Orval, who is your very best friend?

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.

Den Herberg’s Cuvée Devillé in a Moeder Lambic glass

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.


News, Nuggets and Longreads 06 April 2019: Berlin, Brett, Better Lager

Here’s all the news, commentary and thinking about beer that’s seized our attention in the past week, from Berlin to Peckham, via Huddersfield.

First, some interesting news: BrewDog has acquired the brewery American outfit Stone launched in Berlin a few years ago. Stone says Germans didn’t take to their beer or brand; BrewDog, which already has a bar in the city, cites a need for a post-Brexit continental brewing baseJeff Alworth offers commentary.

Close-up of the CAMRA logo from the 1984 Good Beer Guide.

It’s fitting that the new leadership at the Campaign for Real Ale should use an interview by veteran beer writer Roger Protz as an opportunity to make a statement of intent:

Nik [Antona] and Tom [Stainer] are quick to point out that a proposal to allow CAMRA beer festivals to include key kegs was supported by the necessary majority and many festivals are now supporting this change.

“A number of festivals have key kegs with explanations that are not dogmatic about the different ways beer can be served. I accept that we’ve poor about explaining this in the past,” Tom says. “We need to represent all pubgoers.”

“We may revisit Revitalisation in a few years,” Nik adds, “but in reality we’re doing it now. Younger people are drinking cask but they want to try different things – they want to drink good beer but not necessarily from casks.”

beer reviews bottled beer

Barclay’s Russian Imperial Stout, 1970

Last night we sat down and, with due reverence (radio off, notebooks out) drank a bottle of 47-year-old Barclay’s (Courage) Russian Imperial Stout. And it was great.

The last very elderly bottle of RIS we got to try was at the specialist cafe Kulminator in Antwerp where we paid something like €18 for a relic from 1983. This new old bottle was found by Bailey at a car boot sale in Somerset and cost a much more reasonable £1.50.

The seller was an elderly bloke who had worked at Courage in the 1960s and 70s and said, ‘A mate of mine called me down to the cellars in the brewery at Tower Bridge one day where he’d found a stash of this everyone had forgotten about. He used to drink a bottle every morning before his shift started.’ This bottle, he said, was part of his own employee allowance that he’d never got round to drinking.

The cap of our bottle of RIS.

Having been stored who knows where for almost half a century, and then left on paste tables in the sun for who knows how summer boot sales, we didn’t have high expectations for our bottle’s condition. There was the usual hesitation when the time came to apply opener to cap — should we save it? But the answer to that question is generally ‘No’, and even more so when nuclear missiles are whizzing about on the other side of the world. So, one, two, three, and…

There was a smart snap and an assertive ‘Shush!’ Pouring it was easy enough, the yeast having fused with the bottle over the course of decades. We were left with a glass containing about 160ml of beer topped with a thick, stable head of sand coloured foam.

The aroma it threw up was immense, almost sneeze-inducingly spicy, and unmistakably ‘Bretty’.

The foam in the glass.

Oddly, perhaps, the Brett didn’t seem to carry over into the taste, or at least not in the ways our fairly limited experience (mostly Orval and Harvey’s take on RIS) has led us to expect. It wasn’t dry or challengingly funky. But perhaps it was simply that it was in balance, blended and melded with the rock solid bitterness.

The texture was like cream, the taste like the darkest chocolate you can imagine, with no hint of the sherry character we’d assumed was all-but inevitable in old beers. It was just wonderful — more subtle and smoother than Harvey’s, the nearest comparison, and overwhelmingly deep.

What amazed us most was how fresh it tasted, and how alive it seemed. If you’d told us it was brewed last year, we wouldn’t doubt you. (Disclaimer: such is the dodgy provenance of the bottle, we can’t say for sure it wasn’t brewed last year.)

Two hours later, Boak sighed dreamily: ‘I’m still tasting it.’

Beer as experience indeed.

American beers News

News, Nuggets & Longreads 4 February 2017: Lexicography, St Louis, Ateliers

Here’s all the beer and pub writing that grabbed our attention in the past seven days from different ways to say you’re bladdered to mysteries of the American palate.

First, for the BBC’s culture pages, lexicographer and broadcaster Susie Dent considers the 3,000 words in the English language to describe being drunk:

The concoctions those knights dispensed fill an even richer lexicon, veering from the euphemistic ‘tiger’s milk’ to the blatant invitation of ‘strip-me-naked’. Add those to the 3,000 words English currently holds for the state of being drunk (including ‘ramsquaddled’, ‘obfusticated’, ‘tight as a tick’, and the curious ‘been too free with Sir Richard’) and you’ll find that the only subjects that fill the pages of English slang more are money and sex.

(But has she quite got that bit on Bride-ale right?)

Barmen pouring IPAs.
SOURCE: Jeff Alworth/Beervana

These next two posts need to be read as one piece. First, Jeff Alworth argues — persuasively, we think — that the reason IPAs are so dominant in US craft beer is because it’s the first beer style Americans can really call their own, like jazz and comic books:

Americans are finding their palates, which is a sign of maturity. This is not a new point here at the blog, but it’s becoming more pointed. When a country develops its own beer culture, diversity declines. This is why Belgian and British ales don’t taste the same, nor Czech and German lagers. Americans have found their groove, and it is lined with the residue of sticky yellow lupulin.

beer reviews bottled beer

Goose Island Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale

A meticulously recreated 19th Century pale ale produced with the close involvement of beer historian Ron Pattinson? Yes please.

As with the Fuller’s Past Masters beers, there was never a moment’s doubt that we had to taste Goose Island Brewery Yard, but the talked-about price — £20 for a 750ml bottle — did give us a moment’s pause. Fortunately, when we asked around for where it could actually be bought (lots was given away as, essentially, marketing bling) we were pointed toward Clapton Craft who had it at a much more reasonable £12 a bottle. We ordered two, along with some other interesting stuff to justify the postage, intending to drink one now and leave the other for at least a couple of years.

Brewery Yard in the glass: beer foam.

First, putting aside matters of history, expectation and industry politics, how is it as a beer? The aroma is unmistakably ‘Bretty’, which is to say very like Orval. (It’s a different strain of Brettanomyces, apparently, but, until we’ve had more practice, the distinction seems lost on us.) There’s also something like hot sugar. In the glass, it looks like an extremely pretty bitter, at the burnished end of brown, topped of with a thick but loose head of white. The taste was remarkably interesting with, once again, Orval as the only real reference point: Brewery Yard is thinner, drier and lighter-bodied despite a higher ABV (8.4%). There was something wine-like about it — a suggestion of acidity, perhaps, or of fruit skins? There was also a strong brown sugar tang, as if a cube or two had been dissolved and stirred in. That’s a flavour we’ve come across before, in two of the Fuller’s Past Masters beers — 1966 Strong Ale and 1914 Strong X — and not one we’re all that keen on. So, as a beer, we didn’t love it wholeheartedly, and probably wouldn’t spend £12 on another bottle.