After two months in a row of nearly overwhelming blind tastings—102 non-barrel-aged imperial stouts, followed by a whopping 144 barrel-aged stouts safe to say that the Paste beer tasters were hanging on by a thread. We needed a style that would draw significantly fewer entries, for the sake of our livers if nothing else. Thankfully, Belgian tripel was there for us.
Tripels are an interesting beer style, and one that I can’t help but feel was more influential when I first started getting into craft beer almost 10 years ago than they are now. That’s almost certainly a function of the “extreme beer” era of the early to mid-2000s—despite being a beer style with at least 85 years of measurable history, it was a high-gravity style that fit in well to the second great craft beer boom, when drinkers were experimenting with much more intense, heady flavors. I have many memories from this time period of craft beer neophytes falling head over heels for tripels such as La Fin Du Monde or Victory’s Golden Monkey.
There’s no real data I can fall back on to prove it, but today it feels like tripel has once again taken more of a back seat. There are no shortage of Belgian beer devotees, but fewer American craft breweries are brewing straight-up “Belgian tripel” with no other twists on the format. You will, however, find plenty of variations on tripel—barrel-aged ones, fruited ones, spiced ones, etc. Likewise, the differentiation between “tripel” and “Belgian strong golden ale” is as nebulous and difficult to formally define as the difference between “quad” and “Belgian strong dark ale.” But in general, the modern beer scene feels much more driven by the likes of IPA, sour beer, session styles and imperial stout than old-school tripel. Once again: These are only my impressions as a beer writer and consumer.
Still, this was a refreshing tasting, despite the ABV. After all of those stouts, we needed a real palate cleanser in terms of flavor profiles, and the effervescence and Belgian yeast-driven flavors of these tripels really hit the spot nicely. Even tasters who didn’t previously count tripels among their favorite beer styles came away with a new appreciation for them.
The results … were interesting. Some of the classic Belgian examples of the style, such as Westmalle or Tripel Karmeliet, ended up right at the top as one might expect. Others, such as Chimay or De Dolle, missed the cut. And of course the most surprising aspect was seeing which of the American breweries were making great, classical tripels—and it almost certainly isn’t going to be who you expect. So let’s get on with it.
As in most of our blind tastings at Paste, the vast majority of these tripels are sent directly to the office by the breweries that choose to participate, with additional beers acquired by us via locally available purchases and the occasional trade. Belgian beer styles usually prove slightly more difficult for us than American ones to acquire, given that the Belgian breweries don’t really send in beers for blind tastings. On those, we’re more often left at the mercy of what we can acquire locally, but in this case I don’t think we missed any of the major Belgian brands one immediately associates with tripel.
— There was no ABV limit for this tasting, for obvious reasons. Entries were capped at two per brewery, although this wasn’t really necessary. Beers were separated into daily blind tastings that approximated a sample size of the entire field.
— Tasters included professional beer writers, brewery owners, professional brewmasters and beer reps. Awesome, Paste-branded glassware is from Spiegelau.
— Beers were judged completely blind by how enjoyable they were as individual experiences and given scores of 1-100, which were then averaged. Entries were judged by how much we enjoyed them for whatever reason, not by how well they fit any kind of preconceived style guidelines. As such, this is not a BJCP tasting.
What can we say? There are some pretty good tripels, here in the field. There are some Belgian classics like Chimay White, which was perfectly in line with what you’d expect. There were others such as the De Dolle Dulle Teve, which we found a little overwhelmingly boozy. And there were ones like the St. Bernardus that just didn’t excite the palate, although we ultimately liked another from the same Watou brewery more.
There were also beers in here that are simply hard to rate against a classical abbey-style tripel. Funky Buddha’s Saint Toddy, for example—that is a fascinating beer, and a well executed one, but if you describe a beer as a “tripel” and then give someone a beer that tastes like apple pie and warming Christmas spices, it’s hard to reconcile the two. We can acknowledge that a beer is good in this particular case while just not being able to wrap our heads around it as a “tripel.”
As always, the beers in The Field are simply presented below in alphabetical order, which means they were not ranked. I repeat: These beers are not ranked.
