Trappist beers sure do get a lot of respect. Beers like Chimey and Rochefort are some of the most highly regarded in the world. Among the rare few beers that can call themselves Trappist beers is Westmalle Abbey and their famous Westmalle Tripel. It may look like an approachable beverage (click the photo at left for a larger version), but make no mistake, this is a BIG BEER.
Tripels (sometimes spelled "trippel") are an acquired taste, and this one is no exception. Looks light and fluffy and drinkable, but one gulp and you realize it's a sipper.
A common misconception with beer is that color tells you how "heavy" it will be. People think dark beer = thick beer or heavy beer, but that just isn't the case. For example, Guinness is a low-alcohol beer with about the same calories and alcohol content as Miller Lite, Bud Light, etc. So while Westmalle Tripel looks light, it drinks like a lead weight, with lots of body and a robust 9.5% ABV alcohol content.
The taste is sweet but not cloyingly so, a touch spicy but not in your face. The beer lacks all the dark fruit flavors of Belgian darks, but does have lighter fruits in the aroma. They're especially noticeable as you let the beer ease into warmer temperatures. Dominant is a "bready," almost pastry-like taste. The beer has very active carbonation -- all that head in the photo was generated with a gentle pour -- and foams up quite a bit in your mouth. I drank this while eating a pasta dish with a mild cheese and the beer completely overpowered the food despite a very clean taste.
Excellent beer, but you know what? I'm going to piss off the hardcore beer folks when I say I like American tripels better than this one. It's sacrilege, I know, but the aggressive hopping of beers like Flying Fish's Exit 4 are more appealing to me, adding balance to the weight of a big beverage like this. They're Americanized, highly hopped, very spicy, robust, full of flavor. And, for me, more desirable.
No, you're not supposed to say that about one of the most praised beers in the world -- BeerAdvocate rates it an A-, a notch over the B+ for Exit 4 -- but there it is.
Which isn't to say you shouldn't give it a try if you spot one and enjoy Belgian styles. It'll run you about $5 to $6 for the bottle, but the cost of entry is worth it because you'll experience a heady, challenging beer unlike most you'd normally be drinking.