If it weren’t for monks, many of the classic beer styles we enjoy today may not have ever been. We owe particular thanks to Belgian monks of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, a Roman Catholic contemplative order that believes monasteries should be self-sustaining. Because of this, monks took up many trades; among these was brewing highly coveted beer.
A favorite style they produced, the tripel, was developed at Brouwerij der Trappisten van Westmalle (Westmalle Brewery) in 1934. Golden-hued tripels have aromas and flavors of apple, pear, citrus, or banana-like fruitiness, clove-like or peppery spice. Other characteristics of the style are its high alcohol (7 to 10 percent by volume) and dry finish.
As early as the 6th Century, monks brewed beer. The story of the Westmalle Abbey brewery begins in 1836, when the beer wasn’t intended to be sold or produce a profit; it was merely refreshment for monks and their guests. In 1856, the Abbey began selling a small amount of the beer to villagers at the monastery gates.
As demand grew, the Abbey did, too. Expansions were undertaken in 1865 and 1897. In those early years, the brewery produced mostly dark beers. Westmalle was best known for its dubbel, strong dark ale that got its flavor from boiling the wort for eight to 10 hours. The long boil was thought to develop deep color and complex tastes.
Demand continued to rise and, in 1921, the Abbey began selling beer to outside resellers. This necessitated another expansion, including construction of a dedicated yeast room and workshop. The new additions were complete in 1934 and celebrated by the introduction of a new style: the tripel.
Because Belgians’ palates were more attuned to darker, richer ales, the release of the golden-hued tripel was considered a radical move for a group known to be overwhelmingly traditional. Demand grew after drinkers tasted the fruity, high-alcohol brew. For years, the monks tinkered with the recipe until 1954, when Brother Thomas Sas dialed the formula back and created the tripel we know today.
So important was it to the monks that the character of the tripel remain intact, they instructed Jan Adriaensens, who has overseen brewing at Westmalle since 1982, to make no alterations. When the brewery decided to switch from square fermenters to the more modern conical style, he spent eight years experimenting on a smaller pilot system to ensure the beer wouldn’t be affected.
Though the tripel produced by Westmalle is the original and standard-bearer for the style, other breweries have produced their own versions. Here are some your local market should have.
New Belgium Trippel • Creamy with plenty of alcohol punch, this beer from the Colorado (and now North Carolina) brewery reveals citrus, dark fruit and other spicy flavors.
Victory Golden Monkey • Easy drinking and refreshing despite its 9.5 percent ABV, this one will sneak up on you if you aren’t careful.
Wicked Barley Monks Ménage • When this tasty Belgian-style tripel is on tap, it treats drinkers to a solid, boozy experience redolent with cracker, spice and pepper.