I brewed a Belgian-style tripel on Friday and had a great time for at least three reasons: 1.) My friend Dan Dewberry came over and brewed with me. 2.) This was my first brewday of 2012 and 3.) Everything went extremely well.
Last year, I was lucky enough to tour the Westmalle brewery in Belgium. Westmalle brews a tripel -- in fact, may have been the first brewery to do so (although there is some debate on this matter). Tasting their beer fresh at the source got me excited to take another stab at brewing a tripel at home. I had brewed one years ago but, while it certainly wasn't bad, it didn't really thrill me. So, armed with some new information -- including things I gleaned at Westmalle and from Stan Heironymus' book, "Brew Like a Monk" -- I set out to brew a tripel in the style of Westmalle. (Tripels actually vary quite a bit in Belgium, but I was most fond of the Westmalle tripel.)
The grain bill Dan and I settled on was just Pilsner malt, a little flaked wheat (~5%) and about 8% cane sugar. The percentage of cane sugar we used is a little lower than Westmalle uses (to strengthen the beer but not add to the body), but we mashed for a very fermentable wort, so things should even out. We had one hop addition, all Fuggles as first wort hops, to a calculated IBU level of about 30. (The picture above shows the kettle filling with the Fuggles pellets floating on top of the wort.)
We used a step mash and it went very well, we started with a 45 minute rest at 140 °F (in prime beta-amylase range), then ramped the temperature to 152 °F. As a result of reviewing my previous notes (and a little dumb luck), we hit the mash in temperature within 0.2 °F.
The "ramp" between rests also went well. In the past, I noticed the temperature would initially drop when I started recirculating the wort and heating the mash tun. This is due to the heat loss as the wort left the mash tun and flowed through the hoses. This time, I heated the mash tun for about 3 minutes before starting recirculation (so the wort under the false bottom would heat up a bit), and the temperature only dipped a tiny bit.
Unfortunately, as a result of not reviewing my notes, I underestimated how long it would take to heat the sparge water and so the second rest rested for a few extra minutes as that came to temperature. We collected about 13 gallons (50 L) of wort and boiled for 90 minutes.
Near the end of the boil, we added some yeast nutrients, Irish moss and the sugar. At knockout, we had about 11 gallons (~40 L) of wort at 18.5 °Plato (roughly SG 1.074). We cooled (we had one small glitch here that extended the cooling time, but not so much as to cause any problems) until we reached 65 °F (18 °C), aerated and pitched our yeast. As luck would have it, Austin brewpub Uncle Billy's was brewing with the yeast we chose and Dan was able to get some from the brewer (thanks Amos!) on Wednesday. (Uncle Billy's brews very cleanly, so we weren't worried about the quality of the yeast.)
So, in all, it was a fun brewday. And -- despite the fact that I hadn't brewed in awhile and still haven't completely learned the ins and outs of my new brewing system -- everything went well. The only small snags we hit lengthened the brewday slightly, but shouldn't effect the quality of beer. (And, the weather was gorgeous that day, so a little longer time spent outside wasn't a bad thing.)
When it was all over, I poured a Westmalle Tripel and enjoyed it.
UPDATE: The beer was fermenting the next morning and I let the temperature rise to 70 °F (21 °C) Sunday afternoon. Today (Tuesday), it is still fermenting, but the rate of bubbling in the airlock has slowed to once every 17 seconds.