The Picture above is Francois De Harenne Orval’s Commercial Director and very nice man in the new brewhouse taken by someone else (thanks mate!)
After complimenting me on my superbly composed French e-mails and me owning up to them having been translated, Jean-Marie impishly asked what it was that I wanted to do. I suggested that a brewery tour might be a nice idea. Jean Marie reminded me of my granddads, he had the quickness of wit and slight stature of my mum’s father and the calm pragmatism of from my dad’s side.
Warning: bewildering technical details are about to be bounded around willy-nilly.
I expected the Orval brewery to be a professional one but the last thing I expected to see was a wet mill and a GEA centrifugal wort separator. Everything in the plant room below the brewhouse shone with modern efficiency and €signs. You could see that location of everything had been planned down to the millimetre. Panels of green LEDs and process mimics seemed to be at every step along out path up to the brewhouse. The newest brewhouse (third since the Abbey has been brewing) was installed at the same time as mine. You could have paid for my brewhouse with the money it must have cost to kit out that plant room. Jean-Marie told us how they used to use 100% iso extract to add bitterness in the kettle but now needed to add some pellets to give something for the trub to cling to when running through the centrifuge.
I wouldn’t normally divulge technical info on other brewer’s beers but I think with Orval it’s different. You can try to brew your own but it will never be Orval.
The brewhouse had the feel of an otherworldly office to it. It was dimly lit and the ceiling was peppered with tiny LEDs to resemble the night sky, modern illuminated stained glass covered back wall. There was no evidence that beer was made there other than the copper clad vessel tops. If god had wandered through and peered into the glass mandoors I wouldn’t have been surprised. The old copper brewhouse stood cheek by jowl with the new equipment. The 1950s copperwork was much prettier than that from this century which looked a bit false as it sat over the stainless vessels. They were a bit like a mock Tudor house, nice but fundamentally inauthentic. What was beautiful was the engineering involved and the precision with which it could make wort. This equipment would love to make 90 tonnes of an anonymous pilsner per day but in the hands of Jean-Marie it is making a 50,000 bottles of a world classic. The whole brewery was controlled from Jean Marie’s desktop. PGs, pHs, IBU, temperatures, times flow rates, you name it, it was monitored and adjusted automatically in line.
Pale ale malt came from the UK and France and special malt from Belgium, I’m not sure where the sucrose and Iso came from. Orval owes a lot to sucrose. Without it the intense dryness which makes it so easy to drink and so difficult to stop drinking would be diminished. Also I suspect that there is a risk that the Brettanomyces would be over fed in the bottle with plenty of residuals in place.
Orval is the first brewery that I have ever heard of which only uses its yeast once. I felt a bit sorry for the Orval yeast. It’s grown up from a slope in the lab until big, strong and bold, ferments one batch of Orval and then it’s Au revior. Most brewers give the yeast a month or so before ditching it. Orval yeast gets a 5 day blaze of glory before the green mile to the pig farm. Jean-Marie delighted in my surprise at his yeast regime, proudly proclaiming that Orval is fermented with generation zero! He greeted the comment that it is widely written that Orval yeast is a complex 5-strain blend with amusement and a little frustration. As I learned more details of how things happen at Orval much of what I had read about the place was proven to be inaccurate or just plain bollocks. He must get tired of people correcting him on his own methods.
After fermentation the beer is then whisked away through the centrifugal separator into the conditioning tank where it meets a real hop for the first time. The Strisselspalt hops were stored in fresh packs in a surgically clean fridge. East Kent and Styrian Goldings may or may not have been used in the past. I didn’t want to keep arguing with Jean-Marie about how he makes beer. They are then put into specially-made sacks before a big Belgian with a moustache kicks ten bails of merd out of them ready for the CT.
Bored yet? Another instalment will follow whether you like it or not.