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The Mythic Birthplace of Orval

<i>BrewingTechniques</i>
Inside Orval
Sanctity Meets Modern Times in an Evolving World Classic

Story and photography by Christian T. DeBenedetti
Republished from BrewingTechniques' May/June 1998 issue.

Orval's renowned ale is the product of an authentic Trappist monastery deeply imbued with grace and antiquity. Yet as one traveler was to learn, not even this legendary brewery has wholly withstood the march of modernity.

Without a doubt, one of the finest and most storied breweries in Belgium is in the Notre Dame d'Orval monastery in Villers-devant-Orval, near Florenville in the Belgian province of Luxembourg (not to be confused with the independent duchy of Luxembourg to the east). It is one of the world's six remaining Trappist abbey breweries, owned and occupied by true, cloistered Trappist monks. The other Trappist abbeys in Belgium are known commonly as Rochefort, Westmalle, Westvleteren, and Chimay. The sixth brewery, called Schaapskooi, lies just over the Dutch border to the north at the Koningshoeven monastery.

The Orval abbey is more than 850 years old, and its fame justifiably spreads each day as more and more people discover the beer it has been brewing for the last 67 years -- a top-fermented, bottle-conditioned specialty beer named, simply, Orval. As I discovered on a recent visit, however, the ancient monastery and its famous brewery have not entirely elluded the commercial age. Recent times have brought significant shifts in Orval's brewing operations that will likely surprise fans of Orval and of Belgian beers in general.

A Traveler's Glimpse Inside Orval
I visited Orval in the spring of 1997. My trip to the ancient monastery began in Brussels and took me all the way to Belgium's border with France. There in the captivatingly beautiful French-speaking Ardennes, between the winding Chiers and the serpentine Semoy rivers, lies the forested Gaume valley that is home to Orval.

When I rounded the wooded country lane that approaches the monastery, I beheld a breathtaking scene. The golden stone of the abbey's large compound glowed in the midst of a clearing of fir trees. Towers and gabled dormer windows peeked out from austere, steep rooftops in front of the abbey's great Cistercian revival facade, all of which was gracefully situated at the end of a pasture lined with old rambling stone walls.

Five of the world's six Trappist breweries are located in Belgium. The sixth is in The Netherlands.

One of the most stirring aspects of Orval is the juxtaposition of old and new construction. The present-day abbey was reconstructed in 1926 from an older abbey built in the 18th century and damaged during the French Revolution (not to be confused with the ruins of Orval's first, 12th century abbey still standing within the compound). Reconstruction on the modern abbey was overseen by Henry Vaes, who also designed Orval's distinctive grail-like goblet. Pleasant, austere lines infuse the new porticoed cloister and triangular reflecting pool with quietude and a sense of peaceful contemplation. The cloister's impressive facade displays a monumental art-deco Christus Patiens stretching skyward with a plaintive gravitas (see photo, page 58).

Though the new abbey and its main grounds are strictly off-limits to secular excursions, visitors may stroll through the lovely, dramatic medieval ruins of the original 12th century abbey, which lie in a quiet western corner of the compound. Among the grassy paths, ruined columns, and battered walls still stands the skeletal rose window through which the morning sun of centuries ago once shone into the abbey's left trancept. Arched gateways here and there still attest to the abbey's former splendor; I could easily imagine how the once-fine abbey must have impressed passing crusaders. Nearby lies a monk's ancient herb garden, where at least one hop vine still grows.

The Brewery

Orval's brewery was built in 1931 to help finance the reconstruction of the new abbey. It occupies the eastern edge of the compound, slightly removed from the monastery proper in a way that is oddly fitting.

Like all Trappist monasteries (the Order claims 116 monasteries around the world, including 12 in the United States), Orval is a community of ascetic, hard-working, silent monks practicing an austere existence. Of great importance to the Order is the pursuit of the contemplative life balanced with the self-sufficency of farming their own land and producing their own goods. The brewery is at once a part of life at Orval and a distraction from prayer and study. Though stories differ on the extent to which the actual cloistered monks have been involved in brewery operations over the years, for the most part their only role at Orval these days is counting the profits made from their beers and replenishing their customized, heavy gold-rimmed goblets with the fruit of God's fermentations.

I had made advance arrangements to tour the brewery. When I arrived I was warmly greeted by my guide, an assistant brewer/engineer who agreed to show me around.

I had many questions as I toured the spotless, gleaming brewery. Orval's splendid, complex beer is one of the most bitter in Belgium and features a Brettanomyces bite uncharacteristic of the other Trappist beers. The goût d'Orval, as Belgians call the flavor, is the source of much admiration -- and speculation. Just what creates the extraordinary color, the dry, herbal bitterness?

