Belgian Tripels (BJCP 26C) are without a doubt my favourite strong Belgian beers. More approachable than bone-dry and ultra-phenolic Saisons, less estery than the Belgian Golden Strong Ales (BCJP 25C), well-made Tripels have pronounced Pilsner malt characters, very high and refreshing carbonation, and a perfect balance of esters and phenolics that clearly identify them as Belgian ales, but not in an offensive way.
Tripel recipes tend to be deceptively simple; European pilsner malt, a fairly high (~12-20%) proportion of simple sugar, noble hops for bittering, flavour and aroma, and highly attenuative, non-diastatic and characterful Belgian yeast. Some Tripels (Karmeliet, for example) are brewed with spice additions added late in the boil, however the simpler recipes derive their aromatics through yeast by-products produced during fermentation. Despite the simplicity of the ingredients, it’s been my experience that home-brewing an excellent example of a Belgian Tripel is anything but simple.
I’ve brewed several Belgian Tripels over the years, and since this blog post is about Belgian Tripel, it should be clear that none of them have done particularly well in competitions. So, I figured it was time to give this troublesome style another shot and enter it into the Brewer of the Year circuit.
For my latest Tripel, I would use the recipe and scoresheets from the last 26C I brewed (Mk3) as the reference. Tripel Mk3 didn’t perform particularly well in the competition circuit, but it produced decent scores and generated some good feedback from the Judges to work with.
Belgian Tripel MK3
Targets (68% BHE, 31L boil, 23L wort in fermenter):
PBOG = 1.046 (without sugar), OG = 1.062 (without sugar), OG = 1.083 (accounting for sugar additions), FG 1.011, ABV ~ 9.5%
SRM = ~4
IBU = ~35 (finished beer, with sugar additions)
BU:GU = 0.45 (finished beer, with sugar additions)
6.500 Kg Weyermann Barke Pilsner Malt (85 %)
0.150 Kg Weyermann Acidulated Malt (2 %)
1.000 Kg Roger’s Cane Sugar (13 %), added post fermentation in 3 staggered additions
Water Treatments: Vancouver BC water (~RO) with 5g CaCl2 + 5g CaSO4 added to mash.
Mashing Regime: Protein Rest @ 133F / 56.1C for 20 minutes, Beta-Amylase Rest @ 148F / 64.4C for 60 minutes, no mash out.
90 minute boil
Hops: 55 g 4.5% AA Hop Union Liberty pellets added at 60 minutes (~32 IBU), 28.4 g 2.8% Yakima Chief Hops Czech Saaz pellets added at 20 minutes (~3 IBU).
Yeast: ~225 ml White Labs WLP 550 Belgian Ale (equivalent to Wyeast 3522 Belgian Ardennes) slurry harvested from a previous Tripel, stepped up with a 2L starter, shaking method no stir plate, decanted and woken up with 500 mL starter wort on brew day
I brewed Tripel Mk3 on December 3, 2016. This recipe was a stripped down version of my last Tripel, which had included 3% Honey Malt and slightly more Pilsner Base malt which gave it a sweet finish and made it too heavy in body and flavour.
For this version of the recipe, I started with a base of Weyermann’s Barke Pilsner, a heirloom variety of German 2-row which at the time had just become available to homebrewers and came with high praise from the Homebrew community. As per my normal process I added 2% acidulated malt to the mash, to keep the mash pH centered around 5.3.
Two mash steps were used for this brew. I doughed in at 133F / 56.1C for a short protein rest, the goal being to remove some of the larger protein molecules and improve clarity in the finished beer. This was followed by a 60 minute sacharrification rest at 148F / 64.4C to help create a highly fermentable wort. I added 5g each of calcium chloride and gypsum to the mash, to keep the malt and hop balance of the beer approximately equal.
