Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Orval!


You either love it or hate it, and there is simply nothing quite like it, the Belgian elixir so many beer connoisseurs love and adore.

The history of Orval is quite unique, and is the only Trappist brewery that only brews one beer (a part from Petite Orval, which is the table version). The abbey is situated in the province of Luxembourg in south Belgium and dates back to the year 1132. The Orval we know has been brewing inside the walls of the monistary since 1931 and according to wikipedia, it was the first Trappist to be widely available in Belgium.

The Abbey itself has a charming story about it´s origin. According to the myth, the widowed Mathilda of Tuscany was visiting the site where Abbaye d'Orval stands now. The legend has it that she lost her wedding ring in a spring on the site, and when she prayed for the return of the ring, a trout appeared on the surface with a ring in it´s mouth. The designer of the Orval glass, Henry Vaes, used this myth when designing the glass, on the back side is a symbol of a ring.

I´m not going to go into details about the abbey´s history. It has a long and violent history, fires, wars and constant rebuilding. Instead, I´m going to focus on their beer, which is perhaps the best in the world.

Orval is a very complex beer. It is incredibly hoppy for a Belgian beer and measures 40 units of bitterness (IBU, international system which indicates the hop bitterness in a finished beer). It enjoys three fermentations with the final fermentationt taking place in the bottle. Interestingly, Orval has wild yeast, same as lambic beers, which gives the beer some of it´s distinct character. Orval has pure white candy sugar, the wild yeast attacks it, as well as the dextrins and leaves the beer high in alcahol with no sugar left.

The final product is remarkably complex, and some say that every Orval is different from the last bottle. Acid palate, tiny hints of sourness made by the wild yeast, dominated by a dry hoppy taste, with notes of dry fruits and faint candy sugar. Some sophisticated spices and strong hints of perfumes.

When I had Orval the first time, I was blown away. It was sampled back in 2003 and was a 2000 vintage. At that time, I never knew that beer could be this complex and aromatic. Since then, I´ve sampled it in every form and age possible. Youngest was just 4 months old, and was in my opinion the perfect session beer. It had a fairly easy palate, almost no head and was lacking perhaps the huge complexity of a 3 year old beer but made it up with extraordinary dry acidness. It peaks in my opinion between the age of 3 and 4. It gains the heavy complexity and is the perfect aperitif. Close to the age of 5 and beyond it develops sourness, which is not a bad thing, but starts to lack the hop character it is famour for. These are just my tasting notes and I would love to hear some opinions about this.

Overall, Orval is something of an acquired taste, but to those who really appreciate it, it is truly one of the best things life has to offer..

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