The final entrant to my Trappist Ales round-up is my favorite, the legendary Orval. Unlike the other Trappist breweries, the monks of Abbaye Notre-Dame d'Orval do not brew a range. Instead, they produce a single beer, one that doesn't conform to any extant style. It is simply Orval.
But what is Orval? Is it the green, lively beer they first bottle, sticky with hop resins? Or is it the older beer, pulled from cellar shelves after a year or two of aging? This ale is austere--bone dry and tart, a meditative beer for a quiet evening.
The monks have brewed a singular ale, but the essence of Orval is its mutability. Paradoxically, even a single bottle contains many beers. I consider Orval one of the finest beers in the world, and by that, I mean I love them all.
On the label you will find the picture of a fish with what turns out to be, on closer inspection, a golden ring. The legend behind the depiction is this: before there was monastery at the site, Countess Mathilda of Lower Lorraine was sitting at a spring there.
It is said that, having sat down near a limpid source to rest, she plunged her hand into the water, and in doing so dropped there her wedding ring. Being very afflicted, she addressed an enthusiastic prayer to Our-Lady: at once, the ring reappeared on the surface of the water, in the mouth of a trout. The countess were very merry, and claimed “Truly, this place is a Val d’Or (a golden valley)…”This is a monastery founded on legend. Is it any wonder they've made a legendary beer?
The Abbaye Notre-Dame d'Orval is located on the border with France in the Southern tip of Belgium. The first monks arrived from Italy in 1070, but the site was never occupied and was actually abandoned for a period. Monks returned and completed the monastery in 1124. The monastery suffered the same trials as others in Europe--fire and wars plagued it, and it was abandoned as a consequence of the French revolution in 1793. Monks rebuilt Orval beginning in the 1920s, and they established a brewery there in 1931. (This shows the monks fine set of priorities: the monastery was not completed and consecrated until 1948.) Although the current brewery only dates back 77 years, records show that brewing was a part of monastery life centuries ago.
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