“When you pray, bring together the whole world in the depth of your love.” —Aelred, 12th Century Cistercian
It’s doubtful if beer is currently high on the minds of the monks at the Abbaye de Notre Dame d’Orval in southern Belgium. The daily rounds of prayer at the monastery are most likely directed at the victims of the recent bombings, the dead, the wounded, the newly orphaned, the newly widowed.
Thoughts of a U.S. marketing effort, making March 26 Orval Day in various events around the country, are probably not high priority, either. But then they probably never were. Though some of the 20 or so monks now living at the monastery take part in the brewery oversight so that it retains the Authentic Trappist Product designation, they don’t concern themselves much with sales.
For one thing, it’s not a problem. The brewery is already at full capacity, with no plans to expand. The roughly 62,000 barrels of beer produced in 2015 would have put it slightly under the Top 50 of the Brewers Association 2014 list of craft breweries. (And all this with a single beer, mind you, not counting a lower alcohol version made for the monks, and sold only around the monastery.)
Exports are left in the hands of Merchant du Vin in the U.S., which has promulgated the March 26 Orval Day. There’s no need to feel put off by the events, either; remember that any profits generated by the beer go directly back to the monastic community, or into broader social services that it designates for the funds. In the U.S., some proceeds will go to MAP International, the medical assistance and relief program.
And if it’s a single beer, Orval is singular, and worth celebrating. It may have been the first Brettanomyces dosed beer I ever had, and the shock to my system has never left me. But it was a pleasant shock, and I’ve been under this beer’s spell ever since, as have generations of brewers.
Visiting the monastery and brewery only enhanced my feelings. There are now 11 Trappist breweries, in Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, France, Italy and the U.S. Back in 1999 there were seven, six in Belgium and one in the Netherlands. I was fortunate to visit them all, but the beauty of Orval could not be surpassed. I don’t think I can say it any better than I did in an article I wrote shortly after:
“It is transcendent here. You feel a long sense of history, the presence of the Countess Mathilda, the fascinating lure of this valley. And there is the beer. It is a healthy product, but it is not only good for you, but good for many people,” said François de Harenne, the commercial director of Orval. We [my wife and I] sat in a café at the entrance road to the Abbaye de Notre Dame d’Orval, drinking the Orval beer and eating an omelet made with Orval cheese, spellbound by M. de Harenne’s explanation of what constituted a Trappist ale:
“There are three conditions to be met. One is that the beer must be produced within the walls of an abbey where a Trappist community lives. It must be made by the hands of the monks or—if they have lay people working in the brewery—it must still be under the monks’ control and responsibility. And finally, profit cannot be the pursuit of the activity. It must be profitable, yes, but not aimed at growth beyond the community’s maintenance, and the abbey’s charitable works.
“We say the brewery is a subsidiary of the main product—the abbey and the monastic life.”
The monastic life began here in 1132. Today Orval is perhaps the most accessible of all the brewing monasteries. Visitors may not go on the abbey grounds, but there is a tantalizing view through an opening in a stone wall of the current monastery buildings, which date from 1931—the triangular reflecting pool, the immense basilica with the relief carving of the Virgin and child in the pierre de France—the yellow ochre stone which gives the Gaume region of southern Belgium its sobriquet of the Val d’Or, the Valley of Gold.
There is a shop selling the abbey’s beer, cheese, and other products. There is a museum, an audio-visual presentation of the monastic life, and an agreeable walk among the medieval ruins of the old monastery. This includes the Fountain Mathilda, where the newly-widowed countess was said to have lost her wedding ring, only to have a trout rise to the surface with the ring in its mouth. In gratitude, she decided to establish the monastery, and this legend is still depicted as the logo on the distinctive bowling pin-shaped bottles of Orval.
Mostly, there is the palpable aura of quietude, a presence in itself. The sense of spaciousness makes it easy to imagine much work, prayer, and reflection being accomplished and there are 29 monks so engaged now at Orval, according to the one we spoke to, Father Lode. That’s not quite enough monk power to work in the brewery and the cheese dairy and the bread bakery, so the brewery is staffed by lay workers, and the bakery is sadly dormant at the moment.
Whereas most of the monasteries make beers of varying strengths and flavors, Orval makes but one singular brew, not counting a lower-alcohol version drunk by the monks with their meals or retreatants at the monastery (it’s 3.5% abv—alcohol by volume—versus the regular 6.2% abv). Like others, it uses a dose of candi sugar in the fermenter and as a primer before bottling—all the monastery beers go through natural carbonation en boutille, accounting for the sediment which will cloud the beers if poured incautiously.
But Orval is also dry-hopped, a common practice in English ales but virtually unheard of in Belgium. The hops (Hallertau and Styrian Goldings in this case) are added after the primary fermentation, during a conditioning period of about three weeks.
Then comes the dosage of a Brettanomyces yeast, a wild yeast that keeps working in the bottle long after regular yeasts stop. The heavenly confluence of all these factors produces a beer like no other, almost orange in the glass, and a suggestive citric character to go with it. It is perfumy, hoppy, clovey, tart but not puckering, and most certainly dry, an effect that will deepen in time. A bottle I spirited away from the monastery, at this moment sitting newly-emptied on my desk, suggests that it would have lasted well into the next millennium–until June 12, 2003 to be precise—had I the patience of a monk. But that’s only if it were well-cellared at about 55 degrees.
“And the beer must be served like wine, not chilled, which would break the taste, but at about 50-55 degrees,” said M. de Harenne.
Little has changed. The beer still has a rocky, almost whipped-cream head, the leathery and horse blanket impressions, the pleasing dryness. The bottle and label is the same. (The abv is listed as 6.9% in the U.S., as the bottle-conditioning can raise it from the original 6.2%.) I still have trouble holding onto them.
Awhile back I decided I would buy two bottles of Orval at intervals, drinking one and cellaring another for a future date. But in the past few days I’ve gone through my entire stash—two bottles. One was brewed in July of 2013, with a best before date of July 2018. The other was stamped January 2014, and would have been viable through 2019. Oh, well, time to start over.
I don’t drink Orval often. For one, it’s a little pricey, at $5.99 an 11.2 oz. bottle. Although when I put a photo of the bottle up on Untappd a few days ago, with the price sticker showing, a follower from Texas moaned that he couldn’t find it in Dallas for under $9.
But I also prefer to maintain its status as a special beer for me. It’s a little like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, perhaps my favorite piece of music. I don’t crank up the Ninth on a regular basis because I never want it to become routine, feeling overdone. I enjoy the sensation that I’m engaging with something a little unworldly, profound, almost beyond the realm of human endeavor, and yet of it just the same. And so I indulge only at intervals.
Same with Orval. It’s one of those beers that is the remarkable result of both skill and luck, and one of the joys of life that it’s ours for the tasting. And it’s not really that much of a stretch to suppose that joy, in whatever measure, can serve as a refutation to evil beyond belief at loose in the world.
Considering the provenance of Orval, we’ll take it that the fruits of simple labor, produced in an atmosphere of prayer and tranquility, will prevail in the end.
Brewer: Abbaye de Notre Dame d’Orval, Villers-devant-Orval, Belgium
Style: Belgian Ale
Availability: Year-round, nationwide
For More Information: www.orval.be/en
[March 23, 2016]