Flagship February: River Horse Brewing’s Tripel Horse

The second of my Flagship February posts for 2020 features another NJ Beer, this one from the second oldest independent brewery in the State. The beer itself has received some national recognition, it has proven to be the brewery’s most consistent seller, and one of the brewery’s most acclaimed beers over the course of the brewery’s almost 25-year life (which saw an ownership switch in 2007). In some ways, this beer as the brewery’s flagship is not what would one would typically expect to be a flagship beer from a brewery in the United States: a Belgian style Tripel. The beer: Tripel Horse. The brewery: River Horse Brewing Company in Ewing, NJ.

A Belgian Tripel is not a beer style that immediately comes to mind as a top/flagship beer, especially from a US brewery. Granted, two other Northeast/Mid-Atlantic brewery’s Flagship beers are Tripels (Golden Monkey from Victory Brewing in Downington, PA and Merry Monks from Weyerbacher Brewing in Easton, PA), all three breweries have been brewing beer for close to the same amount of time. Either that’s a strange coincidence or speaks to the beer tastes of people living in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Be that as it may, one would likely think of an IPA, Pilsner, or even Stout as more of an expected Flagship beer.

River Horse initially opened up in 1996, but about a decade later (2007), the original owners sold to a couple of finance professionals with a passion for beer. A few years after that (2013), River Horse moved from Lambertville to Ewing, NJ into a larger space with far more capacity for growth and production, and the brewery certainly grew from that point in time. Through all of that, Tripel Horse has been the most prominent beer they’ve brewed, though it may have been tweaked over the years.

A Beer like Tripel Horse is, I suppose, an ideal candidate for Flagship February. Not that Kane’s Head High wasn’t, but as respected River Horse is and for as long as they’ve been in operation, River Horse isn’t a NJ brewery that is as top-of-mind as a brewery like Kane, Carton, Icarus, or Magnify. I say this as a person who enjoys much of River Horse’s portfolio. Again, from the Flagship February Web site:

What sometimes gets lost amid the constant stream of special releases are the beers that paved the way for today’s remarkable global beer market, or in other words, the flagship beers that got us here.

Tripel Horse is a beer that has been continually available in New Jersey for nearly 25 years (giving the beer true classic status) and it is NOT an IPA (the hottest style). However, that lengthy history for River Horse has allowed them to maintain their status as one of the top 2 or 3 breweries, by size, in the State of New Jersey. Hell, I haven’t had this specific beer in a couple of years, but I do seek out the newer beers River Horse brews because the quality has almost always been there for me.

Before I give my “current” experience of the beer, let’s take a look at what River Horse says about Tripel Horse:

Image courtesy of River Horse Brewing’s Web site

Our take on a Belgian Style Tripel Ale, brewed with spices and fermented with a Trappist yeast strain which lends hints of vanilla and creates a variety of complex flavors. ABV – 10.0%

Hops: Chinook, Hallertau, Saaz

Malt: Pilsen, White Wheat, Caramel

I can remember the first time I had the beer. In fact, it is one of the more vivid and clear memories I have of a specific beer. My wife and I had just bought and moved into our current home, so we are talking almost fifteen years ago. I’m not sure if it was around my birthday immediately after we moved into the house or the following fall, so we’re talking 2005 or 2006. Anyway, we went down to a restaurant (The Porterhouse Pub) in Peddler’s Village in Lahaska, PA with my parents that was featuring only River Horse beers, including some beers usually only available at the brewery. But what I went for was Tripel Horse. (That restaurant has since ceased that exclusive partnership with River Horse). While we were waiting for a table, we sat at the bar and I downed two full pours of the beer. I was initially taken aback and wowed by the abundant flavors in the beer, which is why I had a second beer. At the time, I possessed far less knowledge of beer as a whole, with regard to beer styles or breweries and the closest thing to Belgian-style beer I had that wasn’t Blue Moon was the old Samuel Adams Cranberry Lambic. Be that as it may, our table was ready and the two full pours of Tripel Horse at 10% ABV caught up to me as we left the bar to go to the table. Standing from the barstool initially proved to be a little difficult. From that point on; however, Tripel Horse has been a beer I would always associate with a great night and River Horse as a brewery that crafted flavorful beer. Over the years I’d get the beer in six packs, but if I’m being honest, it wasn’t always the first River Horse beer I’d gravitate towards but it has a been a beer I could always rely on for great taste. For everyday beers, I leaned more towards stouts, porters and some lagers.