To boost the alcohol and lighten the body of the finished beer, plain white granulated cane sugar (sucrose) was used to replace a portion of the malt in the recipe. Rather than adding the sugar to the wort during the boil, I decided to add the sugar as three separate additions towards the end of fermentation. I had recently listened to this podcast on brewing Belgian Tripel, where the host explained that yeast prefer to work on simple sugars, and in a high gravity beer with a large percentage of simple sugars the yeast may give up fermentation early before processing complex malt sugars which in turn would lead to incomplete attenuation.
I used American Liberty hops for bittering, for no other reason than they had “noble” character, I had a pound of them at the time and I thought they would work well. An ounce of Czech Saaz was added with 20 minutes left in the boil, to add some spicy hop flavour and aroma to support the phenolics and esters I was expecting from the fermentation process. Note that the estimated IBU’s in this recipe took the 1 Kg sugar addition into account.
My choice of yeast was the White Labs equivalent of the Belgian Ardennes strain. I decided to use this strain based on recommendations from the homebrew forums, and also through conversations I’d had with the head brewer at a local craft brewery that specialized in producing delicious Belgian beers and used Ardennes as their house yeast. Looking back at my notes, the yeast pitch for this beer had everything going against it: It was built using 2 month old slurry from a previous high gravity tripel, and I didn’t use a stir plate at the time.
While the brew day generally went without incident, the weather was quite cold that day for Langley BC, around 35.6F/2C and the boil off rate was quite a bit higher than I had expected. So I ended up with approximately 2 L less finished wort in the carboy than I had intended, but made it up with sugar water additions during fermentation to keep the OG in line with my 1.083 target.
The beer was fermented starting at 65F /18.3 C, raising the temperature to 70F / 21C over a period of 3 days. By this time fermentation was slowing so I added the first sugar addition, 300g of sugar dissolved in the same amount of boiled water. I added sugar additions two more times, the second addition being the same as the first, followed by a final addition of 400g of sugar dissolved in 400 mL boiled water. This raised the equivalent OG of the beer to approximately 1.083.
After the final sugar feeding, the temperature was raised to 76F / 24.5C where it remained for another 2 weeks, after which time I moved the carboy into my room temperature office for another 5 weeks and then kegged the beer. The final gravity was 1.014 versus the 1.011 I was going for, resulting in a 9% ABV beer. My notes describe the sample as “some malt sweetness, strongly alcoholic, and sharp”, but I remember it tasting pretty good. The beer was force carbonated to 3.5 volumes, and after a couple of weeks of keg conditioning I bottled some entries with my Blichmann Beer Gun and sent them into the 2017 BOTY competition circuit.
Judgement, Belgian Tripel Mk3
I entered Tripel Mk3 into the first BOTY competition of 2017, the Calgary Yeast Wranglers Homebrew Roundup. It earned a 3rd place medal out of 26 entries in the Strong Belgian Ale category, and Both Judges awarded my Tripel 40/50 points. While the scores were high and the comments quite positive, both scoresheets mentioned that alcohol notes were prominent, and carbonation levels were too low for style.
In the next competition, the 2017 Regina ALES Open, scores were quite a bit lower. The Judges gave it 27/50 and 31/50, and needless to say it did not medal. Low carbonation for style and high alcohol were the primary complaints, and these complaints were in agreement with the Yeast Wrangler Judges’ feedback.
Tripel Mk3 fared better at the 2017 Vanbrewer Awards, where it earned 37/50 and 40/50, but again it did not medal. Predictably, it was knocked for low carbonation and related to the carbonation, a lack of head retention. One of the Judges also commented that the beer was skunked.
Main competition Feedback Take-Aways:
- Low carbonation, lack of effervescence and dry finish
I will make a bold statement and say that Belgian beers really need to be bottle conditioned for their best presentation. Refermentation in the bottle is the only way to capture high enough levels of carbonation in the bottled beer to bring out the aromatics, encourage a large rocky foamstand, and provide a lively, effervescent impression of a dry finish. To be totally honest, when I bottled Tripel Mk3 from the keg using the Beer Gun, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to capture the same level of carbonation I got from a straight keg pour. I was willing to roll the dice because I hated the thought of bottle conditioning having recently moved to using kegs. Clearly, that decision backfired.
