If you have missed the first two parts of this gripping saga please click here and here
We now move on to the aspects of production which make Orval unique. Orval is a hoppy beer. The hops jump out of the glass. All this fragrance comes from the dry hops. The dry hops are partially submerged in the beer at 15C for two weeks in the horizontal CTs. While we were there, two pallet-sized trolleys of soaking hop sacks drained aromatic hop juice across the tiled floor. Had Jean-Marie left us alone we would have been drinking the stuff like hounds at a kill. I questioned Jean-Marie on the microbiological impact of putting something straight out of a field into a tank of beer. He said that he had been adding fresh hops to beer for 30 years and never had micro issues. I’m still surprised. I can’t think of another commercial brand which is dry hopped and unfiltered.
After the conditioning tanks the yeast is removed from the beer in a centrifuge. En route to bottling Orval yeast, Brettanomyces and priming sugar are added in line. All three are precisely metered into the beer to achieve 9g/litre CO2 in the bottle. By UK standards this is a very high level of carbonation. I was very surprised to learn that Orval is not filtered at any stage. It says something for the design and operation of the Orval brewery that beer can go from lauter tun to bottle with no sterile filtration or pasteurisation without the occasional infection. It may also be down the hurdles to infection presented by the design of the beer. I asked Jean-Marie if he had a spec for haze, he shook his head and replied “is not possible”. Lovers of Orval accept that it is never crystal clear. I again feel myself getting very jealous of Jean-Marie.
The Orval bottling line was as exciting as any bottling line can be. The distinctive skittle-shaped bottle apparently has a similar tendency to fall over and cause issues. I would argue that this is a small price to pay for such a timeless icon of beer and brewing. They have forgotten when the single paper label was last redesigned. I assume the Orval marketing budget is slightly smaller than the average UK brewer. It is in the bottle that the magic of the Brettanomyces occurs. Jean Marie describes the action of the Brettanomyces as very slow. The vast majority of bottle fermentation is carried out by the Orval yeast with the Brettanomyces contributing its characteristic aroma. Jean-Marie prefers his Orval young where the role played by the Brettanomyces is less pronounced. I tend to agree. To me the Brettanomyces slowly eats away at the hop flavour and fresh appeal of the beer with time. This is not a popular view amongst beer fashionistas. The night before I was presented with a shot glass of the sediment from a 2 year old bottle of Orval in Brussels when I ordered an old and young bottle to make a comparison. I can’t say the shot glass of microbial sludge thrilled my taste buds at all, but then the theatre of service is always lost on me. Even more contoversially Jean-Marie said that he felt Orval would not improve beyond three- four years. Yeast autolysis and “madeiraisation” of the beer renders the beer to him unappealing. What does he know? He’s just the bloke what makes it. I suppose it’s up to you how you drink your Orval. You can drink it fresh as a daisy, after 12 years in the cellar or as a shandy, warm out of a colostomy bag, no one is wrong.
While at the monastery we drank it out of the keg.