Orval was not always as respected as it is now. Breandán Kearney visits the Gaume to explore its rise in popularity.
In 2013 a number of high profile publications, including Forbes and the Independent, published erroneous stories about Brasserie d’Orval and how it was in danger of running out of beer due to decreasing numbers of monks to make it. Now 12 where there were once over 100, they claimed.
Orval Trappist Ale completely disappeared off the shelves in Belgian supermarkets and bottle shops. The Abbey was flooded with calls.
The incident highlighted just how iconic Orval has become. But this has not always been the case. Annual production of the beer in 2000 was just 32,000 hectolitres. In 2017, it has risen to 72,000. “It used to be different,” says Philippe Hendroz, General Manager at the brewery. “Fifteen years ago, it was very difficult to sell Orval.”
Part of the rise in Orval’s fortunes has been the increasing awareness – and growing appreciation of – ‘Brand Trappist’. “We are brewing inside an Abbey in beautiful surrounds,” says Philippe. “The objective of the brewery is the same as it was in 1931. It was first to have money to build the Abbey, but now to maintain the Abbey and for social help.”
So aggressive was the influx of media to the Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orval as a consequence of the erroneous stories in those publications that the monk responsible for the brewery, Brother Xavier, felt it necessary to issue an open letter on their website explaining that the monks supervise (and always have done) a strong lay team.
“From the outset, our beer production was entrusted to secular employees in the region, because the monastic community at the time was primarily occupied by the work on the farm and the cheese making,” the letter reads. “Unlike at other Trappist breweries, here at Orval, monks have never been directly involved in the production of beer.”
Orval enjoys a team of 35 professional lay brewing staff. When head brewer, Jean-Marie Rock retired in 2013, it was another layperson, his long-term assistant brewer Anne-Françoise Pypaert who replaced him. By doing so, Anne-Françoise became the first female head brewer at a Trappist Abbey. She has never worked a day anywhere else.
Orval has precedent in good hiring practices. Hans Pappenheimer, largely credited with the Orval recipe, was recruited from Germany. His East Flemish assistant, who studied brewing in England before arriving at Orval, is said to have brought back the technique of dry hopping.
Orval undergoes a 3-week dry-hopping period, before bottling, during which each tank receives flower bags full of Hallertau-Hersbrucker, Strisselspalt and Styrian Goldings. “Nowadays, dry-hopping is the thing to do, but we’re not trying to make a trendy beer,” says Philippe. “We’ve been doing that since the beginning.”
Changes in consumer behaviour have helped Orval’s case. “One of the reasons Orval was difficult to sell up until recently is that the level of bitterness is very high,” says Philippe. “Fifteen years ago sweet blonde beers were popular. But now consumers prefer bitter beers. Look at Duvel Tripel Hop. Look at the trend of IPAs across the world and now in Belgium.”
Perhaps the most interesting characteristic of Orval is what is referred to as the ‘goût d’Orval’, an evolving flavour facilitated by the addition before bottling and after centrifuge of 3 different yeast strains, including – albeit in surprisingly low quantities – a very important one: brettanomyces. It’s a wild yeast strain which is now cultivated in the Orval labs and is added to the beer 3 weeks before bottling.
This slow acting yeast eats sugars which other cultured top fermenting yeasts cannot and not only changes the profile of the beer from a bitter hoppy pale ale to a drier complex wild ale, but it delivers a beer which increases in alcohol over its life-span from 5.9% ABV when it’s bottled to 6.9% ABV given enough time.
Orval’s relatively recent success is also tied to an obsession with its locality. The privilege of selling ‘Orval Vert’ – a 4.5% ABV version of the beer – falls to one bar, À L’Ange Gardien, located 200 metres from the brewery. While Belgian brewers export on average 60% of their beer, Orval sells 85% of theirs in Belgium. 92% of it stays in the Benelux.
“Orval is the go-to beer down here,” says Frédéric Bekaert from local brewery, La Rulles. “In the Gaume, everyone buys crates of Orval in the supermarket instead of pils beer.”
These Orval crates are produced using two colours: Yellow, to reflect the golden sandstone of the region, the stone that was used to build the Abbey; and green, to represent the forests of the Gaume.