Thursday, February 14, 2013

Westmalle Tripel

There is always a story; you just have to look for it.  One of my goals with this blog is to learn those stories.  On this occasion, the story begins with a quote: living and acting, knowing and doing, experience and action, cannot be experienced without one another: the one makes the other possible.  Those are the words of the Westmalle Abbey -- also known as the Abdij Onze-Lieve-Vrouw van het Heilig Hart van Jezus or the Brouwerij der Trappisten van Westmalle.

According to the Oxford Companion of Beer, edited by Garrett Oliver, the abbey was founded in 1794 by several Cisterian monks.  The abbey started brewing beer in 1836 and it was selling beer to the public by 1856.  During that same year, the trappist monks brewed a beer that some consider to be the first "double" beer or "dubbel."  Using their knowledge and experience, which was developed over the succeeding decades, the trappist monks also brewed a beer in 1934 that was labelled as the first "triple" or "tripel." 

Recently, I bought a bottle of the Westmalle Tripel.  The recipe used to produce this beer is not the same as the original Tripel, as the monks reformulated the recipe in 1956.  Nevertheless, the monks produce the beer using the same ingredients: water, barley malts, liquid sugar, hops and yeast from the family of Saccharomyces Cerevisia.  The one difference between Westmalle and other brewers, including other trappist abbeys, is that the monks at Westmalle use only whole hop cones.  They do not use liquid hop extract or pellets to produce the beer. 

There is something to the adage that the first is the best.  In this case, the Westmalle Tripel poured a beautiful light golden color.  The beer is partial bottle conditioned and has a high level of carbonation, which results in a large thick foam when the beer i poured.  That foam eventually gives way, but it still coats the sides of the glass.

As the foam recedes, the Westmalle Tripel begins to exude the classic elements of a Tripel.  The aroma is full of bananas and cloves, with a few notes of bread and yeast.  The beer has those same banana flavors, but with a good balance of malt and hops throughout.  There was a little tartness or bitterness in the finish, which was a little surprising, but it did not take away from the beer at all.

When it comes to food pairing, Serious Eats has some suggestions for the Westmalle Tripel or, for that matter, any tripel.  These suggestions include foods in which basil is a primary component, ham and cheese, and "troublesome veggies" like asparagus.  I just enjoyed the beer by itself, which is always an option.

For the trappist monks, their lives and actions, experience and knowledge are all primarily focused upon their higher calling.  Brewing is an endeavor that they undertake only to support themselves (as opposed to making a profit).  Yet, the monks produce beer of far superior quality than anything produced by the corporate behemoths whose sole existence is to sell mass-produced beer intended to dominate the market.

If you want a good Belgian trappist tripel, the Westmalle is the perfect starting point.  Westmalle beers are generally available at beer and grocery stores.   If I recall correctly, a bottle sells for about $16.99.


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