For those Brits holding onto the notion that our fair isle is the only place on earth to be suffering from less than fair meteorological conditions, you are wrong. Rest assured, it’s been pissing it down in Williers, the third smallest town in France, 5km from the Belgian border and, more importantly, the Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orval.
The weather feels somewhat appropriate when considering the virtues of quiet contemplation, one of the key tenets of the Trappists’ monastic way of life. That and making and drinking beer of course, lots of delicious beer. The rules of “Strict Observance” laid down in 1664 meant that Trappist monasteries had to be self sustaining. The commercialisation of their beer and cheese making cottage industry was an obvious step towards this.
In 1997, the eight Trappist abbeys at the time (Orval, Chimay, Rochefort, Westmalle, Achel, Westvleteren, Koningshoeven and Mariawald) decided to protect their unique brand by forming the International Trappist Association, an “Origine Controllee” for their hand crafted products. To obtain the seal of approval, production of beer must occur within the walls of the monastery, by or under the supervision of the monks and be non profit making.
The abbey at Orval was built in 1132 and, as with many religious buildings, has been destroyed, occupied, pillaged and rebuilt many times since. There is written evidence of the presence of beer from the early 1600s. Sadly, monks haven’t brewed here since 1793. The current brewery, built in 1931, has always employed “lay persons” only.
Annual production of around 70,000 hectolitres is close to capacity and there are no plans to expand. Demand far outstrips supply so don’t expect to find it in every pub you walk into any time soon (export makes up less than 15% of their sales). The 6.9% Belgian Pale Ale is their only commercially available brew although visitors to A L’Ange Gardien, the brewery tap, will be lucky enough to sample a “petite” Orval on keg. The younger brother beer, served in a unique green branded glass, is brewed mainly for the monks, the selfish gits.
For 5.5 Euros you can tour the abbey grounds, look at the ruins of the original monastery and peer into the more modern bits wondering just what they’re up to in there. If you’re religiously inclined you can spend a day or two with the monks being spiritual, although it helps if you speak French. Bring your own bed clothes and don’t expect a two day long piss up. The brewery only opens to the public on two days a year, usually in September. At any other time you have to make do with a small interactive presentation. The gift shop sells boxes of 12 bottles of Orval at a bargain price of 16 Euros plus various glasses, beer paraphernalia and cheese.
I’m not personally that big on religious buildings. It’s a decent enough way to while away an hour in an otherwise quiet area on the Franco-Belgian border. I went for the beer experience and, if I’m honest, I couldn’t help feeling a little short changed. You can forget about any romantic notions you had of monks in robes stirring away at a mash tun with big wooden paddles. The truth is, this is a highly commercialised operation.
The costs of upkeep and modernisation of the brewery are deducted before profits are donated to charity and, boy, do they make the most of it. The videos depict an absolute state of the art brewery, akin to a Cern physics laboratory. Every now and then a monk pops up on a golf kart, presumably “overseeing” the process. The brewery tap does good food and the chance to sample the unique green beer on tap is exciting in itself. But a recent expensive refit has rendered it more “business conference chic” than 17th century hostellerie.
The beer has provenance and is deservedly world renowned. But I find it odd that none of the provenance relates to the monastery or the Trappists, apart from the fact the brewery is housed there. I’m being naive, no doubt, but I expected a bit more history in the brew. If you’re in the area or passing through it’s definitely worth a visit but I wouldn’t personally single it out for a beereligious pilgrimage any time soon.
Orval “freche” (less than 3 months old), a 6.9% Belgain ale (although the bottle refers to 6.2%, presumably it’s ABV at bottling prior to the second fermentation), is a surprisingly delicate drink. It has all the obvious spicey farmhouse aromas you’d expect from the secondary Brett ferment but is not overpowering. Cloves, cardamon, banana bread, pear drops and stewed fruits all make an appearance on the palate but sit beside a moderate hoppy bitterness. There are few better Belgian ales in my opinion.
Orval “vieil” (at least 1 year old), gone are the farmhouse aromas, taken over by an alcoholic haze of bubble gum, pineapple and toffee, akin to a double IPA. ABV is uncertain although reports suggest up to 7.2% (I’d wager more). This is an altogether different prospect of a drink and I’d recommend anyone who lays down the odd beer to give this one a go.
Orval “petite”, 4.5% (although referred to online as 3.5%). It’s immediately obvious why this is referred to as green. It’s like trying a beer half way through it’s regular maturation process (which is what it is). There’s no Brett, no farmhouse aroma, only soft carbonation and bitter undertones best compared to basil and pepper, like a good tomato salad. You can taste much more of the hop profile and I would go as far as guessing there’s cascade present, with some Bavarian stuff thrown in for good measure. It’s hard to tell whether it’s just the setting, or the uniqueness of the beer, but there’s something special about this tipple and it’s a crying shame that you can’t take any away with you.