Adirondack White Wine Barrel Tripel
Arches Belgian Tripel
Bridgeport Fallen Friar
De Dolle Dulle Teve
Funky Buddha Saint Toddy
La Fin Du Monde
Moa St. Joseph’s
Mother Earth Tripel Over Head
Ommegang Valar Dohaeris
Real Ale Devil’s Backbone
River North Tripel
Rocket Republic Pomegranate Tripel
Sam Adams New World
Scaldis Blond Triple
St. Bernardus Tripel
Strange Land Fleur D’Orange
City: Madison, AL
The verdict: Huntsville, Alabama (Madison is a suburb) had a pretty solid showing as far as tripels are concerned, landing two of them in the top 15. This beer from Rocket Republic is one I have previously sampled at the brewery, and one that Rocket Republic has refined into a year-round (or nearly year-round) offering. A bit smaller in stature than some of the others at 8.4% ABV, it’s not hurting for character. Very clean, it drinks easily but does show a little bit of pleasant booziness. Flavors of banana bread and some grainy, almost doughy malt form strong backbone, and there’s even a touch of citrusy hops in there as well. Rarely in any of these tripels were hops a notable part of the flavor profile, so it’s worth mentioning. All in all, an easy-going, crowd-pleasing tripel perfect for a weekend afternoon and college football game.
City: Watou, Belgium
The verdict: We’re really not sure why exactly the brewery at St. Bernardus produces two different tripels, including this one that is .5% ABV lower than the regular St. Bernardus Tripel, but it was interesting to see this one marginally edge out its slightly bigger brother in terms of the scores it received. They both have an unmissable Belgian malt and alcohol profile; that slightly oxidized, sherry-like quality you find in almost all strong Belgian ales that are packing significant booze, possibly a result of sitting on store shelves a bit longer than they should. This one presented a bit more smooth and creamy than the regular St. Bernardus Tripel, with soft booze and expressive fruit flavors that are darker than you’d expect from the beer’s color—more like plum/currant, alongside the more expected banana. It’s lower on the spice than many of the others, but very drinkable, with a touch of funk.
City: Fort Collins, CO
The verdict: This beer was almost certainly the first tripel consumed by many fledgling craft beer drinkers in the ‘90s and 2000s, and that alone probably makes it one of the most important American tripels ever made. New Belgium caught a lot of flak in 2015 when they announced they were updating the recipes of both their Abbey Ale and Trippel, but our own tasting of the two side by side at the time told us one thing: The new version was superior. This blind-tasting is only more confirmation—this is one of the best values you can get in Belgian beer, and one of the only excellent abbey-style beers you can routinely find in a gas station. Creamy in terms of mouthfeel, it presents big, dark fruity alcohol flavors, citrus and tons of spice—coriander, anise and even a touch of something that reminded one taster of cumin. There’s more going on in this beer than meets the eye.
City: Oakland Park, FL
The verdict: Here’s the thing about Funky Buddha: They’re versatile down there in Florida. In one tasting, they’ll score big with really bold, crazily flavored beers, as they just did in the barrel-aged stout tasting with imperial stouts flavored with coconut and bacon. In this tripel tasting, they entered two: One made in apple brandy barrels that tasted like a pie, and another that—wait for it—is just a really solid, regular ‘ole tripel. Point is, they’re known for their skill in balancing flavored beer profiles that other people would bungle, but they can do multiple things well. This one is impeccably balanced—light Belgian yeasty esters on the nose, with herbal hops and a touch of wheaty malt. Grassy hops are present on the palate, and the 9.3% ABV is pretty well hidden, roughly the same as several tripels in the tasting that were considerably smaller. This is one of those entries that didn’t necessarily top individual score sheets, but everyone liked.
City: Easton, PA
The verdict: For whatever reason, old-school examples of American tripel had a tendency to fare pretty well in this tasting. Weyerbacher’s classic Merry Monks is one tripel that feels every bit of its weight—it’s big, flavorful, slightly boozy beer. Banana esters are huge on this one, and they combine with more residual sugar on the nose to give it a very “ripe” banana impression, almost like caramelized banana slices or banana bread. This tripel is maltier in general than some of the others, with toasty, bready flavors and significant sweetness that amplifies the fruitiness. Spice, pear-like fruit and especially banana lead the way, in a tripel that almost seems to have a little bit of dubbel in it. We can see why they recommend aging this one a bit.
