(Every month we choose a topic in brewing and look at three beers that elucidate different elements of this issue. The first post of the month introduces the topic, and the subsequent three focus on a single beer each. This month’s theme is, Preternaturally From the Mind Of De Clerck: The Great Beer Theory. This post introduces the beer Orval.)
I would like to make two outsized claims for Orval. One, I think it is the most individual tasting beer in the world. If you think of how many beers taste sort of like the other two classics we are looking at this month, Chimay Blue and Duvel, or if you think about how many people came after Pliny the Elder and made a beer that tasted pretty close or at least clearly in the style, they you have a sense of what I mean. Even after almost 100 years, there is nothing quite like Orval. Tasting notes include leather and pineapple, attic and papaya, austerity, Manzanilla, bitter notes, acetic notes, umami elements and religious devotion, earth and apples. The variety of the flavors boggles the mind and seems like it shouldn’t work, like you couldn’t make a beer taste like that, but also that those tastes would not cohere together, but they do appear, and they complement each other with such felicity that this world classic is coming up on its centennial and still considered a brewer’s beer rather than a fossil of a bygone era.
The second outsized claim I would make for Orval is that it ages better and more interestingly than any other beer. An Orval fresh from its five weeks of cold bottle conditioning is close to a phenolic and hoppy English pale ale. By six months or so the flavors I describe above have begun to form and will increase in force for the next year or so. The whole time, locally harvested brettanomyces is eating all the sugars in the beer, including dextrins, and producing many of the characteristic flavors of Orval as well as drying out the beer and sharpening the body, which already tends to sharpness as a result of the high bicarbonate water. The noble hops used lose much of their initial aroma and flavor, while maintaining their bitterness and developing pineapple and cherry notes in place of the floral and herbal notes they initially presented. An Orval two years in is a totally different beer than an Orval fresh, to an extent that is hard to understand. It is as if a wine started out as a Riesling, and became, over the course of a year, a Fino Sherry. Orval offers inimitable pleasures at every moment of its maturation.
The ones we have in store are about six months out, so they are in a fascinating liminal moment where some of their initial character and some of their eventual character are both in evidence and vie for the attention. Try some now and lay some down to try at intervals over the next two years.
What makes it taste that way? In 1932, a German brewer and a Flemish assistant created this beer that tastes nothing like any other Trappist ale. Perhaps the German brought the passion for hops. The character of surrounding Wallonian saisons certainly seems to have affected the brewers, though do not expect Orval to resemble resemble a Saison DuPont closely. In 1950, De Clerck came to the brewery and advised, among other things, that they scrub out the lagering tanks. This resulted in a beer that had lost the “gout d’Orval,” so the brewers gathered wild yeasts from the surrounding area, and added them to the beer in the secondary fermentation. Now, whether they did so under the direction of De Clerk or against his direction is unclear. It must, however, be the case that De Clerck’s modern concepts zymurgy allowed the brewers to diagnose the problem and solve it by culturing wild yeasts. De Clerck’s presence again allowed other more elemental cultural forces to occur, perhaps even allowed the original character of real farmhouse saisons to persist when the beers that go by that name today have probably diverged quite radically from their origins.
The resulting beer has an idiosyncratic combination of multiple pale malts, multiple caramel malts, and clear beet syrups. The hops used are Styrian Golding and Hallertau, once at the beginning of the boil for bittering, then in dry hopping. Primary fermentation is with a relatively inexpressive yeast strain. In the secondary fermentation, though, the locally harvested wild yeast strains (about ten) are added. This is the moment when Orval develops most of its individual character, it could be argued, as the wild yeast and the dry hopping both come into play in the secondary. However, as much credit could be given to merely the water before anything is added to it at all, or the amount of bittering hops, or the idiosyncratic attitude taken toward base malts, the list goes on. After about three weeks of secondary fermentation, the beer is bottle conditioned in a cold room for five weeks. After that, we are left with a beer which tastes like nothing else and marks the passage of a year more elegantly than anything short of a tree.
Orval is not a laid back beer. It demands focus. Chimay Blue invites me to fall asleep in its vast, comforting darkness. Orval snaps me awake with its sharp, quick strangeness. Come try one, and wake up.
Similar Beers in Store: Nope.