- Strong alcohol presence and high finishing gravity
I fully agreed that the alcohol impression in this beer was far too high for the style. Reading through BJCP 2015, alcohol presence should be non-obvious in the best examples. Knowing what I know now about yeast management, it’s likely the condition of the yeast used to ferment this beer was the culprit. Not only was it damaged and tired from it’s prior Tripel fermentation job, it wasn’t cultured using a stir plate and it was only stepped up once. Further supporting the theory that the yeast was off, the beer didn’t attenuate to the final gravity I wanted, even after sitting in the carboy for almost 2 months. For the next attempt, not only would the recipe would need to be tuned to make the wort very fermentable, I would also need to make sure that a sufficient and very healthy yeast culture was pitched to minimize alcohol off flavours and ensure complete attenuation.
Revision and Re-brew
Belgian Tripel, Mk4
Targets (68% BHE, 28L boil, 23L wort in fermenter):
PBOG = 1.065, OG = 1.076, FG 1.008, ABV ~ 8.9 %
SRM = ~3.5
IBU = 37 (finished beer, with sugar addition)
BU:GU = 0.49
5.78 Kg Best Malz Pilsner (81.1 %)
0.150 Kg Weyermann Acidulated Malt (2.1 %)
1.200 Kg Roger’s Cane Sugar (16.8 %)
Water Treatments: Same as Mk3, 5 g CaCl2 + 5 g CaSO4. 1 g SMB added to the mash water before doughing in.
Mashing Regime: 5 minutes @ 56C / 133F, 45 minutes @ 62C / 144F, 45 minutes @ 65C / 149F, 10 minutes @ 70C / 158F, 10 minutes @ 75C / 167F.
90 Minute Boil. 1 Whirlfloc tablet + 1/2 TSP yeast nutrient added with 8 minutes left in the boil.
Hops: 14g 4.5 % AA Artisan German Perle pellets + 50g 3.5% AA Yakima Valley Czech Saaz pellets added at 60 minutes ( 30IBU). 30g 3.5% AA Yakima Valley Czech Saaz pellets added at 20 and 5 minutes (60g total, ~7 IBU)
Yeast: 1 smack-pack of Wyeast 3522 Belgian Ardennes, manufactured 18/06/2019. Stepped up with a 2.1L oxygenated starter, stir plate. decanted and woken up with a .6L “vitality starter” 5 hours before pitching.
My main goals in re-designing this recipe were to lower the OG slightly to lighten the body of the finished beer, reduce the strong alcohol impression of Mk3, and to encourage complete attenuation.
To lighten the body of the beer, the proportion of base malt would be decreased from 85% to 81%, and the percentage of simple sugar increased from 13% to 17%. I would also use a complex 5 step mash regimen, focusing on long dwell times in the beta-amylase zone to produce a very fermentable wort to help dry out the beer. Best Malz Pilsner replaced the Weyermann Barke pilsner this time around, due to personal preference.
Water treatments would be the same as Mk3. Once again, low alpha noble hops would be used for bittering, but I would increase the overall hop presence mostly as a hedge in case the beer finished with too high a final gravity. To help with this increased hop presence, 2 separate charges of Czech Saaz pellets were planned close to the end of the boil.
Rather than dealing with the complexity of adding sugar in staggered feedings towards the end of fermentation, I would take the bold step of adding all of the sugar at the start of the boil and ferment the beer as if it were a normal all-malt beer. After Tripel Mk3 had failed to reach my 1.011 target FG, I was skeptical that the complicated sugar feeding technique was effective and was up for taking a risk to keep things interesting.
Belgian Ardennes yeast would be used again, as the Judges seemed to like the citrus esters and overall Belgian character of Mk3 despite its fermentation issues. To reduce the possibility hot alcohol and weak attenuation, I would culture the yeast using a large 2.1L starter , oxygenated with 60 seconds of pure O2 and put it on a stir plate about a week in advance of brew day. The day of the brew, the starter would be decanted and then woken up with a small amount of starter wort so that the yeast would be at peak vitality when pitched.