City: Downingtown, PA
The verdict: If you’re an American in the eastern half of the country who enjoys Belgian tripel, then you’ve surely enjoyed Golden Monkey at some point. Long one of Victory’s biggest sellers, it’s a very rare example of a year-round tripel that could be considered a “flagship” beer. It had been a while since we tasted one though, and the beer’s profile is interesting. It’s drier than you would likely expect for anything at 9.5% ABV, and it doesn’t have the chewier malt we just mentioned in Weyerbacher’s tripel. Rather, it’s dangerously drinkable, lightly estery and fruity, but also features some green, grassy hop flavors that are very pleasant. Distinctive tasting notes were common on this one: One taster specifically notes “green tea,” while another name-checks pears and “spritzy carbonation.” One thing is for certain: This is one of the easiest-drinking 9.5% ABV beers around. So watch out, because it will put you on your ass faster than you realize.
City: Austin, TX
The verdict: This is not Adelbert’s first top 10 finish—they’ve proven themselves pretty steadily as a quality brewery that should be appreciated by Texan beer geeks. It’s another tripel that comes off a little bit more purely malty than most in the style, with toast and bread crust flavors that aren’t found in many of the others. Despite that, this is a very balanced tripel overall, without any dimension of flavors that take over and steer it. Light, clovey spice and fruity esters are held up by spritzy carbonation. Alcohol is very, very well hidden indeed. This is another one of the more “sessionable” tripels on the table.
City: Huntsville, AL
The verdict: Chalk it up, that’s two from Huntsville, a city I’ve previously written an in-depth beer guide for, if you ever happen to be visiting. Oddly enough, every taster present on this day of tasting gave this beer the exact same score, although they all enjoyed slightly different aspects of it. Miracle Worker has an excellent malt profile with great complexity; funny, considering that the description makes it sound like solely pilsner malt. One would think there was at least a decent amount of wheat in there, as the beer conveys some pleasantly grainy, bready characteristics before segueing into subtle spice and floral/herbal hops. Regardless, it was enough for one taster to consider it “ON POINT.” It could be considered a good example of an “Americanized” Belgian tripel, considering that it still uses a Belgian yeast strain, but produces a much cleaner, brighter beer than the Belgian-made tripels tend to be, with an emphasis on drinkability rather than richness.
City: Decatur, GA
The verdict: Now here’s an interesting permutation of “Belgian tripel.” First, they added a portion of wheat to the grist, but it’s the wine barrels that immediately announce in a blind tasting that you’re drinking an entirely different kind of beer. It’s interesting to me that they used cabernet barrels—for whatever reason, tripel seems like a style where I would have expected white wine barrels rather than red. Regardless of color, though, it delivers a beer that has been thoroughly transformed from classic abbey tripel. Softer and less carbonated in terms of mouthfeel, the nose is fruit-forward and tart, with red berry notes and an unmistakable tang of oak. Belgian esters and spice get pushed back a bit, but not lost entirely—they’re still there, but one might not guess “tripel” as the base beer when tasting completely blind. On the palate this is fruit-driven, clearly the product of a wine barrel, with a mildly buttery quality, red fruit and a touch of funk. It finishes dry, which helps it retain some structure and elegance. There were a few wine barrel tripels in this tasting, but this was easily the best of them.
City: Buggenhout, Belgium
The verdict: Now here’s one of the unassailable classics, as far as Belgian tripel goes, even if the brewery was acquired by AB InBev six months ago. This one comes off as much spicier than most of the others on the nose, sort of a clove/coriander connection that immediately makes it stand out in a big way. Still, despite the big spice presence it drinks pretty easily—more so than some of the other classic Belgians—and also hides its booze better than most of the tripels from Europe do. Banana fruitiness and soft, yeasty bread flavors give way to a clean, dry finish—this also seems drier than most of the other examples from Belgium. There’s even a bit of lemon/orange citrus to round everything out, but in my mind this one is defined primarily by spice. We can dig it.
