Thursday, 15 January 2015

Brewing a Belgian Tripel

My second Belgian beer brewed within about a month; it's been a long time since that's happened. I love Belgian beers, and used to brew them more frequently during my first couple of years homebrewing, but they started getting a bit ignored when I became more and more obsessed with trying to perfect brewing hoppy beers. Since my last Belgian beer, a Belgian Session IPA, is still really a hoppy beer at heart (or is it a hoppy beer that is Belgian at heart? <brain explodes>), this Belgian Tripel is my first Belgian style brewed since a Flanders Brown I did early in 2014, and my first non-sour Belgian beer since a Dubbel in November of 2013.

Too long. But, as all homebrewers know, so many beers, so little time. Belgian Tripel has always been one of my favorite Belgian styles. Aside from how delicious a well-brewed Tripel can be, I think I'm a bit biased. On a trip to Belgium in the winter of 2009, my wife and I arrived in Bruges, where we would spend our first few nights. I wasn't into beer at the time, but knew - of course - that Belgium was well-known for its excellent beer, so I was more than happy to try some out. We first stopped at one of the country's most famous beers bars, 't Brugs Beertje; we were exhausted after a long travel night/day, and this place was perfect. Great atmosphere and buzz, lots of beers available (most Belgian beer bars fit that requirement), I can still remember it almost-perfectly to this day. And the first beer we both ordered was a Tripel: Tripel Karmeliet, from Brouwerij Bosteels. Even though the whole experience (combined with the beer being served in its beautiful signature glass) most-definitely affected my interpretation of the beer, it really is a tasty one (little did I know at the time that Tripel Karmeliet is available in plenty of places across North America). Tripel Karmeliet was the beginning of my love affair with beer, which soon led to my obsession with homebrewing. Every homebrewer has a story similar to this one, but I'm not going to let that take away from my experience!

't Brugs Beertje - Photo courtesy of Trip Advisor

Wow, that was a longer-than-necessary soliloquy. Sorry about that. Long story short: I really like Tripels, and wanted to brew one again. My first Tripel was brewed in 2010, and was my first all-grain batch. I used one of Wyeast's Private Collection strains, their 3864 Canadian/Belgian, which is supposed to be the Unibroue strain. I really liked that homebrew, and that yeast strain; since Tripels are high-ABV beers, I didn't exactly plow through all the bottles, so I was drinking the beer for a couple of years after I brewed it, and it held up really well. If you're not familiar with what Tripels are all about, they're light-colored beers that have significant fruity esters and spicy phenolics, usually provided from the yeast. Medium-light to medium-bodied, they should be highly carbonated. Belgian Tripel is one of the more-bitter Belgian beers, and combined with a very dry finish, should be quite drinkable despite the high-ABV.

Don't let the high-ABV of Tripels scare you off from brewing them, as they're certainly not the most-difficult style to brew. You can keep the recipe quite simple; while some brewers do add several specialty malts, and often some spices (I'm not normally a proponent of spicing beer unless necessary, but it should be mentioned that Tripel Karmeliet is actually one of those Tripels), I find that simplicity can work very well with this style. Let's start with the grist. I kept this fairly close to my original recipe years ago, which came from Jamil's Brewing Classic Styles. Lots of good Pilsner malt, a bit of Aromatic malt... that's it. However, when I went to mill the grains for the beer, I realized that I didn't have as much Aromatic as I thought, so I added some Wheat malt to the grist. Keep in mind with this style: you don't want a lot of specialty grains, but you REALLY don't want Crystal malts in there. I suppose you could add a little Carapils to boost head retention, but something like Wheat malt may be a better option.

For the mash, aim for a low temperature... like I said, you want this beer to finish DRY. I wouldn't go any higher than 149 F, and you can certainly even go a bit lower. In addition, a large sugar addition to this beer, either during the boil or in primary when fermentation shows signs of slowing down, is a must. This is another way to dry out the beer even more, while at the same time bumping up the OG and, ultimately, the ABV.

The hop schedule is even simpler. For a classic Tripel, you're not looking for a lot of hop character. As I mentioned, you DO want the bitterness in the higher region, at least for a Belgian beer, so aim for somewhere between 30-40 IBUs. My original recipe called for a small addition of Tettnang at 10 minutes as well; you're not looking for major hop flavor here... just a little bit.

