Series by Christopher Barnes.
Located deep in the south of Belgium near the border of France lies Abbaye de Notre-Dame d’Orval. Within the abbey walls lies one of the most famous breweries in the world. Brasserie d’Orval produces only one beer for sale, their world renowned Orval.
Orval has one of the more interesting founding legends of the Trappist Monasteries. In the 11th Century, Mathilda of Tuscany was visiting the area when she lost her wedding ring. She prayed to God for its return when a fish popped out of the spring holding the ring in its mouth. In her happiness, she declared the area a true “Val d’Or” or Valley of Gold which gave rise to the name Orval and one of better logos in beer.
Mathilda was so overjoyed she provided funds for the construction of the first monastery. Although the area had played host to monks off and on for centuries, the original Orval monastery traces its founding to 1124 when a group of Canons Regular settled down and consecrated a chapel. Needing more monks, they appealed to the growing Cistercian Order for more monks to come and work the land with them. The two groups of monks eventually merged under the Cistercian Order.
During the 17th Century, as the newly formed Trappist order was rising, Orval decided to convert to the newer, stricter form of Benedictine rules. However, the end would come for the monastery in 1793 with the arrival of the French Revolutionary Army.
Orval would rise from its ruins starting in the 19th Century when the Harrene family acquired the land containing the ruins of Orval. They donated the land to the Trappist Order which revived the Orval Monastery. The second founding of Orval took place in 1928. Four years later, the monks were brewing beer.
Orval: The Beer
While the original Orval monks brewed throughout the monastery’s history, the monks of Orval decided to brew an entirely new beer. Orval is classified as a “Belgian Pale Ale” but in reality, it’s a beer unto its own. They also decided it would be the only beer they’d brew for sale.
Orval is the hoppiest and bitterest of the Trappist beers. When it’s young, it’s very hoppy. But hops aren’t the only thing that make it unique. They also use the “wild” yeast strain known as Brettanomyces in the finishing process.
To finish the beer, it’s bottled with a little bit of sugar and some additional yeast then capped. Since there’s no place for the CO2 to escape after the bottle is capped, it dissolves in the liquid and gives the beer its sparkle and head. The Brettanomyces is part of the yeast mix in the finishing yeast. What’s special about this yeast strain is that it eats complex sugars that regular brewing yeast can’t. All the amber malts that give Orval its characteristic orange color contain a lot of these more complex sugars. Over time, the Brett, as it’s known, eats this complex sugars and releases CO2 and other bi-products that give the beer its unique funky flavors and aroma. The longer you age the Orval, the dryer and more complex it gets.
Orval fans usually split into two camps: Young Orval and Aged Orval. Personally, I love all Orval. The great thing for Orval fans is the Abbey has designated Ambassador Orval establishment. These are places that have been surveyed, often anonymously, to make sure the establishment is storing and serving the beer to the best standards. Ambassador bars are selected yearly. It’s a great honor to be a selected and an even greater one to be regularly selected.
If you see this plaque, you can be assured that your Orval will be served and cared for the right way. You can also find a list of current Orval Ambassadeur places on their website.
And while it’s true that Orval only sells one beer to the world, they do brew a lower alcohol version of Orval, referred to as Petite Orval, that is used as the table beer for the monks’ daily use.
Where To Go
To get to the Abbey of Orval, you’ll need to take a train to Florenville then take a bus to Viller-devant-Orval. There, you can visit the ruins of the old monastery and the café of the new monastery. The usual Trappist monastery rules apply: You might be able to see parts of the abbey but you won’t be able to tour the brewery, although they do have open brewery weekends (see their website for details).
A L’Ange Gardien – “The Gardian Angel” is owned by the monastery and provides hospitality for guests and tourists. It has a wide selection of aged Orvals as well as an extensive menu of food prepared and paired with Orval. You can also try the rare Petite Orval here.
La Novelle Hostellerie d’Orval – The Novelle Hostellerie d’Orval is the other place to drink Orval in Viller-devant-Orval. You can also stay in one of their 6 rooms. Of course, they are an Ambassador bar.
GenGoulf – GenGoulf is a small brewery located in the same village as Orval. They do have open hours to visit, you’ll have to check their website for dates and times. If they’re not open, you can find their beers in the local stores.
Don’t drink and drive!
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Christopher Barnes is an American beer writer, blogger, and brewing industry professional with a passion for travel, Belgium and its beers. You can find his writings at I think about beer or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.
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