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Thursday, April 07, 2011

What Did English Pale Ale Once Taste Like? Orval.

A couple of days ago, Ron Pattinson posted some evidence about a mystery he'd long investigated: "did long-matured Pale Ales contain brettanomyces?"
[T]here are the descriptions of Pale Ale picking up its distinctive flavour only after a long maturation. You know what that screams at me? Brettanomyces. What else takes so long to develop?
I hesitate to offer the answer to the question because the whole post is worth your time. But I have to, because what really caught my eye came down in comments.

Of course, well into the 20th century, aged pale ale did contain brett--as one expects all aged British beer did. (Do follow the link, though: you won't find Ron's answer to the mystery anywhere else.) Good data, but that mystery wasn't as compelling to me as to Ron. In comments, however, Gary Gillman offers this observation:
Orval has a notable earthy/barnyard/estery taste from brett and also multiple fermentations (which characterised beers long held in wood - not the same but similar). It was devised at a time pale when pale ale had world reputation for quality.
To which Ron concurs:
Orval was developed at a time when British beer was popular in Belgium. And Orval does seem to have similarities with British export Pale Ales of the time: colour, dry-hopping, ABV. And now, of course, we can add brettanomyces to that list.
If you look at the history of beer styles even passingly, this is the kind of thing you discover. Styles are constantly evolving and influencing each other. American craft brewers love to twist and mangle "traditional" styles, and what results purists describe as misshapen abominations. But their traditional styles were themselves once the abominations that emerged from twisting and mangling.

In any case, it makes you wish you could time travel back to London for a pint of that brett-aged pale ale, doesn't it?


  1. either that, or get a growler of a decent English Pale Ale and chuck the dregs of an Orval bottle into it.

  2. "American craft brewers love to twist and mangle "traditional" styles"

    This sort of thing also highlights that what most "extreme" brewers are doing (wood aged beers, brett and sour beers etc) are actually nothing new or innovative either.

  3. Well, the hop varieties would be different, the malt types different, the yeast and fermentation methods not the same, and it was probably only a minority of English stock pale ales that were held in cask/vat long enough to show any Brett character, but yes, SOME English pale ales may very well have tasted a bit like Orval …