Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries


Beer Reviews

Tripel Karmeliet

Brouwerij Bosteels

Style: Abbey Tripel
ABV: 8.4%

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (World class.)

Anyone wondering about the sanity of Nigel after realizing his first review for International Beer Month was the crappy Jamaican lager Red Stripe, know this: Yes, I am in fact insane, and it shouldn’t have taken a frickin’ Red Stripe review (one that had some praise in it, mind you) to realize that.

But with insanity also comes occasional brilliance, much like the time I discovered plutonium or the fact that you could drive squirrels insane by putting corn in a jug with a very tiny opening, which won’t allow them to escape with the bounty of maize in their cheeks (Nigel actually learned that from his parents, who are evil geniuses hell-bent on torturing small animals). In terms of beer drinking, tonight brilliance trumps insanity in the form of Tripel Karmeliet, one of the finest brews to come out of Belgium, a land that isn’t exactly lacking in that department.

During the Red Stripe review (not to mention in a 2008 article about Nigel’s beer enlightenment), I talked about how a number of international brews were key players in Nigel’s early beer transformation. As the transformation continued, I grew distant from the finest Europe had to offer while developing a serious case of beer xenophobia, drinking almost exclusively American craft brews. Prior to ethnically cleansing my beer, I discovered the icing on the proverbial cake, a brew that would leave a lasting impression on young Nigel and one which I like to return to on occasion for a taste of that sweet, sweet Belgian nectar. Tripel Karmeliet was one of the only “true” Belgian ales available in the town I used to live in (Chimay was the other, but that’s freakin’ everywhere these days), and on special occasions I would pick up a champagne-style bottle of it (the only form it was sold in at that particular place) and enjoy an evening shouting profanities at cast members of Real World-Road Rules Challenge. The fact that I was actually watching that kind of crap to begin with should be a good indicator that Tripel Karmeliet is a euphoric beer-drinking experience, one that can cause people to lose control and do silly things they don’t typically do (the 8.4 percent ABV doesn’t hurt either).

All silliness aside, I’ve always enjoyed Tripel Karmeliet and have a number of fond memories. My favorite, however, is the time TK put a dent in my cathedral ceiling. As I said, I used to only get TK in the big champagne bottles, which were corked and secured with the twisted wire cover. Like most Belgain abbey ales, TK is heavily carbonated and bottle conditioned, making it very boisterous upon opening. This particular time, it was so boisterous that the mushroom cork shot out of the bottle the second I removed the outer wire, shot 10 feet into the air, and put a very large, distinct dent in the ceiling of my brand new apartment. Looking back, I think this was a sign from the beer gods that this was a beer to be respected and appreciated, and if you fuck with it, it’ll cork you square in the nuts.

Living in Milwaukee now, I can easily find Tripel Karmeliet not only in champagne bottle form, but also in four-packs of 11.2-ounce bottles at many retailers, as well as on tap at select places, including the Sugar Maple in Bay View, Bar Louie on Water St., Nomad World Pub on Brady St., and Café Hollander on Downer Ave, just to name a few of Nigel’s favorites. Tonight’s selection comes in four-pack form, and Nigel’s wallet is $16 lighter because of it (what recession?).

While not quite as lively in the smaller bottle, Tripel Karmeliet remains a vigorous brew that should be opened with caution, preferably over a sink or spill tray if you’re lucky enough to have a bar in your home. A heavy fog immediately permeates from the neck and an orgy of Belgian aromas punish the nostrils before you even get a chance to tip the bottle. Once tipped, the bottle should be poured carefully. As Beer Dorks, we all know the importance of a fine center pour, believing that tipping the glass and pouring on the side is for sissies. In reality, regardless of carbonation level, all beer should be poured fully into the center of the glass without tipping, as the presence of carbonation allows the aroma to reach its fullest potential. For TK, this means you need to exhibit patience, as it could be as long as 20 minutes from crack of cap until first sip. Once it’s finally in the glass, Tripel Karmeliet is a stunningly gorgeous beer, with a thick, creamy white head that lingers throughout, topping off a coppery brew with golden flakes of sedimentation drifting freely and hundreds of bubbles constantly dancing from pour until last sip. I dare you to find a more picturesque brew than this.

You may be saying “Nigel, don’t tell me you like this beer just because it looks sexy in a chalice.” Well, I’m not just a glass man … I like all aspects of beer anatomy, and Tripel Karmeliet continues to stimulate. Next is the aroma, which is heavenly (at least I’m assuming heaven smells like this, although I’ve never been … I’m hoping it doesn’t smell like angel farts). The initial aroma is a plethora of light, sweet fruit, including green apple, citrus, and boatloads of banana. That sweetness is immediately tempered by the spices that we all love and make Belgian ales so unique … clove, coriander, and white pepper. Tripel Karmeliet is based on the original 17th century recipe that was brewed at the old Carmelite monastery of Dendermonde (this information is also on the bottle, in case you were looking to do some fact checking), and utilizes 3 grains: barley, oats, and wheat. Oats and wheat being lighter than the typical straight barley malt that we’re accustomed to, TK has a unique light, grainy undertone that just adds to the already wonderful notes of light fruit and spice. Add to that some sugary hints of vanilla and light brown sugar, and damn … I could just sit here and smell it all night, but that would be really, really creepy.

The flavor caps Tripel Karmeliet’s journey on the path to perfection. Sweet and spicy, bold and bountiful, this baby has it all. What can you say about Belgian ale yeast other than they’re the best damn lil’ critters this Beer Dork has ever known. The fruity esters of Belgian yeast permeate throughout, giving TK a sweetness second to none. Banana dominates, but a plethora of other light fruits are present as well (I tasted plenty of green apple, as well as various tropical hints and some fig). The clove, coriander, and pepper spiciness is in perfect harmony with the sweetness; TK is spicy for sure, but not overwhelmingly so, as can be the downfall of many Belgian ales (particularly American craft copycats). Sugary notes of light caramel, vanilla, and toffee are present to a lesser extent. To top it off, the three grain malt gives it a complex, earthy, grainy body that plays perfectly with all of the other ingredients. No hint of the 8.4 percent ABV is noticeable at any time, and while I’d suggest serving TK at the 45-50° degree range, it’s just as good served ice cold as it is warm. While it may appear to be a light, smooth drink, appearances can be deceiving; Tripel Karmeliet is an incredibly complex brew and as fine of an example of a Belgian tripel that I’ve ever experienced. Medium bodied and only slightly rough on the palate due to the spice and carbonation, Tripel Karmeliet is probably not the best choice for a session brew, but it can’t be beat if you’re looking for a one time treat.

There you have it. While I’m not an expert on Belgian ales, I can say unequivocally that Tripel Karmeliet is far and away the best I’ve ever had. It’s got the perfect mix of ingredients that makes it extremely challenging, yet extremely rewarding. If for some reason you’ve not yet sampled this Belgian gem, be sure to pick it up soon; Tripel Karmeliet is readily available at many American beer retailers, as well as on tap at fine pubs. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to return to my happy place while I finish this four-pack off.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on February 18, 2009.
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