Naturally, I wanted to inquire about specifics, but feared that the notoriously private Trappist organization would stifle candor. I was wrong. My guide was quite open, revealing the details of ingredients, yeasts, mashing schedules, and boiling times. As we strolled near the fermentors and mill, my guide explained how, eight times per week, Orval's famous ale is derived from a blend of three pale, aromatic Belgian-grown malts (Aleksi, Prisma, and a caramel; the specific blends vary from year to year), which create Orval's vibrant orange color. The grains are mashed in at 145 °M (63 °C) and then ramped up to 162 °F (72 °C) for 60 minutes to complete the infusion mash cycle. Twenty minutes into the boil, two varieties of hops (Styrian Golding and Hallertau-Hersbrucker) are worked in. The addition of 350 kg of Belgian white candi sugar per batch pushes the original gravity from 1.040 to 1.052 (10 to 12.8 ° P).

After whirlpooling, the wort undergoes three separate fermentations. The primary fermentation is conducted in open, stainless steel vessels with a standard pale ale Saccharomyces strain at 57-71 °F (14-22 °C). This first fermentation lasts five to six days.

The beer is then transferred to horizontal stainless steel conditioning cylinders where it is dry hopped with whole hops and fermented for three weeks with a second batch of yeast at around 59 °F (15 °C). The slurry used for this fermentation is made up of as many as 10 different strains, including Brettanomyces.

The beer is then bottled with a small amount of dissolved candi sugar and fresh primary yeast to ensure a third fermentation, similar to the methode champagnoise used to make Champagne. Bottles are stored for five to six weeks at 59 °F (15 °C). Orval is neither filtered nor pasteurized. The final beer is 6.2% (v/v), though it has been known to ferment to unexpected levels in the bottle.

Rumors of Change at Orval
When I asked about a rumor I'd heard from my friend Yvan DeBaets, a brewing enthusiast and unofficial brewery watchdog from Leuven, Belgium, my guide became more than just a tiny bit embarrassed. It seems that in 1993, Orval deliberately lowered the pH in the boiling stage of its beer, subtly but noticably diminishing Orval's trademark hop bite. The abbey's brewing water, drawn from its own well, is high in calcium carbonate, an alkaline mineral that has doubtless contributed to Orval's flavor by bringing out hop bitterness. The pH adjustment now moderates that effect. Coincidentally, the hopback was also cast into disuse as faster-acting hop pellets and extracts took over the bittering duties.

"Yes, it's true," my host quickly confirmed with a slight blush, visibly amazed that I had asked. My host then volunteered in a vaguely confessional flurry that at that time a full 2.5% of the maturing ale was made up of micro-filtered and pasteurized, or "dead," beer left over from the yeast-pressing process -- a method of piaster-pinching that fortunately has since stopped.

The reduction in pH saved the brewery no money and served only to slightly smooth out the beer's much-cherished bitterness by reducing hop utilization (a pH-related phenomenon noted by George Fix in his book, Principles of Brewing Science). An odd alteration to make? Perhaps not, if one considers the forces at work in Orval's awakening to the 21st century.

The Union of Christianity and Capitalism
Since the brewery's construction in 1931, Orval's self-supporting business ventures have increased dramatically. The monks' productions of bread, cheese, and beer are labor-intensive processes that by all appearances are essential for the survival of the monastery. But these labors take time away from the monks' daily regimen of prayer and scholarship. Moreover, the number of active, able-bodied monks has decreased in recent years to a little more than two dozen. Nor are the monks getting any younger, as Orval's U.S. importer Charles Finkel of Merchant du Vin (Seattle, Washington) pointed out to me in a recent interview.

Photograph of the ruins from the original Orval abbey
Ruins from the original Orval abbey date back to the 12th and 13th centuries. In the background, the magnificient tower of the present-day abbey fills the skyline.

Less than a decade away from the 21st century, financial concerns prompted Orval to sell off its larger farms and reorganize the way it does business. In 1991, the brewery's last Trappist director, Father Bruno, yielded the reins to one Jacques Petre -- an economist. Under the current arrangement, a secular company (the Brasserie d'Orval) and board of directors made up of business and lay people leases the name "Orval," markets the "Authentic Trappist" beer (the sales of which in turn support the abbey and bolster the stock -- which is controlled by the monastery), and distributes brewery profits, which are reinvested into the brewery and divided among various charities. According to Finkel, a great number of charities around the world benefit from Orval's brewery profits.

