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.