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.