Orval. There are few names more hallowed in the world of beer. In a country like Belgium where beers vary from town to town, Orval can be found nearly everywhere, when it’s in stock. On American shelves, few shapes are more iconic than Orval’s skittle shaped bottle. Orval is celebrated globally for its quality, uniqueness, and heritage. Orval is an icon.
Hazy and coppery orange with an impossibly dense and tall head rising out of its classic chalice, Orval is a feast for the senses. The aromas are a combination of earthy European hops and funky brettanomyces yeast. The taste is effervescent, dry, and lingering. At a modest 6.9% ABV, it’s an incredibly drinkable beer compared to many of its Trappist compatriots.
The Valley of Gold
Orval is a gift passed down through centuries of feast and famine, war and peace, building and destruction. The first gift given by Orval resulted in the bestowing of its identity. The most famous early visitor to this small corner of the Ardennes was the renowned and powerful Countess Mathilda of Tuscany. On a visit to the area, the widow purportedly lost her wedding ring in a spring. She prayed to God for its return when a trout popped up with her ring its mouth. She proclaimed that it was truly a “Val d’Or” or Valley of Gold. In thanks, she promised to provide funds for a religious community which would eventually take her exclamation as its nickname: Orval.
I arrived in the Val d’Or a bit shy of a millennium after the Countess Mathilda. After a week of wandering the hilly roads and small villages of Wallonia, I arrived at my last brewery tour. There are few settings more idyllic than the Ardennes; the tree-covered rolling hills hiding picturesque villages in their gentle valleys, streams and rivers winding their way to the waters that’ll lead to the North Sea; pastures filled with quietly grazing sheep or cattle; and the occasional ruins of a castle, abbey, or wall poking out. Everything combines to make for an unforgettable destination that’s off the beaten trail for tourists. In fact, you’ll often be a bit of an attraction yourself.
The night before my tour, I dined in the nearby village of Florenville and went out after for a drink at one of the local bars. From the outside, it looked like a dive-y little neighborhood bar. I walked in and sat down at the bar and noticed the “Orval Ambassador” sign. Excellent! They’d have both fresh Orval and a properly cellar-aged version. I started with the fresh version since pretty much all Orval in the US is in the slightly aged range due to the importation time. My French is pretty abysmal, but as long as too many questions aren’t asked, I can order a beverage and food without sticking out like a sore thumb. Eventually, the bartender began sending more questions my way since I was obviously not one of the regulars. Eventually, I had to profess my lack of solid French and declare my status as an American tourist/beer writer.
At that point, I became the object of the bar’s attention. They quickly began gathering a few people until I realized they were assembling everyone in the bar who had even a smattering of English. Pretty soon, I was having a conversation by committee with the bar patrons. They were extremely curious why an American would bother coming all the way to their tiny corner of Belgium. And really, that’s a fairly good question as it’s a two-hour drive from Brussels with no typical tourist destination. I explained I was on a mission from Beer. For the locals, Orval is omnipresent but taken for granted unless it runs out. My interest in their local beer peaked their curiosity since it’s not really a place local people visit even though it’s just down the road.
Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orval
The abbey’s cafe, A l’Ange Gardien, is mostly used by tourists but it is the only place you can get the rare draft Orval Vert, the low alcohol patersbier version of the classic Orval. In the glass, it drinks like a session IPA. The hops are super fresh and pretty intense in the lower ABV form of the Vert. Orval cheese plate, sandwiches or other items are available to fill stomachs and accompany the local Trappist brewed beer.
Orval’s brewery is one of the larger parts of the abbey complex. The main brewing hall is a beautiful mix of copper, tile, and stained glass. Much of the older brewing is preserved along one wall. The active kettles are a clever facade of copper and steel. The outside looks like the old copper kettles but when you look inside the door you see the actual stainless steel kettles within.
I love how old Belgian breweries like Orval meld the old and the new. Rustic old equipment is often kept functional, modernized, or replaced but kept as an homage to the brewery’s past. Often, the brewing room is kept as the pretty face of the brewery with lovely tile and shiny metal. Orval’s stainless steel under copper is an ingenious way to preserve the visual heritage of the brewery while bowing to the modern necessities of both production and regulatory concerns. The brewhouse is the showcase while the fermentation side is purely practical.