Image courtesy of River Horse Brewing’s Web site

As I said, I haven’t had a bottle or pour of Tripel Horse in a few years, so I was very excited to reintroduce myself to the beer again. I’ll admit to some slight trepidation on revisiting the beer because, to borrow a term from my science fiction and fantasy online community, I did not want the “suck fairy” to strike. Basically, when your current experience of a thing you enjoyed in the past does not live up to the memory enjoying that thing in the past.

So…a pour of the beer into my Belgian-style tulip glass and the beer looks the part of a Tripel, unsurprisingly. It is of the cloudier variety, so I’m not sure if this is filtered. Comparatively speaking, it isn’t as clear or see-through as Tripel Karmeliet or Victory’s Golden Monkey but more like the cloudiness featured in Westmalle’s Tripel. By no means is this a flaw, simply a difference. Aroma is of the yeast with some fruitiness. Again, exactly as what I would expect from a Tripel.

The first sip gives me many of the flavors from the yeast with some spice. Very, very pleasant and flavorful. I can tell it is a high-octane beer, but I’d only guess at the 10% ABV range because of how the beer asserts itself as a Tripel. There’s also a strong fruit flavor coming from the yeast, maybe peach or apricot? Maybe pear? I can’t quite pinpoint it, but it is a welcome element in the overall profile of the beer. As the beer warmed in the glass, that fruity element grew and I found myself enjoying the beer to a greater degree. The last few sips when the beer was closer to room temperature were fantastic. Again, I need to remind myself to let these bigger beers warm from the fridge, even a little bit and even if they aren’t barrel-aged stouts. I enjoyed that first bottle I used for the photograph so much that two nights after having the first of the six pack, I had two bottles because the beer just hit every button in my sense of flavor so well. Some of the enjoyment probably comes with the great memory associated with that first beer all those years ago, but more than anything, Tripel Horse is just a damned good beer.

Over the years, Tripel Horse has received largely positive reception from the beer writing community, including nice write-ups/reviews at All About Beer, Draft Mag, The Full Pint, and Porch Drinking to name a few. But perhaps the most prominent acknowledgment of the beer’s quality occurred in late 2017 at the Great American Beer Festival where Tripel Horse received the Bronze Medal (3rd best Tripel overall) for Belgian-Style Tripel.

Image Courtesy of River Horse Brewing’s Facebook

A beer that is a flagship will often have “Spin Off” beers and this is true of Tripel Horse. A few years ago, River Horse first released a version with Raspberry, Raspberry Tripel Horse, which I reviewed here at the Tap Takeover almost exactly a year ago. This version started out as a brewery-only release but proved popular enough that River Horse bottled it for distribution. Additionally, River Horse has also released a sour version of the beer, Sour Tripel Horse. and in even more limited quantities, River Horse produced a Bourbon Barrel-Aged version of Tripel Horse. When River Horse was invited to partner with Jameson Whiskey as part of their Caskmates program, one of the beers they featured was One Score and Two Years Ago, which is, you guessed it, Tripel Horse brewed with spices and orange peels, fermented cherries and aged in Jameson barrels. That is a beer I’d love to try because those ingredients look to mimic one of my favorite cocktails, the Old Fashioned.

For all the reasons I’ve outlined in this post, you might say that Tripel Horse can be seen as River Horse Brewing’s “Work Horse” beer. Come on, there was NO way I wasn’t going to make that pun at some point.

In the end, Tripel Horse is a great example of a somewhat non-standard Flagship beer and a beer that helps to show the quality and diversity of beer available in the State of New Jersey. Be warned; however. If you plan to have more than one don’t stand up too quickly after you’ve downed a couple and be sure to pass your car keys to your friend/significant other.

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