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Apr
03

Orval

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orval-mattToday concludes my trip through the Trappist ales (at least, through most of them — Westvleteren and Tilburg are unfortunately not represented).

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.

orval-bottle1But 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.)

orval-brew-roomFrom 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.

orval-glass-sunThe 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.

Recommended reviews of Orval:

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Categories : Beer a Day

14 Comments

1
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Fine write-up, Andy, as lively as the beer!

2
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Quite possibly THE perfect beer.

And the yeast? Oooh the yeast!!!! Nothing like it.

Great write up Andy. Glad you enjoyed it.
Thanks for sharing.

3
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For those of you into brewing your own. It is possible to culture the yeast from the bottles and use it in your homebrew. Makes quite a unique beer. I consider Orval the most complex beer I have ever had. Quite possibly the best. I rank Ichor right there with it. Just a great beer.

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Chris, that’s slick. I’m planning to try my hand at brewing once the “rules” I’ve imposed have expired and I can drink more than one beer. Culturing yeast sounds like an advanced step — or is it?

What styles have you tried from the yeast? And I’d love to hear from others who have cultured yeast from the Orval bottle or who will accept this as a new challenge. Sounds like stealing secrets from the monks!

5
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[...] first experiences with the ‘funky’ Belgian Brett smells and flavors in his reviews of Orval, Girardin Gueuze and Monk’s Cafe Flemish Sour. All of the above represent intentional uses of [...]

6
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I don’t really consider myself a beer drinker, but I am an Orval drinker. It is so unique, I can’t get enough of it. I had a couple glasses last night on by back porch with a cigar, I swear I have never had a better time sitting and listening to the rain.

I really want to let some sit in my cellar, but I can’t seem to keep a full bottle in my house for very long.

7
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mcmark, funny you say that – we had a good deal of rain during my Beer A Day trip through the Trappist ales, and several times I managed to slip away from my tasting notes and just sit by the window (no cover on our back deck!) listening to the rain. Something very contemplative and leisurely about these beers. When I complete this year-long challenge, I’m going to spend more time with Orval — it is such a polarizing beer, and so widely available, that I’m really fascinated. I’ll have to break out a cigar so I can experience it as you did. Nice to meet you, and I do hope you stick around and discover a few interesting brews to cycle into your Orval rotation!

8
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Does it display some strange character flaw that I am strangely flattered that I made the comment of the week?

I recently took a transfer to our office in Bountiful, Utah (a little mountain suburb a few miles north of Salt Lake City – I work for Electronic Arts). I have actually grown to love it, the people are honestly friendly and the city is beautiful. I am no more than 1 hour from 10 of the best ski resorts in the country. There is no more than one store (a state ran liquor store) in my new city that sells Orval. It is open from 11am-7pm and it is closed on Sundays. So scoring this magical brew can be tricky at times.

Anyway, your blog is great. I just discovered it, and now I think I am almost caught up on all the posts. I have been inspired to try a few of the beers you suggested (that I could find). Luckily, the state liquor store here lets us create our own six packs as well, but we have only a small fraction of the options you have.

Cheers,

Mark McReynolds
markraymcreynolds@gmail.com

9
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Mark, I imagine it’s tough finding a lot of beer in Utah – you must stock up on Orval every week! By the way, I’m pleased you made Comment of the Week too — I’m swayed by comments that describe how readers experience a particular beer, or accounts of trying new beer discovered from my posts or the Forum discussion. You say you found a few beers in your state run liquor store — which ones did you try, and how did you find them?

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I have to agree that Orval is simply unique. Not just to Trappiste Ales, but to every other beer have ever tasted. For me. It is the best beer I have ever had. The perfect balance of aroma, flavor and drikability. To bad it so damn expensive.

11
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Good write up. I have also found Orval to be quite unique in the Trappist family, and I have had every variety save the De Koningshoeven brews. It’s also probably my favorite of the bunch. I’ve had bottles over 2 years old, and some about 6 months. One thing I have found is while there are similar taste qualities, each bottle is a little different. Leffe Blonde seems to be modeled after a younger Orval, although not quite as well. Older Orvals are simply in a (top) class all their own.

12
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coucou marie-anne michel
August 8th, 2010 at 4:42 pm

marie-anne ché vous a orval pour une se maine merci

13
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I traveled to Belgium about 4 years ago on a business trip and was served Orval at a small hotel we were staying at. It was simply the best beer I have ever had. I wish I could find some in Wisconsin. I tried brewing my own Trappist ale but it was nowhere near as good as Orval.

14
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Orval is clearly an unique beer – for some it is an acquired taste, but I loved it from the first moment. It seems to be very “fussy” about the temperature you should drink at – a few degrees make a lot of difference.
Still, it is not the best Trappist beer (in my opinion). Young or older, Orval is beaten at every level by Chimay Bleu. Clearly another type of beer, but the aging process makes Chimay Bleu much much better.

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