Beer of the Week: Gulden Draak – The Mysterious Belgian Dark Tripel

Gulden Draak is a beer that defies ordinary. As an experienced homebrewer who appreciates the intricate dance of brewing, I’ve come to regard this Belgian Dark Tripel as a masterpiece of balance and depth. It’s a beer with a rich history, originating from Brouwerij Van Steenberge in Belgium, and is a perfect example to study if you’re looking to understand the complexities of Belgian-style ales.

Tasting Gulden Draak is a journey through the senses. The beer’s dark, inviting color promises a robust flavor profile that includes hints of caramel, chocolate, and a touch of bitterness that comes from the use of noble hops. This is a beer that stands out for its malt-forward taste and a subtle sweetness that is characteristic of a tripel, despite its darker appearance.

The style itself, Belgian Dark Tripel, is somewhat of a rarity, combining the strong malt backbone of dark ales with the high fermentation profile of a tripel. This creates a beer that is both potent and smooth, with a complexity that continues to evolve with age. When brewing this style, one must pay careful attention to the quality of ingredients and fermentation temperatures to achieve that signature Gulden Draak experience. It’s the perfect brew for anyone seeking to expand their palate and try something uniquely rich and layered.

A glass of Belgian Dark Tripel beer sits on a rustic wooden table, with a frothy head and deep amber color, surrounded by scattered barley and hops

Discovering Gulden Draak

As a seasoned homebrewer, I’m always eager to share insights on exceptional beers. Gulden Draak is not just a beer; it’s an embodiment of Belgian brewing tradition and lore, particularly in Ghent. Now let’s explore the historical and brewing roots of this iconic dark tripel.

The Legend of Gulden Draak

Gulden Draak, which stands for “Golden Dragon” in Dutch, takes its name from the gilded dragon atop Ghent’s belfry. This dragon is more than just an emblem; it represents the power and mystery that envelop the city’s history. The Belgian beer itself mirrors these characteristics with its robust flavors and fiery color, drawing fans worldwide.

First Brewed Dates

Tracing the origins of Gulden Draak to its first brew is a journey back in time. Crafted by Brouwerij Van Steenberge, a brewery with deep roots in East Flanders, this beer has found its remarkable place in the world of Belgian dark tripels. This high-alcohol-content ale (10.5%) was first presented to the world in a form that appeals to seekers of strong, flavorful brews. It’s a testament to craftsmanship that shines bright among the best beers from Belgium.

The Belgian Beer Tradition

Belgian beer is renowned for its rich history and diverse styles, each with a distinct brewing process and taste profile. This makes Belgium a critical player in the tapestry of global brewing traditions.

Trappist and Abbey Ales

Trappist beers are a rarity, produced by only 14 monasteries worldwide, with six in Belgium including the acclaimed Chimay, Rochefort, and Westmalle. These brews often carry the “Authentic Trappist Product” label, assuring their monastic origin.

Abbey ales, on the other hand, are inspired by Trappist recipes but aren’t brewed within the monastery walls. They usually embody the Dubbel, Tripel, and Quadrupel styles, marking a gradation in flavor intensity and alcohol content.

A tall glass of Belgian Dark Tripel beer sits on a wooden table, with a thick creamy head and deep amber color. The glass is surrounded by subtle lighting, casting a warm glow on the beer

Famous Belgian Breweries

Belgium is home to a vibrant array of breweries, but few have garnered fame like the Brouwerij Van Steenberge, producers of Gulden Draak. The saison style finds its epitome in Saison Dupont, a beer that perfectly encapsulates the Belgian farmhouse ale tradition. While numerous breweries contribute to Belgian diversity, few can match the brewing heritage and worldwide acclaim as these storied establishments.

Cultural Significance of Belgian Beer

Belgian beer is not merely a drink, but an integral part of social and cultural life that embodies centuries of history. The diversity of Belgian beers, from sours to lambics, and the iconic Chimay Blue to refreshing saisons, is a testament to Belgium’s brewing prowess. From family gatherings to local festivals, Belgian beers are savored and cherished, reflecting the pride and craftsmanship of a nation steeped in brewing tradition.

Understanding Beer Styles

When exploring Belgian beers, appreciating their distinct styles helps in both brewing and tasting. These styles include a rich tapestry of flavors and traditions, from the sweet and dark Dubbels to the complex Saisons.

Between Dubbels and Quadrupels

Dubbel and Quadrupel are terms used to describe the strength of Belgian ales. Unlike lighter Tripels, Dubbel beers typically exhibit a deep brown color with flavors of dark fruit and caramel. Quadrupels are even stronger, darker, and richer, offering bold tastes that can include raisins, plums, and chocolate. Both styles use more malt to increase the alcohol content, which results in a sweeter and full-bodied profile.

