by Sofie Vanrafelghem Master Beer Sommelier at Sofie's World
Westmalle: the mother of the TripelThe history of the iconic Trappist brewery
Westmalle was my first love in beer, and you never forget your first love. For me, along with the rest of Belgium and even the world, the Westmalle Trappist brewery is the iconic mother of the Tripel.
Single, Dubbel and Tripel
There’s no definitive story about where the names “Single”, “Dubbel” and “Tripel” originated from. One theory is that in the Middle Ages, commoners and monks drank a light alcoholic beer with their meals, and for special occasions they'd choose a heavier beer. Most people at that time could not read, so the brewer drew crosses on the barrels in chalk. On a barrel of heavy beer, there’d be two crosses (Dubbel) and on the barrel of the heaviest beer, there’d be three crosses (Tripel, of course).
Tripel: a beer loved by all
Beer has been brewed in Westmalle since 1836, but it hasn’t always been commercialised. Most of the money originally came from the agricultural trappist abbey, while the beer itself remained within the walls. The Trappists of Westmalle actually saw more potential in selling wine than beer back in the early days.
Things changed when the Vandervelde Act was introduced in 1919, stipulating that no strong liquor should be sold in bars. This was decided in order to prevent alcohol abuse among workers, who at that time, all drank a lot of gin. Suddenly there emerged a gap in the market that beer brewers were only too happy to fill up.
Many of the heavy beers we know today were created in the period that followed. The monks worked hard and expanded sales to Antwerp. Before long, beer wasn’t just being delivered by truck; the abbey even had its own tramway that connected to the Antwerp-Turnhout tram line.
When Westmalle’s heaviest beer was introduced as a Tripel in 1956 with huge success, other brewers were quick to jump on the bandwagon. Triples began to crop up everywhere in Belgium. And since Westmalle’s famous Tripel was blond, the new Tripels were too. Although dark triples existed and do sometimes still exist, the 'Tripel' style became synonymous with a heavy, yeasty, fruity blond.
New and improved
In 1956, the Westmalle brewery was modernised and the recipes of the Tripel were adapted to become those we enjoy today.
Under the guidance of brewer Jan Adriaensens, the brewery is continually making new investments to improve and maintain it’s great quality beer brewing. They’ve introduced new fermentation tanks, a new filling line and hot rooms that lie underground so as not to disturb the courtyard.
Though the brewing is no longer the job of monks alone, little else has changed here. It’s important to Westmalle that the beer continues to represent the values of the Trappists and that the high quality is guaranteed. Because make no mistake: dedication to God remains central.
They live according to the rule of Benedict: 'ora et labora' or 'pray and work'. Also fully in line with their vision of life is the money used to support charities in their own region, as well as for supporting trappist monasteries all over the world. For the same reason, all their publicity remains very sober: you won’t see any big glossy ads featuring blushing monks anytime soon.
A lasting tradition
So, finally, what happened to that light beer that used to be had with a meal? That also exists: the "Westmalle Extra". This blond beer is consumed by the monks when they eat together. It’s wonderfully light at only 4.8%, and is brewed only twice a year.