This Tripel is not, strictly speaking, a new beer.  Rather, it is what the brewery tactfully calls a “re-release” of the 8.5% Belgian beer that brewer Carl Vasta made in 2001 before it was replaced by the 6.5% Tuatara Ardennes strong golden ale. Now, in a deeply ironic reversal of roles, the Tuatara Tripel is replacing the recently retired Ardennes. The question this post seeks to answer is: why?

There are four probable explanations, at least three of which are likely to be true. [1] The first and completely unofficial reason is that Tripel was simply too strong for Kiwi drinkers in the early 21st Century. Unaccustomed to beers of that strength, the post-Y2K imbibers could rarely drink more than a glass. If they could, they risked serious trouble with the notorious steep and hard stairs at the old Malthouse on Willis Street. [2] As a result, the more ‘moderate’ Ardennes was developed and only ever sold in smaller glasses.

The second argument is that beer drinking tastes have dramatically changed in the last ten years. The growing number of craft beer drinkers are increasingly familiar with and enjoy more exotic styles of beer, including Belgian beers. The on-going popularity of Belgian Beer Bars and the amount of classic Belgian beers sold here are testament to that.  I recall hearing a figure that New Zealand drank as much Chimay as Australia. That was not per person but in raw numbers which, given Australia’s population is over five times bigger than ours, is rather impressive. [3]

In addition, today’s craft beer drinkers are constantly searching for brews which are new and/or bigger. Compared to many other breweries, Tuatara’s range has been relatively static as their focus has been on improving consistency while constantly increasing production. Only relatively recently have the new beers – Helles, American Pale Ale and Aotearoa Pale Ale – made an appearance. Sales figures suggest people support the new direction. Tripel gives the Tuatara stable a genuinely big beer in a bold style which few local breweries produce. 

The fourth argument is the most controversial and I should stress that this is my own thinking and not Tuatara or Malthouse. I would suggest that perhaps the kind of people who buy beers like Tripel can handle more than one or two pints of stronger beer these days (responsibly of course). Beers over 6% are increasingly common and (some but not all) drinkers are better at handling them then people in 2001. The Statistics New Zealand report on Alcohol Consumption in New Zealand for the year 2012 – released just three weeks ago – noted “the volume available fell for low- and medium-strength beer, but rose for high-strength beer.” [4]

Whatever the case, the Tripel is here and it’s appropriate to explain the name. The Oxford Companion to Beer says “one theory of the origin is that it follows a medieval tradition where crosses were used to mark casks: a single X for the weakest beer, XX for a medium-strength and XXX for the strongest beer.  Three X’s would then be synonymous with the name Tripel.  In the days when most people were illiterate, this assured drinkers that they were getting the beer they asked for.”

Whatever the origins – and there is considerable dispute – Tuatara Belgian Tripel (8.5%) meets the criteria listed in the Companion for a good Tripel including the colour (golden), hops (Styrian Golding), alcohol (8.5%), bitterness and yeast (Ardennes). Most importantly, the flavour profile is there – spicy, floral, citrus, yeasty, bitter, dry and quenching. Even the august Oxford Companion says “despite the high alcohol content, a good Tripel remains almost dangerously drinkable.” 

Tuatara Tripel is currently available at Malthouse on tap and in 650ml bottles. 

It is joined by a number of renowned Belgian beers in the fridges. Probably the most revered of the group is the fabled Westvleteren 12 (10.5%). Westvleteren is the smallest of the six Belgian Trappist breweries and the only one where all the work is done by the monks themselves. Their beers are notoriously hard to obtain because the monks, in the words of beer journalist Ben Vinken, “remain resolutely non-commercial, showing no interest in increasing their output.”  The monks also forbid the resale of their beers but this is basically ignored.

Westvleteren 12 is broadly a Quadrupel – dark, mousse-like, with notes of raisins, dark fruits, spices, almond, sherry, rum and ripe cherries. It scores 100 on the RateBeer website and is a world classic for a reason. 

There are also a number of rare Lambic beers. Lambic beers are traditionally spontaneously fermented using wild yeasts which drift onto large, flat beer vessels called coolships. Brewer and beer historian Richard Emerson [5] told the recent Great Kiwi Beer Festival that “Lambics are the oldest style of beer still being made.”  The wild yeasts were generally apple and pear yeasts because of the orchard areas nearby. Lambic beers used aged hops (2-3 years) only for their original purpose of preserving the resulting beer. He also revealed that Lambic beers have e-coli during production but it is killed by the pH level of the final beer.

The range includes Lindemans Gueuze Cuvée René (5%), a bottle conditioned blend of young and old Lambics. It produces a fascinating combination of fruit, champagne, sour, apple and acid.  It scores an impressive 98 on RateBeer. 

Faro is also a blended Lambic style.  In this instance, regular Lambic is combined with Biere de Mars (second runnings of the regular Lambic) and candy sugar is added for sweetness.  Lindemans Faro (4.75%) has notes of apple, cherry, sugar cane, caramel and even vinegar sourness. 

Back by popular demand is the 3 Fonteinen Oude Gueuze (6%). Made from a careful blend of 1-, 2- and 3-year old Lambics, this beer is famous for its champagne-like spritziness. Other flavour highlights include lemon, sour grape, oak, barnyard funk, spice and maybe even a whiff of the legendary sweaty horse blanket.

Finally, there is Mort Subite Kriek (4.5%), a more modern Lambic made with cherries. Fortunately, everyone knows by now that fruit beers are evil.

Next time, we pretend to drink faux-craft beer.

[1] Even I’m not entirely sure which three though.

[2] I was deeply relieved when the new Malthouse turned out to have no stairs between my chair, the bar, the toilets and the door.

[3] Because I can’t recall the exact source, I’m going say it was Geoff Griggs.  It sounds like something he would say and everything sounds more authoritative coming from him.

[4] It also noted that “as a proportion of the total volume of alcoholic beverage available for consumption, beer has fallen from 81 percent in 1996 to 61 percent in 2012.”

[5] The founder of Emerson’s Brewery and Chuck Norris doppelganger.  Richard and his lovely assistant Geoff Griggs conducted the 45 minute seminar wearing dark black sunglasses – it was like the Blues Brothers of Brewing.


Neil Miller
Beer Writer
Beer and Brewer Magazine


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