Craft Cans

Classic Beer of the Month September 2009: Orval

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Orval, 6.2% (Belgium)

There are not many breweries in the world that offer just one beer for sale. Butcombe in the UK followed this route for many years, and built the success of the company upon it, but in recent years the range has been extended.


Orval AbbeyIn the far south of Belgium, however, there’s still one place that puts all its brewing eggs in one basket. The Trappist brotherhood at the Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orval has just the one beer -– known simply as Orval – for commercial sale and it’s as distinctive and individual a beer as you could hope for.

Orval abbey dates back to the year 1070, pre-dating the founding of the Trappist movement. Like many religious centres it suffered over the centuries, as war raged around it and the French Revolution played a hand. The monks fled.

They returned in 1927, resilient and intent on re-establishing their community, a place where they could work according to the principles of St Benedict. Part of Benedict’s legacy is the division of the day into three equal parts, devoted to work, prayer and sleep.

Cheese and Beer

For work, the brothers, among other things, make cheese and brew beer. There are only 15 monks in residence, so a team of lay workers actually mans the brewery. Importantly, however, they fall under the supervision of one of the brothers.

The brewery was installed here in 1931. Apart from offering valid employment for some of the fraternity, and providing beer for the community to drink, it also brings in important revenue – revenue which, according to the rules of Trappist brewing – must only be spent on the upkeep of the abbey and on good causes.

Such is the reputation of Orval that there is very little need for promotion. The beer sells itself. This means the brothers and their lay workers can concentrate on brewing and maintaining the standard of the beer.

Orval is a pale ale with an ABV of 6.2 per cent. Its deep, welcoming, orange-amber colour is the product of mix of pale and caramel malt in the mash tun, with candy sugar adding to the strength without filling out the body. Water comes from a spring that has a popular tale attached to it.

Fishy Tale

It is said that Matilda, Countess of Tuscany, visiting the monastery in the 11th century, lost her wedding ring in the water. When a fish miraculously rose up with the ring in its mouth, she declared that this was truly a golden valley – ‘aurea vallis’, from which we get the name Orval. The fish and ring feature on the beer’s label today.

Orval breweryAfter mashing, the beer is transferred to a lauter tun for straining and then is pumped back to the mash tun, which doubles as a copper. Here Hallertau and Styrian Golding hops are added. Primary fermentation lasts for four days before transfer to horizontal tanks for three weeks’ secondary fermentation.

The beer is dry hopped at this stage with more of the same strains used in the copper. Significantly, there’s also another addition – a second yeast – that makes all the difference to the character of the beer.

Primary fermentation is undertaken only by a standard saccharomyces yeast, but here some brettanomyces is added – the yeast that helps develop the trademark ‘horsey’ notes in a lambic.

The beer is then centrifuged, more yeast (a mix of saccharomyces and brettanomyces) is added and the beer is bottled. Warm conditioning takes place for four weeks before the bottles are released. Orval is not sold on draught.

Changing Character

Conditioning in the bottle means that the beer changes character during a long shelf-life, particularly as the brett influence becomes stronger. The dry hopping adds a bitterness that is not common among Trappist beers, and then that wild yeast note brings complexity and dryness.

In effect, you have a variety of products in one, as the beer develops through age. This is recognized by the brewery’s award of an Orval ambassadorship to bars that really know their stuff. They are expected to offer customers young bottles as well as matured, and also the option of a chilled or room-temperature beer.

Pride is a sin, so it would be wrong to say that the monks are proud of their product, but they certainly know how good it is. They even ration drinking of it among themselves, saving it for mostly for holidays.

On a daily basis, they instead have the option of a watered-down version (3.5%), that is not available to the public, unless you visit the tavern 200 metres down the road from the abbey.

Okay, so it’s not, strictly speaking, a one-beer brewery, then. But that really would be splitting hairs.

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