Starry, starry night. The light is low in Orval’s brew house, giving its trinity of copper-clad lauter tuns and kettle the glow of a late sunset, while pinpricks of light adorn the ceiling, the first evening stars. A simple wooden cross hangs on the wall. Colored glass panels featuring devotional scenes add to the sense of contemplation and transcendence. The whole effect is of something more than a place where beer is brewed.

A switch is flicked, the lights return, the copper gleams and the brew house becomes, well, a brew house, albeit a brew house where one of the world’s greatest Trappist beers is produced. There’s obviously something about these beers and their provenance that inspires even the most secular-minded beer-lover to indulge in metaphysical deliberation.

Trappist beers are the original collaboration brews, an alliance forged between the sacred world of Cistercian monks and the profane one of commercial brewing. Westvleteren remains alone in being the sole brewery where the brothers still toil and oil the wheels of brewing, but at the rest of the seven Trappist breweries in the Low Countries, secular workers hold sway (though monks remain owners). And yet there is an aspect to brewing that mirrors the routine of prayer―cultivating and propagating the correct yeast strain, maintaining mashing temperature and using the best quality raw materials, all done day after day, brew after brew, with the preciseness of a ritual.

Which brings us neatly back to Orval. There has been brewing in this beautiful spot of southern Wallonia for centuries (the official name of the region is Gaume), though modern-day brewing only began in 1931 under the helm of a German master brewer called Pappenheimer. The brew house can be found in a large stone church-like structure standing on the corner of the road that runs round Abbaye D’Orval. The abbey itself is a cloistered and calm place, built in the 1920s, a massive monument to Art Deco overlooked by an imposing statue of the Virgin Mary. The original abbey was destroyed in the French Revolution and not rebuilt until after World War I―both ruins and modern abbey stand next to each other, a monastic display of the Christian belief in the resurrection perhaps. The whole complex is hidden away amongst lush woodland, a hideaway from the world―it’s one of the most tranquil brewing places I have ever visited.

“God’s homebrew,” is what British beerwriter Tim Webb called Orval. Yet as soon as we go through the gates (I’m with Stuart Howe, head brewer at English craft brewery Sharp’s), it’s clear that this is most definitely a place of work. A forklift truck wheels about, pallets stocked high. A clinking sound from somewhere in the building suggests the bottling line is working at full throttle. A couple of workers eye us as we wander in, they could be guys from any brewery in the world.

Rock of Ages

We’re here to see Orval’s current keeper of the flame, its brewmaster for the past quarter of a century, Jean-Marie Rock. As we survey a glass cabinet with various Orval curios from down the decades, Rock appears, almost out of nowhere, shrew-like features and twinkling eyes. He’s quiet and unassuming, walking with a monkish calm.

Beer runs through his life like a river to the sea. He started young, telling us that a jug of lambic was always on the table when he was growing up, “In the evening my sister and I would get a glass of it before going to bed.” Is it any wonder he became a brewer, which he has been for 39 years? Prior to joining Orval, he worked in Flanders at a large brewery, producing an everyday lager brand called Lamot.

“I came to the Gaume for a holiday,” he says, “and asked if I could visit Orval. One of the monks said that they were looking for a brewer, but I already had a job. Back from holiday I thought about it and then got in touch.” Such is his reputation that earlier in 2010 he brewed a collaboration brew with Steve Pauwels at Boulevard; the result was an imperial pilsner, though sadly we only get to see the empty bottle. He is now 62 and in 2007 received a long-awaited new brew house. This can produce 25,000 liters at any one time (approximately 214 U.S. barrels).

“The brew house is all automatic now,” he says, “the change was so big that people had to be taught how to use it when it was installed. A new brew house was essential as the old one was inefficient. I had been planning it for 20 years.” It cost $5 million and putting it in was a massive job; brewing had to be kept up while installation took place. “This was quite difficult. However, we only stopped brewing for two weeks.”

One and Only One

Alone amongst Trappist breweries, Orval is unique in that it only produces one beer―a deep amber orange brew with an earthy and peppery nose underpinned by rich orange peel notes, a creamy and hoppy mouthfeel with snappy carbonation and flurries of sour and citrusy notes, followed by a bitter spicy finish. The bottle’s label says 6.2 percent ABV, but as it is bottle-conditioned it is said that it can often climb as high as 7 percent within a few months.

