer this ages, the better it will be.
Final Thoughts: I did not brew this ale because I wanted something to drink immediately. It took a few months to decide what beer to brew. As a result, this recipe quickly stood out. First because of the technical complexity of the process and the flavors. Second because this ale is designed for long term aging. Unlike most beers, I hope to enjoy this specific brewing project for years to come.