Orval brews one beer, and brews it to unique perfection. Dry, with a huge effervescent head, Orval Trappist Ale gains some of its character from a complex fermentation schedule: a Belgian ale yeast is added first for primary fermentation; then a variety of yeast strains are added midway through the process; finally a third dose of yeast is added at bottling time. Amber-Orange in colour, dry-hopped, and always bottled in the Orval skittle-shaped bottle.
The gustative sensations will gain in nuance depending on the age of the beer. Young beer is characterised by a bouquet of fresh hops, with a fruity note and pronounced bitterness, light on the palate and a less firm collar than a beer of six months. The latter will feature a bouquet consisting of a blend of fragrances of yeast and old-fashioned hop. The bitterness is more diffuse and the taste has moved to a slight touch of acidity accompanying yeast and caramel flavours. Served without its sediments, a beer of six months or more, has a particularly bright appearance. It will be less so, if it is served at a temperature below 7°C to 8°C (44° – 45°C).
Throughout the long history of Orval, there has probably always been a brewery at the monastery. Various facts corroborate this idea : topographical references on old drawings; a detailed description of production left by a Franciscan visitor three hundred years ago; an area called the “hop-field” very close to the monastery. To brew beer was customary in these areas little-suited to vine-growing. Beer was first and foremost considered for its nourishing properties : it was called “liquid bread”.
In 1529, the Emperor Charles Quint granted the monks authorization to establish a foundry which would provide the necessary revenues for the repair of war damages. Since that date, Orval has always known an economic activity more important than that strictly necessary for the basic economy of the Community.
When Orval began to rise again from its ruins after more than 130 years, the enormous task of rebuilding the monastery required considerable financial means; a brewery was established to assume the rôle of the former foundry.
In 1931 the Brewery was not, therefore, set up as a further economic activity of the monks who were already producing bread and cheese; from the very outset, the Brewery employed lay-people. The first master brewer was a German by the name of Pappenheimer; he is buried at Villers-devant-Orval.
The origins of this very distinctive beer can probably be attributed jointly to Mr. Pappenheimer and to the Belgians, Honoré Van Zande and John Vanhuele who were working in the brewery at the same period. They were daring : the combination of production methods which they thought up is nowhere else to be found. Several of these methods, such as the infusion brewing and the “dry-hopping” are English: probably we owe them to John Vanhuele, who brought them from England, where he had lived for many years. This results in a beer whose characteristic aroma and taste owe more to the hops and to the yeasts than to the malts. In the same way as the secret of brewing, the specific beer-glass, the bottle and the label, which we still know today, are witnesses to the origins in the early ’30’s.