It’s that time of year again. The time when beer nerds congregate to discover which hop the Duvel brewers have decided to add to this year’s Tripel Hop vintage. Standard Duvel uses a combination of Styrian Golding and Saaz, but each year a special edition of the brew is released – it’s a percentage point higher in alcohol and has a third hop, which changes every year. This year’s is an American variety, an experimental hop that goes by the sexy name of HBC 291.
It’s a floral hop – I got whiffs of violets as well as some tropical fruit and the inevitable alcohol aroma you’d expect from a beer this big. On first sip, you taste – and soon feel – every percentage point of its 9.5 ABV, but there’s nothing cloying or sweet about this beer. In fact, it’s effervescent, crisp, bitter and refreshing and deceptively easy to drink for such a massive beer. The vivacious carbonation makes it a perfect pairing for rich foods – think strong, creamy cheeses or if you’re not opposed to eating it, foie gras. It leaves a long, long finish of freshly peeled citrus fruits, though I can’t help thinking it will be better in a few months.
When the beer officially launched last week, we were lucky enough to sample it alongside the Tripel Hop vintages from the past three years – a fasincating look into ageing beer and the staying power of hops. As the Tripel Hops have passed by, Mosaic (2014) has stuck in my mind as being superb, while Equinox (2015) was far from being my favourite. But as the 2016 version hit our glasses, last year’s beer had blossomed into a well-rounded and very pleasing brew that seemed to be the favourite of most of the people around the table. Mosaic was still excellent, while 2013’s version, Sorachi Ace – the first Tripel Hop we saw on South African shores – had peaked and started to trough. The hop aromas had disappeared entirely and the flavours indicative of oxidation were starting to show – dried fruit and sherry principal among them (and to be fair, Duvel give their beers an 18-month shelf life, not a three-year one).
If you’re lucky – and don’t mind splurging a little on beer – you could do your own vertical tasting of the Tripel Hop brews. Duvel Moortgat are releasing blind tasting gift packs and the Belgian Beer Company looks likely to get its hands on a few. Keep an eye on them on Twitter to snap up a gift pack once they’re available. As for the HBC 291 vintage, it’s already available at Den Anker and you’ll find it in this month’s League of Beers mixed case. It’ll soon be seen in major beer bars and top notch liquor stores. Grab a bottle and let me know what you think. Just don’t plan to do much afterwards – it really hits you hard…