Orval is no different. Front to back, it’s a modern brewery taking advantage of all the brewing technology and knowledge available to it. They’ve preserved the visual aspects of their heritage while maintaining and advancing the quality of their beer. This balance is kept throughout the monastery. With burned out ruins carefully preserved next to the modern work of art that is the Henry Vaes designed abbey complex, Orval is a living testament to a thousand years of monastic and European history.
You can walk amongst stones and ruins still bearing the char Napoleon’s troops caused when they burned the entire complex down just over 200 years ago. You can walk by the same water that Countess Mathilda lost her ring in nearly 1000 years ago. Overlooking the ruins, brewery, fromagerie, and cafe is the massive Art Deco statue of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus designed by famed architect Henry Vaes. In the cafe, you can sample the fruits of the abbey’s labor and lands: cheese and beer. You can taste the Orval Vert in the only place in the world that serves it. Or you can sample the Classic Orval from the bottle and glass that were also both designed by Henry Vaes.
In the brewing museum next to the ruins you can look over antique brewing equipment. In the cellars of the ruined abbey, displays and artifacts will take you through the history of the abbey and the region. You can walk the same path invading armies from Charlemagne’s Franks to the Catholic and Protestant armies of the 30 Years War to Napoleon’s French to Hitler’s Nazis walked. You can experience history, culture, culinary delights, and the tranquility of southern Belgium.
My Orval Day
While anyone with the desire and time can visit the ruins, cafe, and gift shop; the brewery is closed to all without special invitation. Those lucky few with an invitation get to look behind the curtain. After a walk through the beautiful brewhouse, I watched as one of the brewers pulled bags of spent hops from the horizontal conditioning tanks. The first fermentation takes place in standard vertical conical fermenters with standard Saccharomyces yeast. The next stage takes place in horizontal conditioning tanks stuffed with multiple bags of hops. The dry-hopping process is unique to Orval as a Trappist. They’ve been using it since the beer was first formulated in 1931. They use Bavarian Hallertau, Slovenian Styrian Golding, and Alsacian Strisselspalt hops.
However, dry-hopping isn’t the only special ingredient/technique used in Orval. What truly makes Orval unique and sets it apart from other Trappists is the addition of the wild Brettanomyces yeast. When the bags come out of the tanks, they’re coated in spent yeast and hop debris. Run a finger along the hop bag and put it in your mouth and you’ll taste an intensely bitter combination of European hops and young brett. Bottling and conditioning in the warm room is the final stage. Once they’re properly bottle conditioned, they’re ready to go out into the world for consumers to enjoy.
I’ve loved Orval for many years. The beer itself is fantastic; but when you add in the Trappist history, you develop a true loyalty to the beer and the brand. Getting to tour the secretive halls of the brewery and walk through the storied abbey grounds only sealed that fate for me. Orval is often one of the first beers I order when I touch ground in Belgium. When there’s nothing that’s jumping out at me, I fall back on Orval. When I’m home in the US and missing my friends in Belgium, Orval is the beer I reach for. It’s my comfort beer when I want to feel like I’m in Belgium. Everyone has a favorite age for Orval. The brettanomyces makes it very age-worthy allowing the brewery to put a 5 year best by date on the label. For me, whatever the age of the bottle in front of me is my favorite.
Brand loyalty is at an all time low in today’s modern era of craft beer. I drink a lot of different beers, but I still have beers and breweries I’m incredibly loyal to. Orval is one of those beers and breweries. It’s my Orval.
Orval Day 2017
2016 was the first year Orval’s US importer, Merchant du Vin, celebrated Orval Day. They set up events around the country with Orval loyalist accounts to celebrate one of the world’s most beloved beers. You can even find bottles of various ages as bars are starting their own cellaring programs to emulate Orval Ambassador accounts. Orval Day 2017 is Saturday march 25th. Merchant du Vin has provided a list of participating accounts located throughout the country. If you’re an Orval fan, be sure to show up at your local participating account and join the celebration. If you haven’t tried Orval yet, Orval Day 2017 seems like the perfect day to get your toes wet.
A portion of the proceeds from Orval Day will be donated to MAP International.
You can learn more about the history of the Trappist Order and Orval at The Brewing Monks.
I’d like to extend a special thank you to Merchant du Vin for arranging my tour with Orval.