A secular head brewer, Jean Pierre Rock, was put in charge of the engineering duties. He quickly bumped up the brewing schedule from one batch per week to eight. Finkel asserts that production will soon increase again as exports soar -- especially to the United States, where consumption of the legendary beer doubled from 1991 to 1992 (to 46,000 bottles). To cope with the increased demand in the United States and in Belgium, Orval plans to put new focus on shelf placement and give preferential allocation to good foreign markets. There has also been talk of adding "valuation" to Orval -- which is to say that its price will shortly be raised.

Photograph of the ruins from the original Orval abbey
The new church and cloister are off-limits to visitors, though guests may stay overnight in a chalet attached to the compound.

The Brasserie d'Orval is also negotiating for a credit line and bank loans to pay for the expansion campaign that began last year. Already in place are a host of new lagering tanks, placed in a new underground cellar, and an acclimatized aging room designed to handle 90,000 cases at a time. Constructed with such essential elements as 10-ft ceilings and controlled air circulation and air drying equipment, the new storage space anticipates planned increases in brewing activity of 5,000-7,000 hL over the current capacity of 38,000 hL. In 1997, Orval brewed to its then-full capacity and sold every drop.

When I asked Orval's marketing director Fran¨ois De Harenne about the adjustment to Orval's bitterness profile, he admitted that changes had occurred, but claimed that EEC regulations limiting nitrosamines from whole hops treated with fertilizer prompted the move to pellets. He was quick to point out that whole flower hops are still used for dry-hopping, where the nitrosamine hazard is less of an issue.

De Harenne was more hesitant when I asked him about the changes in pH. After some thought he told me that he seemed to remember that the maltster who supplies Orval barley switched to kiln drying, which decreased the sulfur levels in the mash, mandating a change in Orval's water regimen.

"Yes, but has the taste of Orval changed?" I ask him.

"It is very difficult to remember a taste, especially as we all get older," he replied. "But there are tastings every day in the lab, and every month by committee, and the effort is to keep [Orval] unchanged . . . stable, with a good head, and a good bouquet." Clarifying the brewery's approach, De Harenne stated that the company "would rather that some people hate it, and some -- the true customers -- remain loyal."

The problem is precisely that some of Orval's most loyal customers have noticed a difference in the beer. Yvan DeBaets is one of a growing cadre of skeptical Orval fans who claim that the beer isn't what it used to be. DeBaets recently spearheaded a public protest against suspected alterations in Orval by offering to buy as much of the originally formulated ale as the brewery could produce. The offer was rejected.

Dan Shelton, an importer of lambic from the Cantillon brewery, is another who feels Orval just isn't the same. He laments, "I can't put my finger on it, but it used to have a more delicate and distinctive flavor. It has definitely changed."

Orval in Perspective
My visit to the abbey concluded with a tasting of some aged Orvals, including 3-, 10-, 20-, and 30-year-old examples. Each was a sensory experience unique to itself -- some better than others. The 30-year-old sample had oxidized into something resembling turpentine, as Rock put it, but the 10-year-old bottle of Orval was a pleasure of infinite proportions: dry and crackling with a deep, palpable hop profile all the better for its age, sharpened by a Brettanomyces character that grows more pronounced with time.

The differentiations in Orvals from year to year are already a matter of debate among the brewery's fans, and my visit confirmed that recent changes had in fact occurred in the beer's flavor profile. The precise motivations that invited these changes are curious, though one scenario suggests itself based on modern market realities. That Orval would have downplayed its bitterness, shifted to pellets, experimented with topping off the beer with run-off from the yeast press, and increased production eight-fold at the precise time of major increases in exportation and expansion is perhaps not so difficult to accept in light of today's aggressive Belgian beer market.

Belgian breweries are now competing for export market share with more determination than ever (see related story, page 17). Brewing giant Interbrew, the Anheuser-Busch of Belgium, continues its march toward conglomeration and market share domination. And as beverages from the soda pop and ice-tea world continue to lure drinkers away from beers such as Orval, Belgian brewers and their marketing teams face the challenge of stemming the tide of mediocrity and keeping the boutique beers of Belgium in their present state of worldwide acclaim -- without going broke.

Plus Ça Changes . . .
The European continent is no stranger to change. The people, architecture, political boundaries, and economic landscape all embody centuries of change and adaptation. Perhaps beer is not exempt from the inexorable march of time. Although no one likes to see a "world classic" tampered with, however slightly, perhaps changes in beer and brewing methods are as inevitable as the myriad other changes that surround us. If that's true, we may borrow from the French, who coined the phrase, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

The anecdotal history of the goût d'Orval as told by many discerning European and American beer lovers is painted in hues of admiration, amazement, and conjecture. Yet even after being apprised of the changes at the brewery, I remain a fan of Orval, and I know I'm not alone. Minute alterations be damned. Even in 1998, Orval is a heavenly beer.

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