For a long time, Orval was the only Orval, not quite belonging to any particular style. Now, it has company.
In their 100 Belgian Beers to Try Before You Die Tim Webb and Joris Pattyn classified it as a pale ale; Stan Hieronymus, in Brew Like a Monk, mentions that it shares flavour characteristics with “the saison-style beers of the surrounding region”; Beer historian Ron Pattinson has often referred to it as an India Pale Ale; while Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson effectively dodged the question altogether by classifying it simply as an Abbey/Trappist beer, observing that “Orval is one of the world’s most distinctive beers”. The American Beer Judging Certification Program (BJCP) also concedes defeat, citing Orval as an example of Belgian Speciality Ale, “a catch-all category for any Belgian-style beer not fitting any other Belgian style category”.
While it’s possible to make all sorts of clever, heavily footnoted arguments for Orval belonging to one category or another (“Die Hard is a Christmas movie!”) none of them are quite convincing. The fact is that if someone who knew nothing about bought it expecting a pale ale, any kind of IPA, Saison Dupont, or Westmalle Brune, they would be confused and possibly disappointed. Sure, the base beer might bear some resemblance to others, but that Brettanomyces that stamps over everything, marking its territory with layers of dust and leather. (But not sourness.)
In the last decade or so there have been more beers made with Brettanomyces, often with the word ‘Bretted’ on the packaging or point-of-sale display, but few of those we encountered resembled Orval. IT seemed to us that they tended to be modern-style IPAs with lots of New World hop perfume and flavour, or big stouts. Perhaps there was a sense that Orval was off limits for commercial homage? Sacred, somehow. Or perhaps it was simply unapproachable – unless your Orval clone is as good as the real thing, or better than, why bother?
Then we encountered Brasserie de la Senne’s Bruxellensis. It was first released, we think, in June 2016, and when we came across it last year we didn’t need to do any reading to get the idea: it’s Orval, but not quite. The same funkiness, the same balance of dryness and fruitiness, but brasher, brassier and brighter. Like a punk cover version.
It turns out there are others, though – beers that we missed because we weren’t paying attention, didn’t have access (most are American), or maybe simply because we hadn’t got to know Orval well enough to recognise them as clones. Heather Vandenengel rounded up a few for All About Beer back in 2015, including Goose Island Matilda. This is one we did try, as long ago as 2010, when it struck as nothing more than a bog standard Belgian-style blonde. On Twitter Andrew Drinkwater mentioned Hill Farmstead Dorothy as another example.
What made us think about all this now is a Tweet from Chris Hall announcing the arrival of British brewery Burning Sky’s take:
We now have the British answer to Orval don’t @ me. pic.twitter.com/NwEUhQ7tyj
— Chris Hall (@ChrisHallBeer) March 29, 2018
We’re going to have to get hold of this one, ideally in a bottle, ideally to be tasted alongside the real thing, Bruxellensis, and any others available in the UK that you lot might be able to tell us about.
But we can’t keep calling these beers Orval clones forever, can we? We like Pete Brissenden’s suggestion of dry-hopped Bretted ale, or DHBA. It looks ugly but it does rather roll off the tongue, and is purely, precisely descriptive. It’ll do for now.