This story first appeared on October (a Condé Nast property) before it was shut down, RIP.
The bartender slides it towards you: a honey colored beer with delicate carbonation drifting up to a thick, froth like white head. As you go to grab it, you notice a small fish with a ring in its mouth printed on the side of the goblet. You, my friend, are in for an absolute treat with a hefty history. An Orval.
Orval has been brewing within the walls of Abbaye Notre Dame D’Orval in Belgium since the 1930s, so it’s no surprise that the brew is able to proudly display the label of an official trappist product. After all, to be an official trappist beer, it must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery.
But there are other, lesser known requirements of a Trappist product, including that the brewery must be of secondary importance within a monastery that operates within a monastic way of life. Furthermore, the beer can not be a tool of profit in Trappist breweries, but instead it is a way to pay for the living expenses of the monks and to fund charitable causes. Lastly, the advertising and communication of a Trappist brewery is to be marked by honesty, sobriety, and a modesty proper to the religious setting in which the beer is brewed.
That’s a lot of rules. But there are even more unwritten rules. For example, all of the Belgian Trappist Monasteries make at least three beers. All of the beers from the 11 official Trappist breweries are within traditional abbey styles like Belgian Dubbel, Belgian Tripel, and Belgian Quad.
It is here that Orval bucks the rules and goes with what it does best: brewing one exceptional and unique beer. The beer, named simply Orval for the Abbey in which it is made, utilizes several brewing and packaging techniques that seem so stylishly modern it’s almost impossible to believe they originated in the 1930s.
Consumers get the idea that Orval is unique before even opening the bottle. Orval is distributed exclusively in 11.2 oz (33cl) bottles. This isn’t just a smaller version of your typical beer bottle, but is instead known as “skittle shaped” for the way the curves and bulbous belly of the bottle mimic the shape of a “skittle pin” used in billiards games.
Orval is dry hopped with a mix of Hallertau, Styrian Goldings, and French Strisselspalt hops. These lower alpha acid European hops don’t pack the citrusy punch many Americans expect from dry hopping. Instead they lend a delicate spicy, earthy, and lightly resinous aroma to the beer.
These ethereal flavors are expertly complimented by the unusual addition of wild yeast. After the beer is brewed and partially carbonated, it is bottled with a small quantity of sugar and a dose of the wild yeast strain Brettanomyces.
Brettanomyces, or “Brett,” has recently become popular in American brewing and is known for its funky, barnyard flavors. Brewers often use the descriptor of “sweaty horse blanket” when describing the flavors that Brett adds to beer. It\’s good, though.
None of the other Belgian Trappist breweries use Brettanomyces or dry hopping in their Abbey ales. Maybe this is why Orval has the confidence to release just one beer into the world. Another, lighter version of the beer known as “Petite Orval” is made for consumption on premises at the Abbaye Notre Dame D’Orval.
Orval has employed these unique brewing methods since at least the 1930s, possibly longer. This sense of innovation has been an inspiration for brewers around the world and especially here in the United States. Vinnie Cilurzo, the brewer of world famous “Pliny the Elder,” often refers to Orval as his favorite beer.
Other American brewers have begun to experiment with Brettanomyces in recent years, inspired by Orval. David Logsdon, of Logsdon Farmhouse Ales in Oregon, has several signature beers fermented with Brett. He has said he was inspired by both Orval’s character and its shelf life.
American brewers and brewers worldwide will continue to break conventional rules as craft beer matures and changes. We can all tip our hats to the rule-breakers at Abbaye Notre Dame D’Orval for the inspiration.