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.

The A-Team

Illustration: the A-Team.

Without quite meaning to we’ve acquired some habits – a line-up of bottled beers that we always have in the cupboard or fridge.

What fol­lows is prob­a­bly as near as you’ll ever get from us to an X Beers Before You Y list.

Bit­ter (pale ale) or pale and hop­py ses­sion beers we tend to drink in the pub. We’re spoiled for choice, real­ly, even in Pen­zance, and even more so if we take the bus out to the Star at Crowlas. Still, it’s worth say­ing that St Austell Prop­er Job is our default pub drink these days. It’s for the more unusu­al styles that we resort to bot­tles.

Anchor Porter from the US which goes at around £2–3 per 355ml bot­tle in the UK is our go-to beer in the stout fam­i­ly. We arrived at this deci­sion after prop­er test­ing. When the urge for a dark beer that real­ly tastes dark over­comes us, this is the one we reach for, know­ing it will be great every time.

There are lots of great Bel­gian beers but one that nev­er gets bor­ing, because it’s the best beer in the world, is West­malle Tripel. There are always a cou­ple of bot­tles of this in every order we place.

Orval is our favourite exam­ple of… Orval. We went from being scep­ti­cal to puz­zled to devo­tees over the course of a cou­ple of years. We love it in its own right – it’s always dif­fer­ent, yet some­how the same – but we also like to play with it. It’s our house stock ale if you like.

We don’t often need a stout more robust than Anchor Porter but when we do it’s Harvey’s Impe­r­i­al Extra Dou­ble Stout. It tastes its strength, coats the tongue, and comes with a trac­tor-trail­er of funky weird­ness that real­ly does ensure a sin­gle glass can last all evening. One case every oth­er year seems to do the job, though.

This is both our most bor­ing choice and like­ly to be most con­tro­ver­sial: we’ve yet to find a flow­ery, aro­mat­ic Amer­i­can-style IPA that is bet­ter val­ue or more reli­ably enjoy­able than Brew­Dog Punk. Every time we open a bot­tle or can we say, ‘Wow!’ which is exact­ly what we want from this kind of beer. Nine times out of ten Prop­er Job at the Yacht Inn is all the hops we need but this is the one we keep at home when our blood-humu­lone lev­els drop to dan­ger­ous­ly low lev­els.

When we want some­thing sour and refresh­ing we con­sis­tent­ly turn to Mag­ic Rock Salty Kiss. It’s not over­ly strong, not over­ly acidic, and is just the right kind of acidic for us, too. (But we won’t say too much – it’s com­ing up in the cur­rent round of Mag­i­cal Mys­tery Pour.)

But there are still vacan­cies – styles where we play the field. When it comes to lager, we cur­rent­ly cycle through St Austell Korev (great val­ue, easy to find), Thorn­bridge Tzara (yes, we know, not tech­ni­cal­ly a lager, but tech­ni­cal­ly bril­liant) and Schlenker­la Helles (the smoke is just enough of a twist to keep us excit­ed). Even though we tast­ed a load of them we still don’t have a bot­tled mild we feel the need to have per­ma­nent­ly at hand – it’s a pub beer, real­ly. We tend to buy Sai­son Dupont or Brew­Dog Elec­tric India but that’s not a lock – we’re still active­ly audi­tion­ing oth­ers and sai­son isn’t some­thing we drink every week. When we get the urge to drink wheat beer, we’re still hap­py with Hoe­gaar­den, and most Ger­man brands do what they need to do, so we just pop to the shops.

So, that’s us. A ten­den­cy to con­ser­vatism, to the safe option, and to the famil­iar. (Which is, of course, what Mag­i­cal Mys­tery Pour is intend­ed to counter.)

But what about you – do you have any go-to beers? What are they? Or does the whole idea of drink­ing the same beers over and again just bore you to death?

100 Words: Describing Brettanomyces

The sacred texts told us Brettanomyces had a ‘horse blanket’ or ‘barnyard’ aroma. It is, they said, ‘sweaty’, ‘leathery’, ‘mousy’.

But none of that worked for us and we couldn’t spot Brett unless we’d been cued to expect it.

We know what the experts are get­ting at with the ani­mal com­par­isons – earthy, musky, funky, right? – but it’s like try­ing to describe the colour red by say­ing ‘Pur­plish, but also orangey.’ Brett is Brett, and noth­ing else.

We even­tu­al­ly cracked it by drink­ing a lot of Orval, and ‘Orval-like’ is the most use­ful descrip­tor for Brett char­ac­ter we’ve yet dis­cov­ered.

Any oth­er sug­ges­tions?

Main image from the BBC web­site.


This is the first in a new series of posts about our experiments in blending British ales with the cult Belgian favourite Orval.

We’ve been think­ing for some time, most­ly inspired by read­ing Ron Pat­tin­son, that a lot of British beers would ben­e­fit from a touch of Bret­tanomyces, to add com­plex­i­ty and char­ac­ter. A bit of dirt, if you like.

Then, more recent­ly, Michael Tonsmeire’s excel­lent book Amer­i­can Sour Beers got us think­ing about blend­ing dif­fer­ent beers to taste. In notes accom­pa­ny­ing his recipe for Eng­lish Stock Ale (p318) he says:

Blend with dark mild or a porter to get a taste of what drink­ing in Eng­land was like before Pas­teur and Hansen’s tech­niques cleaned the Bret­tanomyces out of the brew­eries there.

Good idea, Mr Ton­s­meire! (Not that we need much encour­ag­ing to mix beers, mind.)

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Pro­por­val”

Saison cracked?

Saison dupont beer in the glass with bottle

After our recent pon­der­ing on the nature of sai­son, sev­er­al peo­ple, includ­ing Alan at A Good Beer Blog, sug­gest­ed we read Farm­house Ales by Phil Markows­ki. Thanks for the tip, chaps. It’s a great book and has, indeed, helped us ‘get it’.

It’s in the same series as Stan Hieronymus’s mar­vel­lous Brew Like a Monk and is designed to help home brew­ers under­stand the recipes and prac­tices used by brew­eries cur­rent­ly pro­duc­ing biere de garde and sai­son. Even if you nev­er intend to brew any­thing, if you love Bel­gian beer, these books are must-reads.

The cen­tre­piece of Farm­house Ales is an essay by brew­er Yvan De Baets which attempts to sum­marise the his­to­ry of sai­son and, cru­cial­ly, explain what the heck it is. A key phrase occurs there­in: sai­son, says De Baets, “has a small ‘wild side’ ”. He also cites a (pri­ma­ry) source sug­gest­ing that, in the late 1940s, saisons were very like what we would now call geuze.

At this point, some­thing clicked for us. The idea of a spec­trum with a point at which wild yeasts in the mix become evi­dent makes a lot of sense, and also helps to explain why so many beers are described as “almost sai­son” or “sai­son like”. We slight­ly repur­posed his phrase “wild side” and came up with this.

Diagram showing the relative wildness of various Belgian beers.

Ulti­mate­ly, of course, it’s up to a brew­ery if they wish to call their beer a sai­son, hence some of the lucozade-like sug­ary beers fly­ing that flag, and the idea of pre­cise cat­e­gories in this ter­ri­to­ry is a bit sil­ly, but a beer just on the wild side – that is, with at a hint of wild yeast or ‘rough­ness’ with­out being down­right sour – is prob­a­bly what we would now under­stand to be a sai­son.

Now to drink some more of them and test this new under­stand­ing.