Until this virtual tour of Belgian beer during my “one a day and no repeats” challenge, I had never tried a Trappist beer — and if any of my readers haven’t taken the plunge yet, I hope the past two weeks have inspired you to seek out a bottle. It’s a shame that I waited so long; each of these beers has been strong, memorable, and quite a lot of fun.
But did I save the best for last?
Quote possibly. And many will argue I did.
Certainly, Orval is the most unique of the Trappist ales. Brasserie d’Orval brews just one beer. You’ll find no Orval Blue, no Orval Tripel, and no Orval 6, 8, 10, or 12. The beer is simply Orval — just one name, like Madonna, Cher, and Brittany.
But unlike so many pop stars, Orval gets better with age. Despite an only slightly high 6.9% ABV, it can be cellared for up to 5 years — growing smoother and displaying a more complex malt.
Jeff Alworth’s Beervana sums up Orval’s split-personality quite nicely, so I’ll quote him here:
“But what is Orval? Is it the green, lively beer they first bottle, sticky with hop resins? Or is it the older beer, pulled from cellar shelves after a year or two of aging? This ale is austere–bone dry and tart, a meditative beer for a quiet evening.
The monks have brewed a singular ale, but the essence of Orval is its mutability. Paradoxically, even a single bottle contains many beers. I consider Orval one of the finest beers in the world, and by that, I mean I love them all.”
My bottle is a mere 9 months old (bottled July 9th, 2008 – assuming the label uses the European day/month/year format), so we’ll be talking about a relatively “young” Orval.
Each of the 11.2 oz Trappist ales I’ve had seemed to come in either “standard issue” stubby bottles or narrow bowling pins. But Orval’s bottle stands out as a curvy version of the bowling pin style — in truth, it’s more of a true bowling pin shape than the others. It looks substantial and the full, roundness of the bottle lends a sense of purpose to the weight in your hand.
Both the cap and the label feature a fish with a ring in it’s mouth, which hearkens to the legend of how the abbey was named:
The monastery was born of an act of gratitude: Mathilda was a widow and her wedding-ring had accidentally fallen into the fountain. She prayed to the Lord and at once a trout rose to the surface with the precious ring in its mouth. Mathilda exclaimed: ‘Truly this place is a Val d’Or’!” [Author's note: Val d'Or means "Golden Valley".] In gratitude, she decided to establish a monastery on the site.
(A trout with a golden ring? I wonder if there might be a similar — though surely more gory — story behind the name of the Harpoon Brewery? Remind me to ask.)
From the moment I lifted the cap on this beer, I could tell Orval is different from all of the other Trappist ales. I could smell a crisp, attractively funky aroma even before the first drop left the bottle. The pour produced a lightly hazy, gold/amber beer with a big, pillowy head. As its bubbles chatted, I dipped my nose over the chalice and pulled in a big breath — and began to understand the words of beer writer Tom Bedell, who told me Orval would force the drinker to pay attention.
I like complexity in the beer I drink, but I also enjoy quaffing without being forced to analyze what I’m consuming. Orval splits that difference nicely — it immediately got my attention by having such a unique wild-yeast aroma (and flavor), but after Orval and I grew more acquainted I was able to drink it without analyzing where the yeast leaves off and the hops take over.
Orval adds brettanomyces yeast to the beer at bottling. Brettanomyces — or simply “brett” if you’re on a first-name basis — is a wild yeast that creates the unique flavor found in Belgian styles such as Lambic and Gueuze, but also the “off” taste you might get from wine gone bad. Perhaps this unique approach happens at Orval because instead of relying solely on the monks, the brewery from the very beginning hired from the laity. According to the Orval website:
The first master brewer was a German by the name of Pappenheimer; he is buried at Villers-devant-Orval. The origins of this very distinctive beer can probably be attributed jointly to Mr. Pappenheimer and to the Belgians, Honoré Van Zande and John Vanhuele who were working in the brewery at the same period. They were daring : the combination of production methods which they thought up is nowhere else to be found. Several of these methods, such as the infusion brewing and the “dry-hopping” are English: probably we owe them to John Vanhuele, who brought them from England, where he had lived for many years. This results in a beer whose characteristic aroma and taste owe more to the hops and to the yeasts than to the malts.
This beer could turn away the casual drinker expecting a fruity Trappist beer. If monks talked trash — and I must assume both propriety and a vow of silence prevent this — Orval’s label might have read like the back of an Arrogant Bastard bottle.
The aroma was slightly funky, with green hops and an almost medicinal quality. Orval was smooth and creamy in my mouth, tasting of oily hops, that brett yeast, and a faint metallic aftertaste that faded as the beer had a chance to breath. Orval was wonderfully crisp and had a dry aftertaste. As my taste buds grew more accustomed to the experience — more than halfway through the glass — I began to notice a slightly sweet, floral taste.
I’m left feeling that Orval is in a category all its own among the Trappist ales I’ve tried, and I fear that this is a beer that requires more than one serving to fully understand. But let me promise you this — I’ll be drinking more Orval as soon as this “one a day with no repeats” challenge has finished.
What are your thoughts on Orval? Have you had an older bottle? Please share your thoughts through the comments section.
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