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Beer Reviews

Trappist Ale

Brasserie d'Orval

Style: Belgian Ale

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (World class.)

Pair With:
With beer euphoria still in full effect after my amazing experience with the phenomenal Trappistes Rochefort 10, I was ready to move on to the next beer on my international agenda, the non-Trappist Belgian ale Pauwel Kwak from Brouwerij Bosteels. But today, while browsing the shelves at a local purveyor of fine suds, I saw the trademark 11.2 oz. bubble bottle from Brasserie d’Orval, which contained another authentic Trappist ale, Orval Trappist Ale (clever name). Since I was still high on Belgian yeast, I plopped down $5 in pennies and out I went with another Trappist.

Orval is a bit of a different beast in the Trappist world (shameless plug: to see a brief rundown of Trappist ales, go to my recent review for Rochefort 10). To begin with, they only brew one beer available to the general public, the appx. 6.9 percent ABV ale I’m about to indulge in. Their other brew, the 3.5 percent pasterbier (a weaker table beer brewed for the monks at the monastery) Petite Orval, is not distributed. Also, while producing twice as much as Rochefort and 10 times as much as Westvleteren, the two most “traditional” Trappist brewers, Orval is still considered a bit of an outsider when compared to them and the monsters of the Trappist world, Chimay and Westmalle, and to a lesser extent Koningshoeven. Only Achel, the newbie of the group, is less widely known than Orval.

Brasserie d’Orval is based at the Abbey Notre-Dame d’Orval in Villers-devant-Orval, in the Gaume region of Belgium. Like Rochefort, it’s in the French speaking area of Belgium, further south than Rochefort in the foothills of the Ardennes, bordering France and Luxembourg. While brewing at the abbey goes back to at least the 17th century, the modern brewery opened in 1931. Modern equipment allows for decent production, so some of the tradition found at Westvleteren and, to a lesser extent, Rochefort, is missing in the machinery at Orval.

The “bubble bottle” is pretty cool, though I’m not sure as to exactly what you call the design. A drab brown, there’s a ring on the neck identifying it as Orval, and naming the importer, with the standard U.S. government warning. Under “Orval” is a fish leaping out of the water with a ring in his mouth, a reference to a local legend regarding how the abbey got its name. Stamped on the back is a “bottled on” date, 05/06/2008 in this case, and a “best by” date, which is exactly five years later. As a bottle conditioned ale, the flavor and alcohol changes with time, and Orval apparently starts under 6 percent ABV and goes upwards of 7 percent, depending on when you drink it.

Orval is also unique in the way they approach the brewing process. Trappist Ale is dry hopped between first and second fermentations, giving it three weeks to mature and giving it a slight hoppy profile. Also, Orval uses a local yeast strain that gives a bit of a different flavor when compared to other Belgian ales. We’ll see what the results are.

Orval Trappist Ale pours like any bottle-conditioned Belgian, with a huge creamy head that makes it impossible to pour an entire 11.2 oz. bottle into my chalice at once. The head slowly dissipates, leaving a large pillowy lace throughout with some stickiness on the sides. A stunning deep golden brown/amber hue, there’s quite a bit of sedimentation and carbonation, making it an impressive looking brew.

The aroma makes it clear from the get-go that this is going to be a tad bit different. The initial aroma is sweetness, but not a typical sweetness. Rather, I’m sensing light fruitiness in the form of grape and apple, with a bit of an acidic secondary note. After a while, the brett and grains begin to become more noticeable, as does a hint of spice that wasn’t present in my Rochefort 10. A unique aroma that’s sweet and effervescent, and overall quite enjoyable.

The flavor is very good, as it should be. Trappist breweries gained their distinction not only because they’re based in monasteries, but also because they brew world-class beer. Orval is no exception, as Trappist Ale is in fact unique, but also exceptionally tasty. Initial flavors are light and sweet, with hints of green grape, tart apple, and pear, with light caramel and toffee notes in the background. The Brettanomyces do in fact give it a different flavor, as the yeasty, earthy undertone is pleasant, but unlike any brew I’ve had. The dry hopping adds the slightest touch of bitterness, and, when combined with the brett, gives it a good amount of spice. The light sweetness, spice, and carbonation tingles the tongue from beginning to end. As the beer warms, flavors change slightly, from a more yeasty, earthy profile to a sweeter, sugary profile. Light- to medium-bodied and a touch rough on the palate due to the same acidic notes and spice, Orval goes down fairly well with a mild aftertaste.

While Orval Trappist Ale pales in comparison to the masterpiece that was Rochefort 10, it’s nonetheless worthy of its world-class designation. Much sweeter, spicier, and a tad more acidic, Orval is in fact very distinctive among the Trappist ales. I’m glad I gave it a shot, and, while I flirted with a four-mug designation, I have to go with a five. An excellent brew to be sure, pick one up should you see the interesting looking bottle at a retailer, and experience it for yourself.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on February 22, 2010.
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