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Monday, August 18, 2008

Trappist Ales - Westmalle (Our Lady of the Sacred Heart)

You may imagine that the tripels and dubbels go back centuries--after all, it's one of the world's famous styles, and Trappist monks have been brewing for centuries. Yet despite their stature, abbey ales of this type are relatively recent, having emerged from the examples brewed by the monks of Westmalle Abbey after World War Two.

Abbey ales are the most well-known of all Belgian beers; it is therefore an education to sit down with a Westmalle, the most influential brewery for the style, and the most imitated. Westmalle's Tripel also happens to be the standard against which all other tripels are judged--and appropriately so. It is an exceptional beer.

The monastery was founded in 1794, just northeast of Antwerp, in the Flemish-speaking Flanders region of western Belgium. The monks started brewing in the 1830s for their own use, and started selling beer to locals in the 1870s. This arrangement lasted until 1921, when Westmalle began selling beer more widely. The famous line-up evolved over a period of years, becoming recognizable in the 1950s. Since that time, Westmalle has fiddled little with their styles, though the recipes do change to adjust for malt variations. Jackson reports that the brewers have used a variety of different hops--always whole flowers, never extract or pellets--and change them to their wish at the time.

Tasting Notes
When you're dealing with a high-gravity beer, you're in a pick-your-poison situation. The perils include sweetness, heaviness of body, harsh alcohol, and over-hopping. When brewers make adjustments on one element, they may worsen another. Westmalle's Tripel is a justifiable world standard because it manages to find a balance for all of these elements.

Let's start with the appearance. It is a familiar, cloudy golden. I marvel at the head on the beer, beautiful fluffy white and sustained, despite the alcohol. It's the liveliness of the beer that feeds the head, though it does not cascade with effervescence like some Belgians. (After my final swallow, what remained in the bottom of my goblet was a skiff of head, coating the bottom of the glass like a dusting of snow.)

Westmalle is hoppy, something that is not evident in the aroma (which is caramelly and alcoholic and smells more like a barleywine than a Belgian, oddly). It's not the first thing you notice--the sweet, rich, alcoholic notes muscle their way in first. But the hops are spicy and rescue the beer from becoming overly rich. The body is full and creamy, effervescent, but not heavy. I have had many tripels that are either too thick or finish too sweetly. Not Westmalle--the finish is long and dry. This is a big virtue of sugar--it allows the yeast to convert more sugars to alcohol, which produces a drier palate. It's fermented twice (before bottle-conditioning), and there's no information on the yeast strains. To my palate, there appear to be more than one variety, and I'd hazard a guess that there's even a little Brett in there (suspicions fostered by Orval--more on that in a later post).

If you drink the beer slowly enough, you'll find myriad flavors. Thick with phenolics, the beer has the characteristic banana-clove-spice continuum. It's also estery, a note cut off sharply--and surprisingly--by the dry finish. Depending on how long the beer has been aging, you'll notice more or less hop bitterness. I prefer those moments when the hops come through, because it's a sneaky bitterness, one you welcome for its steadiness. You will find all or some of the following flavors, depending on the bottle and age--caramel, orange or lemon, mint, figs, and .... Well, you go buy a bottle and tell me.

At the start of my series, I said there were two excellent and one world-class Trappist ale. I include Westmalle Tripel in the excellent category, and I can't quibble too much with those who declare it a world classic. It is the standard for the tripel style, and it is certainly one of the best examples brewed.

Original Gravity: Tripel 1.080, Dubbel 1.063
: Tripel 9.5%, Dubbel 7%

Hops: Whole flowers--varieties vary

Adjuncts: Pale candi sugar syrup (Tripel), dark candi sugar syrup (Dubbel)
Rating: Tripel, A-
Available: Readily available at beer stores and some grocery stores (New Seasons in Portland).


  1. Jeff - Westmalle's yeast is a single strain. Noteworthy is that Westmalle provides the yeast for Westvleteren and Achel.

    In both cases the breweries pick up freshly top-cropped yeast at Westmalle the day that they brew.

  2. Some added insights to Belgian Tripel History:

    From Wikipedia because it's easier to copy/paste than write it myself...:-}

    "The Trappist abbey in Westmalle brewed a new beer in 1934, calling it "superbier". It was a strong blonde ale and was very likely based on a blonde beer the monks had been brewing sporadically since 1931. In 1956, the recipe was modified and it then took on the name Tripel. It is today considered the first beer to use that name.

    Tripel indicates a relative strength in a range of beers. So, the trappist beers were divided into three: enkel, dubbel and tripel (basic, double and triple). Considering the importance of the Holy Trinity in the church, it is unlikely that the choice of three types of beers was accidental.

    It is likely that one of the reasons the tripel was born was the Vandevelde Act of 1919. This Belgian law, which was not repealed until 1983, forbade the sale or service of strong drink, particularly, Jenever. As neither beer nor wine were affected by this law, it was a commercially opportune time to introduce stronger beers"

    In regard to taste profile:

    I follow with Michael Jackson's concepts with why Westmalle Tripel
    is the corner stone of all Tripels. The beer is all about balance. Balance of alcohol, malt sweetness and just enough hop herbal spiciness to balance. I always seem to get an almond meat note with some sweet Orange. Herbal notes from the SAAZ Hops add a nice depth that rises from the tongue to the senses of your nose.

    I've heard that Westmalle uses Styrain Goldings or EK Goldings for bittering. I can't remember which one, maybe they switch off?


    According to 'Merchant Du Vin,' the Washington importer of Westmalle; The Starting Gravity (pre-fermentation sugar content) of the Tripel is 1.080 and they use about 37 IBU's of hops. 37 IBU's is a fairly low bittering for a beer that's 1.080 SG with a firm malt backing. I agree with your description of how the hops add a balanced herbal note that helps balance the malt sweetness.

    When I originally read, "Westmalle is Hoppy..." It painted a different picture in my head, than what I would taste in a Westmalle Tripel. To me, 'Hoppy' refers to big bitterness and/or big green piney aroma and resinous taste, which is light years away from the hop profile found in Westmalle Tripel. Not to split hairs, you do recover that statement with describing the Herbal notes of the hops...

    Where's the info and tasting notes on Westmalle Dubbel? ;-}

    I think readers might be interested in what the Monks drink.... ;-}

  3. Per usual, Wikipedia gets some things wrong, but I can't spend my life correcting them.

    To the hops questions, Westmalle has a very sophisticated lab and it clocks the tripel at 39 ibu, which certainly accents the dry (88% apparent attenuation) nature of the beer. The hops are Tett, Saaz and Styrians and other hops that may change and not be named (extract, for bittering).

    The 20 monks who still live in the monastery have the opportunity to drink Extra, a 5.3% 31 IBU beer (all pils, no sugar, saaz) that is brewed and bottled twice a year. They also ship it over to Achel for the monks there to drink, and it shows up at a few special events during the year.