When I was about 20 I used to take Michael Jackson to bed. That’s not as dodgy an image as it sounds and in any case at least I was above the age of consent. After the drudgery of a day spent with my head in a boiler and a freezing night on the training pitch being beaten up by semi professional thugs, Michael would take me to a magical kingdom, of lush forests, (sans Panzers), imposing abbeys and monks making beer according to a noble tradition. To normal people this image is romantic, to a man who had recently fallen head over heals in love with beer, it was intoxicating beyond words. My aching frame was transported to rest on a boat crossing a lake of rich ale piloted by a rosy-cheeked friar.
It’s now 17 years on and I’m a hardened commercial brewer making half a million pints a week with a lot of living under his belt. Even so the romance of monastic brewing still sends my heart aflutter. When the opportunity to gain intimate access to this world of wonder presented itself I can’t remember being more excited. I think I am perhaps even more excited in 2010 because now I can understand what makes Trappist beer unique more deeply.
The trip began in the Betjeman Arms with a pint of my Betjeman Ale and meeting up with ATJ. ATJ was invited along to record the trip for posterity. I wouldn’t have trusted myself to remember the fine details when wired with the anticipated excitement. ATJ is a man with a mind like an electric eel whose ability to digress tenfold from a line of conversation before veering back to his original point without losing any of its sense of purpose, I am sure is his skill alone. He is also the most stimulating and fascinating company available to any beer lover and knows good craich better than most.
As a warm up to our trip to Orval we spent an evening in Brussels. The highlight of this was some of the world’s finest (in my humble) cuisine a la biére preceded by a litre of unblended Drie Fontenien lambic at In ‘t Spinnekopke, As with every other evening I have spent in Brussels it was a late and towards the end hazily-remembered one. I do remember a bar called Homo Erectus catching ATJ’s eye on the way back to the hotel. As I was on my way up to bed I remember him saying he was going out to buy some stamps before disappearing back up the road....
The train journey down to Florenville was a long but thanks to ATJ an entertaining and interesting one. Subjects as diverse as the Von Runstedt Offensive and the early works of Transvision Vamp were covered quite comprehensively in conversation. They were however mere punctuation of enthusiastic but not always harmonious beer-themed dialogue. It seemed like moments before we were stranded at Florenville station which is a shed with windows at the end of a residential street, in the middle of nowhere. Thanks to the taxi number written in permanent marker on the station window and my Cocknais (bad French in a cockney accent) we arrived at Abbye Notre-Dame d'Orval an hour before the arranged meeting time.
And so, I was there, that place the Michael used to take me to. That place which was so magical that it could never live up to expectations. Being there in these circumstances, expectations could only ever have been surpassed. It was a bit like I was walking onto the Thomson Holidays advert (my blog contains too many TV references) where a team of dedicated individuals make everything just-right. The weather was warm but not oppressive. The lake in front of the Abbey had a fine mist across it seemingly underlining its naturally mystic quality. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the rosy-cheeked friar had beckoned ATJ and I on to his boat at that point. I won’t try to describe the Abbey or how it made me feel because I couldn’t begin to convey it. I am not normally one for architecture and tend to be moved by corporeal or olfactory beauty but Orval was captivatingly beautiful. It had an almost organic beauty. Maybe the hand of the god that I don’t believe in was involved in its creation?
It was now only minutes until my audience with Jean-Marie and the way I felt reminded me of a cross between the panic you feel as you walk into a job interview and the excitement I felt when I queued up to get into my first Napalm Death gig. As we turned the corner following the signs for “Brasserie” I heard the unmistakable sound of what we brewers call smallpack. I had been worried since I heard that I was “in” that I would reach a point where excitement would get the better of me and I would fail to function. As we walked into the Orval loading bay I was teetering on the edge of being there. Fortunately a waft of conveyor sanitiser transported me back to a nightshift of watching Fosters being bottled at Reading and that took the edge off. There was something a bit James Bond about this place. A state of the art packaging line housed in a neo-medieval Ardennes abbey, top secret excellence but in this case on the side of the good guys.
More exemplary cocknaise avec the brewery secretary saw our arrival announced to Jean-Marie and there he was, the bloke from the pictures on the internet, my soon-to-be brewing hero.
The picture above shows Jean-Marie listening politely as Stuart “goes off on one” about some passion or other.