Like a lot of Belgian beer styles, yeast selection for a Tripel is a very important decision, and should involve some thought on exactly what you're looking for in the final product. When selecting which yeast to use to ferment the Belgian Session IPA, I was also choosing based on what strain I would like to harvest to re-use for a Tripel. I had used the Wyeast 1214 for my Dubbel, which is the Chimay strain, and while I do really enjoy Chimay's Tripel, I wanted to try something new. So, I settled on Wyeast 3787 Trappist High Gravity, the Westmalle strain (and therefore also Achel and Westvleteren, two other Trappist breweries). I've always loved Westmalle Tripel, and I really enjoyed how the yeast worked in my Belgian Session IPA - seemingly well-balanced between fruitiness and spiciness. While that beer was definitely a different style than a Tripel (obviously the heavy hopping would have had an affect on the perceived fruitiness), I think I'm going to like how it works with this beer.

Note: As mentioned, I reused some yeast slurry from my Belgian Session IPA; I wasn't exactly sure how much to use, since I hadn't taken the time to thoroughly wash the yeast, so I added about 1 cup, maybe a bit more. Now, Wyeast goes out of their way to say "additional headspace is recommended"; using a blow-off tube is another option. I stupid did neither... and had quite a large explosion on my hands the next morning, despite pitching cool and the fermentation temp only reaching 70 F. So... be smart if you go with this strain!

I'll be bottling this beer... as cool as it might be to have on tap, I don't think I need a 9% ABV Tripel taking up a line right now. Plus, since this is a style that should be highly carbonated, it's easier to bottle condition and hit high CO2 numbers without having to worry about overcarbing a keg, or affecting other beers hooked up to the CO2 tank. Finally, with beers that benefit from some aging, I like the freedom of having a good quantity of bottles to sit on and try over a period of time, without taking up valuable keg space. I'll likely be giving this beer a bit of time after it's carbed, anyway, before taking some tasting notes on it; expect to see those sometime in the next month or two.

NOTE: If you go with the same yeast I did (3787), pay close attention to Wyeast's warning to allow lots of headspace (or at least, use a blow-off tube) during fermentation; I stupidly ignored this, and even though I pitched cool (64-65 F), I had a bit of an explosion! Fair amount of beer on the walls and ceiling; luckily the temperature wasn't out of control, as it was still in the 60s at this point. Lesson learned!


Recipe Targets: (5.5 gallons, 75% efficiency) OG 1.076, FG ~1.009, IBU ~30, SRM 5, ABV ~9%

Grains & Sugars:
4.8 kg (77.8%) Pilsner
250 g (4.1%) Wheat malt
50 g (0.8%) Aromatic malt
1000 g (16.3%) Table sugar (added in primary when fermentation slows)

Tettnang - 80 g (3% AA) @ 60 min
Tettnang - 14 g @ 10 min

Misc: 1/2 tab Irish Moss at 5 min

Yeast: Wyeast 3787 Trappist High Gravity, cultured 2 weeks ago; about 1 cup slurry

Water: Fredericton city water, carbon-filtered; 4 g Gypsum and 4 g calcium chloride added to mash

- Brewed on December 1st, 2014, by myself. 50-minute mash with 15 L of strike water, mashed in at 149 F, slightly above target of 148 F. Mashed-out for 10 minutes with 9 L of boiling water. Sparged with ~3.5 gallons of 168 F water for final volume of ~7.25 gallons.

- SG high at 1.046 (target 1.044 - keep in mind this is BEFORE the sugar addition). 90-minute boil. Final volume 5.5 gallons; OG high at 1.061 (1.058 target before sugar). Chilled to 65 F, then poured into Better Bottle. Aerated with 75 seconds of pure O2, pitched yeast slurry.

- By the morning after pitching, activity was vigorous in the airlock, temp was still manageable at 66 F. By the afternoon, the airlock had blown off, and there was beer on the walls and ceiling. Over the next couple of days, I had tinfoil over the opening; once the krausen started settling back, I replaced the airlock and began adding the table sugar, 333 g at a time, every 12 hours or so. Temperature of the beer never got above 68-70 F.

