Our recent trip to Brussels gave us the opportunity to think about Orval by drinking beers that aren’t Orval – but would really like to be.
This is really a postscript to a piece we wrote almost exactly four years ago, about how Orval is really a beer style in its own right.
Back then, we said it had been classified in various different ways but none of the labels seemed to fit.
We also observed (as did our commenters) the increasing availability of Brettanomyces-heavy beers taking Orval as their inspiration, either directly or more subtly.
In Brussels last week the one we encountered most often was Bruxellensis by de la Senne.
At 6.5% it’s obvious even before tasting that it’s not an exact clone of Orval.
This time, as before, it struck us as a little rougher than the model. It also seemed fruitier (peach, tangerine) and even peaty-smoke. But, of course, with Brettanomyces involved, and the passage of time, we would expect the flavour to vary.
However, ‘like Orval’ continues to be the most useful way of describing this beer – even if its unlikely anyone who knows Orval well would mistake one for the other in a blind tasting.
Incidentally, we also noted during our trip that Bruxellensis was as good for beer blending as our Orval experiments.
One part Bruxellensis to four parts Hercule Stout made an absolutely delightful combination, adding more body and bitterness to the dark beer, as well as the obvious funk.
We did worry we might get arrested and deported from Belgium if anyone saw us at it but in Brussels, anything goes.
During our trip we also tried Den Herberg’s Cuvée Devillé which is intended to be as close a copy of Orval as possible – almost a technical exercise.
So, like Orval, it has an ABV of 6.2%, and looks, to our eyes, to be the same colour, with the same level of carbonation.
Without the yeast from the bottom of the bottle, it tasted very close but perhaps a little sweeter and cleaner. With the lees, it became more bitter, more blunt and more wine-like.
Would we be fooled in a blind tasting? Yes, probably.
It certainly hit all our pleasure receptors in the same way as Orval and we’d like to drink more of it in the future.
With terminology in mind, it’s worth saying that we found this on the bottle menu at Chez Moeder Lambic, classified under “Mixed fermentation beers”.
This might be a more useful, more general way of talking about these Orval clones.
The only problem is that the other options in this section (De Ranke Wijnberg, for example) are Flemish sour ales – a very different thing.
We also drank a few bottles of Orval itself, of course, defaulting to it in bars where there wasn’t anything more tempting on the menu.
It’s great, isn’t it? It somehow tastes both old and fresh, deep and light, complex and refreshing. An everyday masterpiece.
Other people were drinking plenty of it, too, and we noticed that it seemed particularly popular with older women. It’s a living beer, in every sense – not a museum piece or novelty for yeast perverts.
In the four years since we wrote the original post, we’ve continued to see beers boasting Brettanomyces additions, suggesting both that the concept continues to be reasonably attractive and that adventurous beer drinkers are more and more comfortable with the word and what it might mean.
So perhaps that’s the only word we need.
If you know of other Orval clones we ought to try, let us know in the comments below.