Tripel Off, Round 1, Game 2 — Straffe Hendrik vs Karmeliet vs Achel

This group in our taste-off of Belgian and Belgian-style tripels represents the stars of the second division — beers lacking the name recognition of Westmalle or Chimay but with similar character and quality.

We had initially intended to include only Straffe Hendrik and Achel but when we asked our Patreon subscribers to review the contenders there was a strong lobby for Karmeliet to be included. Rather than bump anything, though, we decided to try a three-way match.

Thought this is only a bit of fun we did think it was worthwhile doing a bit of unscientific blind-ish tasting: Jess had a vague idea of the longlist of beers but Ray poured and served them so she wouldn’t know which was which.

  • Straffe Hendrik, glass X, £3.10, Beer Merchants online
  • Tripel Karmeliet, glass Y, £3.29, Corks of Cotham, Bristol
  • Achel Blonde, glass Z, £2.60, Beer Merchants online

Three glasses of beer lined up.

They looked remarkably different, ranging from dark orange (SH) to lager pale (TK) to a sort of golden yellow (AB). Karmeliet had a much higher level of carbonation than the others and was hard to pour without it blooming up and spilling.

As before, here’s a read-out of Jess’s raw responses:

Glass X: It’s nice, I like that one a lot. Really bang on spec for the style. A very classically tripel-y tripel.
Glass Y: Oh, I also like this one. Is it a bit… milky, maybe? Very different, lots going on. Plenty of spiciness.
Glass Z: This seems pretty watery. It’s quite grassy. Lacking depth by comparison. My least favourite.

I’d rank them X, Y, Z, just how they came, but I do like them all. They’re all essentially flawless.

Ray, who knew the beers, noted:

X: Great! A bit savoury, though? A slight bum note.
Y: Heavy, heavy body, lots of interesting flavours — layer upon layer. German white wine? Peaches?
Z: Yeah, what Jess said. Seems very thin alongside those other two, and one-dimensional.

Three beer bottles.

We were both surprised to prefer Karmeliet to Achel but concluded that this Karmeliet seemed quite different to the beer we remembered from previous encounters, being less sweet and more subtle. And Achel, billed as Blonde but usually classified as a tripel, really did seem to have more in common with Leffe than Westmalle on this occasion.

Then came the vote.

Ray: Karmeliet. Complex and fascinating, and I love the huge foam.
Jess: Straffe Hendrik. A more balanced beer, rich without being over the top.

So we gave the Patreon crew the deciding vote and the beer they chose, which goes through to the next round, was, by a very narrow margin…

Tripel Karmeliet!

Next time: The New Wave.

Tripel Off, Round 1, Game 1: Westmalle vs. Chimay

We’ve come up with a list of eight Belgian and Belgian-style tripels that we’re setting against each other in a series of taste-offs to determine the ultimate winner.

We wanted to give Westmalle, the best beer in the world, a tough opponent and so decided to pit it against another classic: Chimay Blanche.

Blanche used to be too much for us, bowling us over with its sheer booziness, but in the last couple of years we really fell in love with it and figured that if anything might slay The Big W, it was this.

On this occasion Ray poured while Jess tasted sort of blind, with no idea which two beers were being tasted.

Glasses of beer.
Chimay, left, and Westmalle.

Both looked pretty in their glasses, all fluffy white foam and clear gold, though the Chimay (glass A) was noticeably darker. Westmalle (B) seemed to have  a much bigger aroma with spice and fruit spilling out on opening where Chimay offered only a little whiff of sugar.

Jess: Well, they both taste like tripels, but I much prefer B. There’s just more in the after-taste. A is fine — I’d be very happy to drink it any day of the week — but B is less harsh, and has more spice. The flavours seem more… blended. I sometimes think about the transition from fore- to after-taste and how great beers have a kind of smooth segue, which B definitely does. It’s somehow softer, but also has bigger flavours.

Ray: Interesting… Both seem quite harsh to me today. If I take bigger gulps, though, the Westmalle tripel is obviously better, sort of mousse-like in the mouth, so satisfying. Leafy and peppery. Chimay just seems rough, all bananas and booze. It feels two-dimensional, somehow, whereas Westmalle has a lot of complexity and subtlety. It’s got banana notes, too, but not just that. Do you want to guess what they might be?

Jess: Umm… Well, neither of them is Westmalle, obviously.

Ray: Ha!

Jess: Oh.

