Brewtopia Events LLC
Owen Ogletree and Paul Eckloff
visited all five of the remaining Belgian Trappist monasteries that
brew their own ales. This is our story of one of them.
Although all of the Trappist monasteries in Belgium are cloistered (meaning closed to the general public), the monastery of Orval near the town of Florenville has many attractions for interested visitors. Located in a scenic, wooded valley, the abbey itself is absolutely exquisite. Large stone buildings form a border around a central reflecting pool. We visited in February when this pool seemed to be frozen solid. Adjacent to the modern abbey lie fascinating ruins of the ancient facility. Visitors are allowed to walk through these ruins and visit a museum containing artifacts, paintings, and photos from the old church. In the warm months, the monks charge an admission fee for the self-guided tour but, in frigid February the fee is waived.
The most delightful legend surrounding the ancient Monastery at Orval involves Countess Mathilda of Tuscany who was visiting the area almost one thousand years ago. Supposedly, this beautiful lady was looking into a small pond to admire her reflection when she dropped her golden ring into the water. As the ring disappeared into the muck at the bottom of the pond, the princess asked God for a miracle. If God would return her prized possession to her, she would declare the land sacred and build an abbey there. At that moment a tiny fish appeared at the water's surface with her ring in its mouth. The grateful Countess retrieved her ring from the fish and kept her word to God. The abbey of this golden valley was thus born. We visited a small, brick-enclosed pond in the center of the old abbey ruins, and the monks still claim this to be the site where the Countess met the fish. The label of Orval Trappist Ale proudly displays the holy fish and ring.
Orval ale and cheese can both be purchased in the visitor's gift shop at the abbey. The gift shop also offers post cards, books, bottle openers, and a variety of other goodies for tourists. There is also a quaint café about a half mile on the main road from the abbey that offers the delicious ale, cheese, and other local foods.
Orval Trappist Ale is one of only five Belgian beers that can legally use the title "Trappist." Of all the Trappist Ales, Orval must win the prize for the one with the most complex and unusual flavor and aroma produced by the unique strain of yeast (including Brettanomyces). The beer is dark gold in color, slightly cloudy, and has a large, foamy head. There is a complex aroma of leather, horse blanket, spice, and many other earthy components. This doesn't sound very appealing at first, but fans of Orval will tell you otherwise.
The beer is a unique delight that goes extremely well with seafood and the strong, aromatic Orval cheese. Few ales on the planet have the depth, personality, and complexity of Orval. It also has a pleasant hop bitterness. Hallertau and Styrian Goldings hops are used in the boil and also for dry-hopping. White candy sugar is also added in the brewing process to add an extra "kick" to the three malts that form the basis of this beer. Orval has an alcohol content of around 5.0 percent by weight, and 6.2 by volume. Unlike the other Belgian Trappist breweries, Orval only produces one ale -- no doubles or triples. Even Orval's bottle is unique. With a shape reminiscent of a small bowling pin, the bottle definitely stands out on any shelf. Either as a dry aperitif or as a warming ale after dinner, Orval will be sure to delight any lover of complex, personable ales.
Owen Ogletree is an award-winning homebrewer, certified beer judge, and Director of Athens' (Ga.) Classic City Brew-Fest held each spring.
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