As the beer was poured the room was filled with the smell of Orval. ATJ has Jean-Marie pinned to the wall with a barrage of questions. The KGB’s loss is the beer world’s gain. I was really pleased to have ATJ there at that point because I was struggling to take it all in. I am also informed that I can come across as bit ‘brooding and menacing’ when I am quiet. Adrian was doing a good job of lightening the mood. It became obvious from speaking to Jean-Marie that with the privilege of brewing a world classic comes the responsibility to stay faithful to its identity and also to provide a sympathetic ear to those who love the product even when they veer from the rational, a case of noblesse oblige.
The beer from keg was beautiful, slightly cleaner than the bottled Orval but with all of its refreshing appeal. The first glass was almost breathed in, such was my thirst and longing for it. I made sure the second beer was consumed at a more respectful pace but that did take most of my will power for the day. Orval is apparently one of those beers you either get or you don’t. I have to admit to not having been overly enamoured with the beer when I first tried it. The Trappist beers span a variety of attributes but if you are familiar with Chimay et al. there is an expectation of a full richness. By contrast Orval is uncompromisingly dry and refreshing. This coupled with the care home carpet notes conferred by Brettanomyces and 6 months in a warm beer shop left me wondering if something had gone horribly wrong with my bottle. Taking some time to understand Orval rewards the drinker with a truly unique beer experience, a beer which marries the seemingly conflicting facets of complexity and refreshment more completely than any other. What perhaps people don’t get is that beer has more dimensions than can be created by a 30 year old spirit cask or a trendy hop variety. This is of course just my opinion. My palate is not as sophisticated as some, it often fails to appreciate the complexities and subtleties of beer with a load of strongly-flavoured hops in it.
So why Brettanomyces? Jean-Marie points to a wild yeast infection in the pitching yeast back in the early years of the brewery. The drinkers became accustomed to the wild yeast flavour and when it was discovered and removed the beer was just not the same. The search was then on for the wild strain which conferred the Orval character. The strain was isolated and from thenceforth added to the bottle. Most people assume that all Brettanomyces produce the same flavours and carry out the same metabolic activities but there is as much variation in this yeast as the Saccharomyces that us mortal brewers use. It was therefore vital to find the right contaminating organism to make Orval, Orval again.
More to follow.....