So, of course, based on flavour, we both chose Westmalle. Even though it’s more expensive than Chimay we reckon it’s worth the extra, too, so on value too it wins. That means it’s through to the next round, and Chimay is out of the contest.

We asked our Patreon subscribers to vote in a simple poll — should we disagree between ourselves their vote will decide the winner — and they overwhelmingly voted for Westmalle, too.

So, can anything threaten the reigning champion?

Well, given that Jess didn’t recognise it, and that Ray found it a bit less exciting than usual, it’s all to play for, Brian, and so on.

We bought both beers via mail order from Beer Merchants; Westmalle was £3.25 per 330ml bottle and Chimay was £2.85.

100 Words: In Love With Tripel

Illustration: a Belgian tripel in the glass.

We keep thinking about Belgian Tripels.

We’ve said that Westmalle Tripel is, without doubt or debate, so shut up, the best beer in the world.

But maybe Tripel is the best style.

A good Tripel demonstrates how a beer can be balanced without being bland or paltry. Sweetness reined in by bitterness, richness met by high carbonation, with spice and spicy yeast pulling it all together.

Complex without drama. Subtly luxurious. Affordable art.

Yes, very affordable: you can still buy some of the highest-regarded examples for less than three quid a bottle, and a suitable glass for not much more.

Sharp’s Connoisseurs’ Choice in the pub

Sharp's Connoisseur's Choice triple

There isn’t much Belgian beer on sale in pubs in Cornwall, which is a shame, because strong, slow beers lend themselves to stormy, candlelit Sunday afternoons, of which we have plenty. Fortunately, Sharp’s head brewer, Stuart Howe, is something of a Belgophile, and has produced two beers which very neatly plug the gap.

Honey Spice Tripel (10%) is entirely convincing and delicious. Honey in beers we can take or leave but, as is usually the case when it’s employed in brewing, it’s not a very pronounced presence here. In fact, what lords it over this beer is a big, unrestrained Belgian yeast pumping out banana aroma and tongue-tingling Asian spiciness. (The Westmalle strain, right?)

The Quadrupel (10%) is apparently fermented with four strains of yeast. The overall impression, though, is that, once again, something very like the Westmalle strain won. Our impression (according to notes on one of the touchscreen devices) was of more bananas — really ripe ones — doused in rum, but it’s another one of those beers that has almost every flavour in it if you wait long enough. (Chocolate, coffee, dark fruits, Werther’s Originals, old army boots, bat’s blood…) In a blind tasting, would we rate St Bernardus Abt 12 higher? Maybe, but the freshness and swagger of this beer might tip the balance.

Final observations: it was great to see these on sale in a relatively normal pub, at a not-outrageous £5.50 a bottle, which is less than imports go for down this way, on the rare occasions they’re seen. It was even better when the barman announced, with evident pride, that they had a full supply of the attractive Belgian-style glasses in which they are supposed to be served. But… Connoisseurs’ Choice? Why not just call them Wankers’ Selection or Dickhead’s Delight? We bloggers don’t need our egos encouraging.

Brewing Without Reference to Styles

We’ve just brewed a… something.

For once, we didn’t set out to make a tripel, an IPA or a stout — we just looked at the ingredients we had, thought about the beer we wanted to drink, and off we went.

It uses a Belgian saison yeast (because that’s the only one we had in) and borrows some aspects of our tripel recipe (because we liked how it turned out) but it doesn’t fit the parameters for an ‘average’ tripel as set out in Stan Hieronymus’s Brew Like a Monk, or those for a saison or ‘super saison’ given in Farmhouse Ales by Phil Markowski. It uses English pale malt (all we had), Tettnang hops (because… why not?) and a bit of white sugar.

We’re not claiming to have done anything especially innovative (although it does have some unusual secret spices) — all we’ve done is tinker with the variables a bit. It’s going to turn out to be a Belgian-inspired blonde beer of some description, and that won’t set the world alight.

But, still, it felt liberating. We’re going to do this more often.

Lots of commercial breweries defy or even define standard styles: Orval, for example, isn’t anything but Orval, love it or loathe it, and sits awkwardly among the other Trappist beers which have fallen into line with each other.

Many newer breweries, on the other hand, seem to us to trot out one of each from the recipe section in Homebrewing for Dummies and, for a bit of variety, take two standard styles and cross-breed them. The beer might great, but will this approach produce classics? Will it create genuinely new, individualistic, original beers?