Hoover, Google, Orval?

Orval label.

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?

Bruxellensis label.

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’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.

7 thoughts on “Hoover, Google, Orval?”

  1. It’s quite hard to make a balanced beer with the Orval Brett. as given the opportunity it will delight in trampling over any other flavours, which may be why it’s had few imitators.

    You’re right things are moving on though and you can add De Koninck, who do a decent Orval style (Or DHBA) beer called Wild Jo and Straffe Hendrik Wild is an excellent Tripel with added Orval Brett. excitement.

  2. Did you get to try Goose Island Brewery Yard? That’s an 1870’s Burton IPA recipe aged with Brettanomyces. It confirmed to me that Orval is an attempt at a Stock Pale Ale.

      1. I’d missed that.

        It was a dead interesting project. And a very educational one. I’d tried to get brewers intersted in a Stock Pale Ale for a couple of years and Goose Island wer e the only ones that said yes, we’ll give it a go.

        I’ll be getting a taste of a test brew of our next project in two weeks when I’m in Chicago. That and the historic Lager festival. It’s almost too much excitement for a man my age.

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