I brewed Tripel Mk4 on August 10. There were some serious process issues with this brew and as a result the recipe above was not followed exactly as planned.
I had just finished moving house, and hadn’t brewed for a while as most of my equipment was still packed. My regular propane system was in a state of disarray so I chose to use my Grainfather for the mash and boil.
As a programmable precision step-mashing vessel, the Grainfather did a very good job. It cycled through the five mash steps easily, and I finished the sparge in the expected amount of time. Unfortunately, I had collected far too great a volume of wort during the lauter which resulted in the pre-boil OG being 5 points below target, even with the 1.2 Kg sugar addition factored in. No need to worry, I would just allow the Grainfather to boil off the excess water before starting the 90 minute timer to arrive at a more reasonable pre-boil OG – or so I thought.
Compounding the pre-boil OG problem, the Grainfather struggled terribly with the boil that day. The volume of wort I’d collected seemed to take forever to boil, and when a boil was finally reached it was a very weak, more like an enthusiastic simmer. I was running out of time to brew, my evaporation plan wasn’t working and I started to panic. After 30 minutes spent in vain trying to reduce the wort volume, I decided to start the 90 minute timer, hoping that the boil would somehow magically get better which it didn’t.
Brewing on a wing and a prayer is never a good plan, and I got what I deserved. With 20 minutes left in the boil, the wort volume was still too high so I hastily added another 300g of cane sugar in a desperate attempt to salvage the OG. At the end of the brew I was left with 25L of 1.072 clear, very hoppy but surprisingly good tasting wort.
When the wort had stabilized to 62F / 17C in my temperature controlled fermentation chamber, I pitched the yeast, added 60 seconds of pure O2 and allowed the fermentation to free rise to 77F / 25C. 24 hours after pitching fermentation activity was strong, and by day 3 the fermenting wort had reached the free rise temperature limit.
By day 5, fermentation was slowing down so I plugged in my Fermwrap heater in an attempt to raise the temperature slightly and keep the fermentation going strong. I had intended to plug the fermwrap into the heating outlet of my Inkbird 2 stage temperature controller, but accidentally plugged it directly into the wall outlet instead. The next day I was horrified to find the temperature of the fermenting wort had reached 100F / 37.8C! I pulled my overheated “Tripel” out of the chamber to cool down. The gravity at this point was 1.029, nowhere close to done, and surely the yeast was dead so I figured the beer was doomed.
By some miracle the yeast was still alive and throughout the month of August there was sustained airlock activity. Every 10 seconds or so, the airlock would bubble which gave me hope that the beer may not be a total loss. By September 2, all visible activity had stopped and 2 weeks later I decided to take a gravity sample. The FG was at 1.009 and to my surprise the flat, warm beer tasted delicious, so I proceeded to package my Tripel.
The Tripel was transferred to a sanitized and CO2 purged keg, to which I added 160 grams of cane sugar dissolved in 250 mL of boiled water to target an estimated 3.6 volumes of carbonation. Re–hydrated CBC-1 yeast was added to the keg as per the manufacturer’s instructions, to help ensure a quick and thorough carbonation. The sealed keg was thoroughly shaken to mix the sugar and yeast solution with the beer. Roughly half of the keg was bottled into 375 mL extra heavy duty Belgian bottles using my Blichmann Beer gun, and the remainder of the beer was left to carbonate in the keg in the ambient ~ 68F / 20C temperature of my garage. The CBC-1 yeast would scavenge any oxygen introduced during packaging, so there was no need to CO2 purge the beer bottles before filling them, nor was there a need to add Sodium Metabisulphite to the keg.
After a four week period of natural carbonation, how does the finished beer taste? I’ll let the Judges decide as we close out the final competitions in the 2019 Brewer of the Year circuit!