  • Dubbel Characteristics: Dark fruit, caramel, 6-7.5% ABV.
  • Quadrupel Characteristics: Rich, dark fruits, chocolate, 10%+ ABV.

Saisons and Lambics

Saisons and Lambics represent the diversity in Belgian farmhouse ales. Saisons are known for their dry and spicy character, originally brewed in farmhouses for field workers. They can vary in color and often have a fruity or spicy yeast-driven profile.

Lambics, on the other hand, undergo spontaneous fermentation, exposing the wort to wild yeasts and bacteria for unique sour and wild characteristics. Within Lambics, we have Gueuze, a blend of young and old Lambics, and Kriek, a variety fermented with cherries.

A glass of Belgian Dark Tripel beer, with a rich brownish color, sits on a wooden table
  • Saison Characteristics: Dry, spicy, fruity, 5-7% ABV.
  • Lambic Characteristics: Sour, wild, varies by specific type (Gueuze, Kriek).

By understanding these beer styles, I can approach my craft with more precision and creativity, selecting the right ingredients and methods to emulate these renowned Belgian beers in my homebrewing.

The Taste Profile

When you take a sip of Gulden Draak, you’re greeted by a rich tapestry of flavors that are beautifully intertwined.

A Complex Bouquet

The aroma of Gulden Draak is as inviting as its taste. I can often detect sweet caramel and cocoa comingling with a hint of toffee right as I bring the glass to my nose. These scents set the stage for the deeper exploration of flavors, from dark, malty tones to the brighter notes of cherry and plum. Yeast adds its own character, imparting a slightly tart edge that neatly ties together the bouquet.

Balancing Sweetness and Bitterness

Gulden Draak strikes a delicate but robust balance between sweetness and bitterness, a hallmark of quality Belgian ales. On one hand, you have the bittersweet interplay of chocolate and caramel sweetness. On the other, a gentle bitterness rounds out the profile, together with the warmth of the alcohol which is evident but well-integrated.

This balance can be felt throughout the drinking experience, from the initial taste to the lingering finish. The fullness and complexity of the mouthfeel are enhanced by the bottle re-fermentation, contributing to its creamy head and rich body.

Brewing Techniques and Ingredients

When brewing a Belgian Dark Tripel like Gulden Draak, the right balance of ingredients and techniques is crucial to achieving that distinct rich, malty character with a unique complexity.

The Crafting of a Tripel

I prioritize quality ingredients with origins in Belgium to stay true to the style. Belgian Pilsner malt forms the base, providing a strong foundation with a hint of maltiness. Specialty grains, like Biscuit or caramel malts, contribute to the richer color and toffee-like sweetness.

The sugar additions are particularly special; I often use Belgian candi sugars, which impart deep flavors and help achieve the high alcohol content without making the beer too heavy. A variety of candi sugars, ranging from clear to dark, can adjust the caramel and toffee notes in the final beer.

A glass of Belgian Dark Tripel beer with a rich brown color, topped with a creamy foam, and sitting on a wooden table

For wheat inclusion, I find that a touch of wheat malt adds a smooth mouthfeel and head retention without taking away from the main flavors. This isn’t a wheat beer, so any wheat used should be a minor player.

The yeast is a defining component of a Tripel, and a high-quality Belgian yeast strain is non-negotiable. It’s responsible for the beer’s fruity and spicy notes that balance the malt and caramel sweetness.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the ingredients I use:

Ingredient TypeRole in BeerCharacteristics Added
Belgian Pilsner MaltBase maltMalty foundation
Specialty Grains (e.g., Biscuit)Color and flavorToffee, caramel notes
Belgian Candi SugarsFermentable sugars, color, and flavorCaramel, toffee, high alcohol content
Wheat MaltMouthfeel and head retentionSmooth texture
Belgian Yeast StrainFermentationFruity and spicy notes

Brewers should not overlook water quality; it should be as clean and pure as possible to avoid off-flavors.

Hops are used with a light touch. Traditional Belgian hops or their equivalents should be chosen for their ability to provide balance rather than a dominant flavor.

A glass of Belgian Dark Tripel beer, brown in color, with a frothy head, set against a warm, inviting background

The Belgian Dark Tripel is not just a beer; it’s a craft where precision meets art. Brewed traditionally by Trappist monks, the legacy of this strong dark ale demands reverence and attention to detail. Brewing this style is a testament to the rich Belgian beer heritage and something any craft beer enthusiast or homebrewer can be proud to perfect.