- 1/1/15 - Bottled, aiming for 3 vol CO2.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

2014 Homebrewing Year in Review

Another year of brewing come and gone, just like that! That means that it's time to take a look back, and review what I liked most about my 5th full year of homebrewing, what I liked least, and what I have planned for 2015. This was also the third full year of this blog; I've done my best to keep up, but I could do better. I'm already a few batches behind in posting my brew notes, but I've been working a little harder to get caught up! I've slowed down a bit over the last couple of years, mainly because I actually write another beer blog (the Atlantic Canada Beer Blog) with a friend, so sometimes the homebrewing writing gets a little... neglected.

I brewed more beer in 2014 than in any year previous: 22 batches, quite a large improvement over the 15 batches brewed in 2013. But... has the BEER improved? I'd actually have to say, yes, it has. At least, I didn't have as many disappointments this year, compared to the year before... and the disappointments I DID have were nothing too significant. That is, I didn't have any rampant infections or drain pours. Here are my favorite five beers that I brewed in 2014 (keeping in mind that two beers brewed, a Belgian Tripel and Belgian Pale Ale, have yet to be tasted), in chronological order:

My favorite homebrews of 2014:

Munich Helles - Given my obvious love for hoppy beers, this probably wouldn't be the first beer in this list that you would expect to see. Hell, I didn't expect it to make the list, either. But this Munich Helles, the first lager I brewed in 2014, came out really great. A smooth, easy-drinking style, it's one of the perfect "light" beers, exhibiting enough malt character to keep it miles ahead of the BMC products available everywhere. Fermentation worked out perfectly, thanks in part to a healthy yeast pitch, and proper aeration of the wort.

Societe Brewing The Pupil clone - I fell in love with this American IPA on a trip to San Diego in 2013, and one of Societe's brewers, Doug Constantiner, was really helpful putting together a clone recipe. Featuring three fantastic hop varieties - Centennial, Citra, and Nelson Sauvin - the aroma and taste of the beer were both fantastic. I'll definitely be brewing it again in the future, with a minor change to the recipe to help dry the beer out a bit more, which I think will bring it into "excellent" territory.

Russian River Row 2, Hill 56 clone - I brewed this all-Simcoe hopped American Pale Ale for my older brother's wedding in the summer; I was looking for a beer that would be well-appreciated by regular craft beer drinkers, and those who weren't necessarily into beer. I couldn't have picked a better recipe. Despite its seemingly low hopping rate (4 oz in a 6-gallon batch; really quite low compared to so many recipes you see... including my own), both the hop aroma and flavor were perfect, and the lower bitterness and ABV made it a very easy-drinking beer. My only complaint was that I didn't get to have many, since the wedding guests took care of most of the bottles!

Modern Times Blazing World clone - Hoppy Ambers (aka Red IPAs) are up there as one of my favorite beer styles, and I've brewed a few over the years that I've really enjoyed, and this was one of the best. Hopped heavily with Nelson Sauvin, Mosaic and Simcoe, the beer had lots of tropical fruit, citrus and pine in both the aroma and flavor, with an excellent malty, toffee-like character supporting all those hops. It came out even better than I remembered the commercial beer being, and I was sure I had brewed a Red IPA that I wouldn't top...

My "Christmas" Red IPA, Meek Celebration (2014) - ... and then, a couple of months later, I brewed this beer. Only Christmasey in the sense that I brewed it with the intention of giving most of it away for the holidays, it came out better than I could have hoped. With the same grist as the Blazing World clone, I tried a new hopping schedule, going big on Amarillo and Azacca, with some Simcoe to back the two up. The results were pretty darned tasty, and the beer went over really well with the 20+ people who received bottles. I'll be brewing a hoppy beer for every Christmas now, changing the style and recipe each year.

Honorable mentions: Societe The Pupil clone, Oxbow Grizacca clone, The Charlie Brownest (Brown IPA)

Homebrew disappointments of 2014:

Hill Farmstead James clone 2.0 - It pains me to include this beer here, especially since my first attempt made the 2013 "Best" list. And it's not that 2014's beer was "bad"... but it WAS disappointing since the hop character wasn't as prominent as in the previous beer. What made it extra disappointing was that this version was kegged, so naturally I assumed the hops would be even more in-your-face, especially since the recipe was barely changed at all (I used a different English yeast, but everything else was about the same). Alas, that wasn't the case. I'm going to blame hop age on this, but I don't think I can say with 100% surety what the problem was. Still a tasty Black IPA that I'd be happy to try brewing for a third time.