City: Portland, ME
The verdict: Is this the quintessential American tripel? It could very well be, considering that they already make what is 100% the quintessential American witbier in the form of Allagash White. It’s almost certainly one of the first beers that one would name when asked for an American brewery that brews a good tripel. Spice stands out here, with a profile that again hints at coriander but also has a touch of what almost tastes like ginger. Honeyed sweetness and banana fruitiness are present on the palate, as is some noticeable alcohol presence—what one taster’s notes describe as “banana bread booze.” All in all, it’s still quite balanced, though—a place for everything, and everything in its place.
City: Philadelphia, PA
The verdict: Now we come to a couple of big surprises. Or maybe not so surprising after all—it turns out that this beer from Iron Hill has won no fewer than three medals at the Great American Beer Festival over the years, so we’re not the only ones to identify it as one of the best American tripels out there. Fairly light of body despite the 9.5% ABV, Bedotter features a crisp, grainy malt profile that is layered with yeast-derived notes of bubblegum and banana. It drinks almost like an inflated saison, with a bit of peppery/coriander spice and booze that is impressively well hidden. 10% ABV seems to be the magic number, as far as tripel goes—none of the beers in the top 15 surpassed that number. This one showcases nearly everything that we like in the best American versions of the style, which are almost all dangerously drinkable.
City: Longmont, CO
The verdict: Now this definitely was a surprise. If you had asked me to guess where the top-ranking American tripel was going to come from, I probably would have volunteered Allagash, or Ommegang, or a brewery that specializes in abbey ales specifically. But nope—it’s milk stout mavens Left Hand that came out of left field with this great, severely underrated Belgian tripel. Bright and zippy, with prickling carbonation, it presents a very nice citrus note on the nose, followed by tons of bready, yeasty malt. “Smells like a tripel,” wrote one taster, noting the prominent banana ester and accompanying clovey spice. Like many of the tripels, this one is fruity on the palate, but it has a bit more dimension. The requisite banana is there, but there’s also a very nice stone fruit note, like peach or apricot, and more bready malt complexity. Easy drinking but flavorful, with imperceptible alcohol, this is just a beautifully constructed beer that should get much more attention. Apparently we should drink more Belgian styles from Left Hand?
City: Malle, Belgium
The verdict: You can’t help but have high expectations for “the original tripel,” but Westmalle meets those expectations and more. In reality, history may not entirely bear out the claim—tripel was supposedly invented by one Hendrik Verlinden of the Drie Linden Brewery, a secular brewer who happened to be helping the monks of Westmalle refine their own brewing techniques in the 1920s and 1930s—but whatever the case, Westmalle introduced this beer by 1934 and has been making it ever since. It has every aspect you consider classic in a true Belgian tripel: Spice, pronounced fruity esters, a bit of grassy hops (which makes me think this bottle must have been fairly fresh), and a creamy mouthfeel built on a foundation of bready, doughy malt. There’s a touch of booze that almost all the Belgian-made tripels have, and some slight oxidation that you expect in this style. This is one case where the ur-beer of a genre has somehow managed to stay at the very top of the rankings, 80-plus years later.
City: Brugges, Belgium
The verdict: I can’t help but be reminded here of when we did our Belgian quad tasting, which was won by Gouden Carolus Cuvee de Van de Keizer. Like that tasting, this one has been won by a classic Belgian brewery … but perhaps not exactly the one you might be expecting. Referred to by one of the tasters on his sheet as “concentrated tripel,” it packs a serious punch in its 9% ABV frame. Boozier than most (though on par with many of the other Belgians), it has a sherry-like alcohol note that is not unpleasant, and fades without astringency into a plethora of fruit flavors of both banana and red fruit. To quote one score sheet: “Soft and peppery spice, very nice.” It’s a very assertive take on tripel, but it manages to do so (and to express quite a bit of alcohol) while having a dry finish, which is fairly rare. Even more rare is the fact that it can be both boozy and dry without being at all harsh on the palate. This beer walks a very delicate balancing act, and pulls it off with eloquence. It’s our pick for the best pure tripel among these 36 beers.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and in-house beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more ambitious blind-tasting content.