There is also Petite Orval, but this is a light version liquored down to 3.5 percent―think the ghost of Orval, some orange and hoppy characteristics but slighter and thinner on the palate (I thought hoppy water on tasting it). This is supposedly the house beer of the monks though Rock lets slip one of his enigmatic smiles when I ask if they also drink the stronger Orval. Later on during our visit, Rock casually announces that come the end of 2010, Petite Orval will be produced as a stand-alone brew rather than as a parti-gyle. It has only ever been available in the Orval café (currently being rebuilt), but does brewing a 25,000 liters batch mean it will become a commercial brand? Rock smiles again and says nothing.

Brewing occurs once a week with the beer spending four days in the conical fermenting vessels where the single strain top-fermenting yeast gets to work (each fresh pitch of yeast is propagated from the last batch). The beer is then lagered or matured in large horizontal containers built into the wall of the maturing cellars. As we pass through, Rock’s men are busy laying several sacks of hops on the bottom in preparation for the beer. These are for the illustrious dry hopping that differentiates Orval from its other Trappist companions. Either East Kent Goldings or Styrian Goldings have been favoured at times, but on our visit the Alsatian variety Strisselspalt was in use. Over 40 kilos of hops go into one tank where the beer spends two weeks at rest (20,000 tons are used throughout the year).

Then it’s time for it to be bottled, which is when Brettanomyces is added. “Why do this?” he echoes my question, “why not? It makes the taste, the Gout d’Orval. Orval is very special because of the dry hopping and the secondary fermentation, if we stopped that then it would be a very different beer. As for the reasons for its use, I’m sure that at the beginning in the 1930s that there was a problem that led to the beer being infected. This then became a commonplace part of its taste. Then in the 1950s the brewery had new equipment and the beer didn’t have quite the right taste. So they found an old bottle with the right taste, isolated the yeast and have used it ever since.”

The bottled beer is stored at 15 C for three weeks before being released. We pass through a room holding 90,000 crates. This is when the big debate about the beer starts. Young or old? Some think it should be held for two years before being opened. This is most certainly the view of Antwerp beer sommelier and author Ben Vinken when we talk at a Trappist beer dinner he’s hosting in London: “I think it is at its best then. All the sugar will have gone and the Brett will add softness to the beer.” With this in mind many Belgian cafés offer both a young and old Orval on their menus. Rock admits to preferring Orval young when the hop presence is fresher, while I prefer it older letting the horse blanket influence of the Brett emerge (though I once tried a 10-year-old which had lost a lot of character). As if to complicate the debate further, in the sampling room we are offered a glass of draught Orval, a true rarity.

This beer was brewed at the end of 2009. In the glass there’s a hint of almond on the nose mixed in with the more traditional hop-driven Seville orange note that doesn’t seem as assertive as when served from the bottle. The bitterness and dryness on the palate was immense and though the creamy, horse blanket character brought in by the Brett was present, it’s a cleaner Orval than I am used to. “I cannot accept to drink only one Orval,” says Rock as we discuss the beer’s glory, “its drinkability is very easy. I occasionally drink a little wine but I always prefer Orval with my lunch at midday.”

It’s easy to fall into the trap of nominating the best beer in the world, but sometimes I allow myself to descend and Orval is the designated tipple. It has an adaptability that makes it prime for the dinner table as well as contemplated all alone. That’s always been one of its attractions. Once in an empty restaurant in the Wallonian town of Tournai I asked for a beer. “Carlsberg?” queried the young waiter. Nodding no, disappointed that such a commonplace beer be offered in the centre of Saison country, I requested the beer menu. He returned with a tray on which stood bottles of Orval, Chimay Bleu, Stella Artois and Leffe. No contest: Orval. I was served turbot in a shrimp sauce that was bossed over by the beer. The dish brought out the creamy texture and citrusy notes of the beer, while the beer cut through the cream of the sauce. Of such unexpected moments are beer greatness made. And like Rock I couldn’t accept to drink only one Orval… .

Abbaye d’Orval is several miles northeast of Florenville―get there by bus or taxi. There is a shop selling its beer and cheese, while Petite Orval is normally available at l’Ange Gardien, due to reopen in 2011. Orval Brewery has an open day Sept. 17 and 18, 2010, from 8:30 a to 4 PM. The tour normally takes an hour. See for more details.