The abbey and brewery of Notre-Dame d’ Orval is located in the province of Luxembourg close to the French border. In 1070, a Benedictine community was founded on the site, and beer was very likely brewed then. This may have been the earliest such community in what is present-day Belgium.
During the revolution in 1793, the French destroyed the monastery, its buildings and almost everything of value. No one lived at Orval for more than 100 years, and much of the stone was hauled away.
In 1887, the ancestors of Francois de Harenne, Orval’s present commercial director, purchased the site and surrounding lands, which are located in a beautiful valley in the Ardennes mountains (Orval is referred to as the Valley of Gold—Val d’Or in French). The owners donated the land and ruins to the Cistercian Order in 1926, and monks from a French monastery came to live at Orval. If it had not been for this family’s generosity and sense of history, there would be no Orval beer to drink!
The monks needed a way to support themselves, as the delicious Port Salut cheese recipe they brought with them from France could not pay all the bills. They built a brewery in 1931, and from the beginning employed lay people, rather than monks, as workers. The monks oversee the brewery, but none brew at Orval.
Today, the ruins of a major church dating from the 13th century and the abbey’s famous beers draw 80,000 visitors a year. While anyone can visit the grounds and the ruins, it is necessary to have a professional connection in order to visit the brewery.
The Beers and Brewery Today
Orval produces two beers, only one of which is sold to the public (the other is the “Verte,” or green cap, the monks’ beer). Known worldwide simply as Orval, the beer is a pale, hoppy brew of appreciable taste and complexity. The beer is dry hopped, and develops a noticeable aroma, often described as “horse-blanket,” from Brettanomyces yeast strains which are present in the second (conditioning) fermentation. Orval uses the same single yeast strain for primary fermentation and bottle-conditioning.
Orval typically starts life at about 6.6 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) and, given a few month’s refermentation, can rise as high as 7.2 percent ABV. In Europe, where the law allows beer to be within plus or minus 1 percent of the alcohol listed on the label, Orval is labeled 6.2 percent ABV. In the United States, the same beer is labeled 6.9 percent, the average ABV.
Orval has 32 employees and produces about 42,000 hectoliters of beer per year, about 87 percent of which is sold in Belgium. The brew house, built in the early 1950s, still uses beautiful copper brew kettles, which, sadly, will be replaced by stainless steel in 2008.
Another change, slowly phased in since 1999, is the replacement of the open brewing vessels with conical fermenters that are easier to maintain, a process that is halfway to completion. Orval spent a considerable amount of time experimenting with the new fermenters until the brew engineers determined that the taste between the two was identical.
A recent experiment, which was well received by my tour group, was Orval on draft at the private brewery tasting room. This would be a welcome addition to the Orval lineup, though only time will tell whether the beer will ever be offered on draft to the public.
Located in Namur province, near Dinant, Abbaye Notre-Dame de St.-Remy began life as a convent in 1230. In 1464, the nuns went to live at the abbey at Phelipre, and Cistercian monks from Phelipre came to St.-Remy to help improve the condition of the site and buildings, which had fallen into disrepair.
The first record of brewing at Rochefort dates from 1595. Hops and barley were grown near the abbey, as shown in old engravings. The early beer was not sold to the public.
The brewery is mentioned again in the 1650s, when damage by French troops necessitated repair. The French Revolution took its toll on St.-Remy when troops overtook the abbey and caused the monks to flee in 1794. In May of that year, local people sacked and looted the abbey. Later, secular owners destroyed many buildings.
The lands and ruins at St.-Remy changed hands a number of times until a former chaplain bought the property in 1886. Trappist monks from the Achel Monastery in Flanders soon came to live at St.-Remy and in 1899, after restoring the buildings, restarted the brewery operations.
The early equipment was rudimentary, and beer quality was variable but improved greatly after one of the monks was sent to the Catholic University at Leuven to learn brewing techniques. Beer in returnable, corked bottles was soon sold to visitors, and the brewery prospered until the German army took away the copper brewing vessels in 1918.