February brings our 24th monthly Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, so that we can finally fill a case. Hosted by David Turley at Musings Over A Pint, he correctly asserts that any beer is made better by sharing it, and suggests that a Belgian Tripel, because of its uniquely strong qualities, is ideally suited to this purpose.
Beer is best when it’s shared, and a strong beer is just right for sharing. Belgian Tripels are big beers with a flavor profile that is enjoyed by both experienced and new beer fans. Be it an intimate evening, or watching a ball game on TV, a Tripel is made for sipping and sharing. For Session #24 the theme is “A Tripel for Two.” What Tripel would you pick to share with that good friend, family member, or lover?
As it happens, today’s Session is also the first day of SF Beer Week and I’m already at my second event, the second tapping of Napa Smith’s Original Albion Ale at Magnolia. But I’m also there to try one of their beers specially created for Strong Beer Month, in this case the Tweezer Tripel. It’s a mere 25 IBUs but a more impressive 9.9% abv. Light gold in color, but with a nice ivory head. It has a light malty nose, but really opens up in on the palette. Floral and fruity flavors mix wonderfully with the malt sweetness and its octane is not overly pronounced, making it deceptively drinkable. I could definitely see sharing this beer with friends and lovers, with or without the tweezers.
Next stop, 21st Amendment and the fifth tapping of Don Barkley’s beer. For this year’s Strong Beer Month, one of the beers they created was Double Trippel, a 9.6% tripel that’s loaded with hops ala an imperial IPA. It’s cloudy amber in color with citrusy hop aromas and some vegetal, herbal and oniony aromas. The hops dominate the flavors, unusual in a tripel, of course, and when I declared the beer “interesting,” brewmaster Shaun O’Sullivan interpreted that as meaning I didn’t like his beer, but that was not the case.
To me, I like when commercial brewers take the parameters of a more or less traditional style and turn it on its head, creating something both surprising and unique. As far as I’m concerned, beer styles are only useful guidelines, not hard and fast rules. In competitive judging, they may be necessary evils but for professional brewers style definitions, if adhered to strictly, seem to me a bit like gross limitations on creativity. And Belgian beers, since that’s what were looking at today, are known for each brewery making a unique beer that’s difficult to pigeonhole into a style category. And in fact, we create broad, almost vague, categories just so we have somewhere to put them for competitions.
But as long as the beer works and tastes good, styles doesn’t matter. And as for Shaun’s Double Tripel, it does work. That its flavors are surprising is a definite plus, in my mind. There were a few folks at the brewpub with the homebrew magazine BYO in town for the SF Beer Week festivities. One of them asked me what I was sampling and, when I told him which beer it was, wrinkled his nose and declared it too hoppy and not drinkable. But I think that’s the mindset you often find in homebrewing, that a beer not to style is somehow wrong or defective. But I believe that kind of thinking is short-sighted. If everyone thought that way, styles would not evolve and beer would remain static. That would, I think, make for a very boring world. In countries where traditional styles are rarely challenged (e.g., Germany, England) innovation suffers and while their beers — according to style — can be magnificent, over time a certain sameness creeps into their national scene.
If that had been true in Belgium, we may never have had the style of Belgian Tripels at all. The first tripel, most likely brewed by Westmalle in 1934, was innovative at the time and perhaps some people disparaged the beer because it didn’t fit any preconceived ideas of what it should taste like. But eventually it was accepted, of course, and now is considered a traditional style that shouldn’t be messed with. But for creativity to continue the sacred cows must be tipped over, so to speak. That’s what keeps things interesting.
As much as I enjoy Session and even middle-of-the-road beers, it is the extreme and strong beers that often seem best for sharing precisely because in most cases, less is more — or at least enough. That makes one bottle enough for two, three or occasionally more to all enjoy. With smaller beers, you share by each having your own, making it the company that’s shared. With Tripels, it’s both the beer and company that’s shared. That’s what I love most of all with big beers. They facilitate fellowship. How can you not love a beer that by its very design brings people together?