Monday, November 07, 2005

Tripel play

Probably the most commonly recognized Belgian ale style outside of Belgium is the abbey tripel. Commonly represented in this country by imports like Chimay Cinq Cents (White), Westmalle Tripel, and Maredsous 10, the tripel is typically a strong, golden ale with fruity, spicy aromas,loads of carbonation and a dry finish. However, like most ephemeral things in life, the definition and origin of the tripel is spongy enough that even waterproof online guides like Beer Advocate can make some goofy category judgments.
And, while Belgian beer month may be long over at the Toronado, it's always Belgian beer month in my soul. So, I thought it would be fun to do a side-by-side tasting of a couple of the less ubiquitous versions of the style. And when you thrown out names like "Crazy Bitch" and "Big Bird", your friends will think you're hanging out with a real pimpin' crowd.
Dulle Teve, De Dolle - Ah, yes - the proverbial crazy bitch. What else would you expect from the mad brewers? Popular enough to have a girls' beer drinking club (ahem!) named after it, this limited tripel eschews the trappings of the style, much like you'd expect from Kris Herteleer and his Oerbier-brewing co-lunatics. Unlike many strong Belgian pale ales, this one doesn't mask its alcoholic strength, opening with a burn that's right on the front of the palate owing to the high amount of added sugar. This version of the style is rich and creamy, with a highly carbonated body that helps balance its sweetness, and finishes with hints of oak, sherry, and almond. A superfine bedtime sipper.
Zatte, Brouwerij 't IJ - This Dutch entry into the "strange tripel" race is much more in line with the Chimay version. Dry, tart, and with some sharp fruit flavors, this ostrich ale is more than a little mysterious. Just what exactly is an ostrich doing out there protecting an egg out in the Netherlands? Is the bird the only one who can pronounce the name of the brewery? Like it says on the bottle: "Buitengewoon Bier Van Hoge Gisting, Voorzichtig Uitschenken, Minstens Houdbaar Tot." Not as hot on the palate, but the light body and high alcohol content do reflect the use of added sugar. Not as memorable as the De Dolle version, but worth it for the label alone, and it won't put you to sleep after one glass.
Sidenote: People often assume that beers with added sugar are going to taste sweeter than their barley/water/hops/yeast brethren. Not true. If the sugar added to the recipe is fermentable by yeast (like maltose, a sugar extracted from malted barley when mashed), and the yeast is up to the job, the finished product will be as dry as if it weren't there. Wine is rarely sweet, right? By that same token, mead doesn't have to be sweet, regardless of being made from honey. I've had scotch ales and doppelbocks that are much sweeter than Belgian strong ales simply because the techniques of mashing unfermentable sugars along with using a yeast that cannot handle surviving in a high-alcohol solution render them so. Nuff said.


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