Hop Swamp, my "Kitchen Sink" IPA - This was never a beer destined for greatness. A recipe I came up with mainly to use up some hops from the fall 2012 harvest, it featured Centennial, Amarillo, Belma and Falconer's Flight. It was still a very decent American IPA, but the lesson was learned: hop freshness and proper storage are extremely important for brewing high-quality IPAs (and other hoppy styles).

Looking back, if those two beers are my biggest disappointments of 2014, I'm not upset. Both beers were still tasty; they just let me down a little, each in their own way. But definitely an improvement over last year and homebrewing years before that.

In terms of blog viewership, those numbers increased mostly-steadily over the past year (and are still heavily-weighted towards readers in the U.S... probably about 9-to-1 over Canada). I'm still far below what the really-well-written beer blogs get, but I never expected to really have anyone reading this other than me, back when I started it in November, 2011. Here are the stats for the most popular month for each year...

Page views for Nov, 2013: 5,246
Page views for Oct, 2014: 8,670

So, trending upwards, I guess. The post with the most views that was written in 2014, so far, is the one where I brewed a Lawson's Finest Liquids Double Sunshine clone, an all-Citra DIPA that came out really nice. Not a recipe I can really exhibit any pride in, however, as it came right out of Brew Your Own. Still, it's a very popular and hard-to-find beer, so I'm not really surprised that other homebrewers are interested in how this recipe has worked for others.

In the year-review post for 2013, I listed some homebrewing goals I would like to accomplish in 2014. While not overly ambitious, I was able to reach most of them...
  • "I'll definitely be continuing my trend of attempting to clone some hoppy, commercial beers... I'll be brewing another Maine Beer Co. beer to start the new year - their delicious American Pale Ale, MO - followed eventually by a shot at The Pupil from the amazing San Diego brewery, Societe Brewing." - Yes and yes; the MO clone was very good, but not as delicious as the commercial beer, while The Pupil clone came out really nice, and as seen above, was one of my favorites of the year.
  • "I'll also soon be taking another crack at Alpine Duet..." - Yep, did this one early in the year. Enjoyed it a lot, but it still seemed to be lacking slightly in the hops department, especially compared to the overly-delicious commercial beer. 
  • "Throw in a lager or two (I'm thinking a Classic American Pilsner and a Traditional Bock)..." - Did the Classic American Pilsner, but started off with the Munich Helles and skipped the Bock.
  • "...a sour beer (I mean it this time... maybe a Flanders Brown Ale)..." - I was happy to get a sour beer under my belt, and I did decide on a Flanders Brown. However, I wish I had brewed more than just the one. The Flanders Brown is still sitting in secondary, putting it at over 9 months since it was brewed. Should hopefully be time to bottle that one, soon.
  • "and, of course, more clones (TBD)." - Indeed! Including the ones mentioned so far, 9 of the 22 batches brewed in 2014 were clones, which strikes me as a pretty good balance between coming up with my own recipes and trying to "clone" others.
  • "Hopefully 2014 will also finally bring me into the world of kegging; I think it's necessary with all the hoppy beers I have planned." - A milestone I reached that was long-coming. Kegging, for me, has definitely had its share of downs, from issues with carbing properly, unidentified slow leaks, and an almost-entire keg of Oxbow Grizacca clone somehow leaking into my keezer, it hasn't been all fun. But I'm still working on it, despite a lot of really crappy luck.
What about 2015? You can definitely count on more clone recipes (I've got something hopefully big planned for my 100th batch, which should be coming up in 2-3 months), and I want to do another sour at some point (I'm leaning towards my first Lambic, which will likely involve putting at least some of it on fruit... blueberries?). I also plan on playing with some more of the IPA sub-styles (e.g. White IPA), and possibly stretching some of those out a bit further. On top of all this, I'd really like to re-visit 2-3 of my favorite beers over the past couple of years, ranging from outright rebrews to variations on past recipes. 

Thanks, once again, to everyone who has read this blog. Looking forward to brewing in 2015!