In a corner of Belgian Luxembourg, south of the vast forests of the Ardennes, stands an ancient Cistercian Abbey ...
It is the Abbey of Orval, located in Belgian territory, a few steps from the French border.
In the year 1070, say the Annals of Trèves, the Benedictines of Calabria in Italy, tired of suffering among the internal struggles which bloodied their country, driven from their convent, and mistreated by an unrestrained soldiery, resolved to seek a retreat far away.
The Archbishop of Treves showed them the way to the Ardennes, at the limits of his immense diocese; there they met Arnould II, Count of Chiny, who allowed them to settle on his estates.
Very close to Orval are the former County of Luxembourg, the Marquisate of Arlon, the Duchies of Lorraine and Bar, the Principality of Sedan, the Duchy of Bouillon and the Kingdom of France, plus Germany. And these neighbors, often rivals, were not afraid to sow terror and mourning around the Abbey, when they did not bring fire and iron there.
A tradition as fresh as a legend and uninterrupted through the centuries relates to the time of the foundation and confirms the topographical etymology of Orval. Countess Mathilde, sister of Blessed Ida who gave birth to Godefroy de Bouillon, future king of Jerusalem, went one day to the new monastery. It is said that, having sat down near a limpid spring to rest, she put her hand into the water and dropped her wedding ring. Sorry, she addressed a fervent prayer to Notre-Dame: immediately, the ring reappeared on the surface of the water, in the mouth of a trout: and all joyful, the countess exclaimed "Really, it is here a golden valley ... "
The Benedictines returned to Italy in 1108 and were replaced in 1110 by Canons regular from Treves; these brothers, after twenty years spent in Orval, in turn disappeared. It was now 1130 and Saint Bernard was already filling the Church with the noise of his miracles and his holiness. In 1132, the bishop of Verdun, Aibéron, uncle of the Count of Chiny, met Bernard at the Council of Reims and told him of the wishes of his pious nephew, sorry to see his Orval foundation abandoned.
Few monks were available, because he had just made seven successive foundations, the Abbot of Clairvaux appealed to the eldest of his daughter houses: Trois-Fontaines (founded in 1118, in the diocese of Châlons). Soon a colony of white monks was designated for Orval.
The abbey (II)
The community was not long in entering an era of great prosperity. Despite the disasters it had undergone during the wars which devastated Luxembourg in the 16th and 17th centuries, the community had arrived in the middle of the 18th century, at the most flourishing period in its history from a temporal point of view. The monks of Orval then wanted to build a beautiful Monastery, which deviated completely not only from the traditional plan of the Monasteries of the Order, but also from the Cistercian spirit all of simplicity and poverty.
A famous architect designed and began to build a truly grandiose Abbey when the Revolution occurred. In 1793, the sixty monks who occupied Orval had to flee in front of General Loyson's troops. Orval was destroyed by the revolutionary hordes. The artillery balls and the fire tore the cloisters and the two sanctuaries of Notre-Dame and Saint-Bernard to pieces. As to precious objects, such as furniture, stained glass, manuscripts, books and jewels, the looters took charge of "moving" them.
The ruins of the abbey were left to themselves for nearly a century and a half, the community having been housed in other priories.
In 1927, the Abbot of La Grande Trappe had received all the necessary authorizations to take possession of Orval and make monastic life flourish there again. Having ceded all his rights over Orval to the Community of Sept Fons, Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, abbot of Sept Fons, brought back a good part of his religious from his annex in Brazil (N.-D. de Maristella) and they undertook to rebuild the abbey.
The buildings of the new Abbey stand on the very foundations of the 18th century, which are still in a remarkable state of conservation. Designed in Romanesque style, these constructions form a set of beauty and great harmony.
The brewery of the monastery ...
From the eleventh century on, the abbey drew its resources from slate quarries and forges. During the French Revolution, the abbey was destroyed and it was not until March 26, 1931 that the Trappist Cistercians decided to relaunch it and build a brewery. The revenues of the latter were intended for the maintenance and reconstruction of the abbey; the first brew was at the beginning of 1932. The architect Vaes sought historical models for its construction and was inspired by the brewery of the abbey of Villers la Ville.
Honoré Van Zandt, who officiated as gatekeeper at Orval, was a former brewer from the country of Aalst; he brought Vaes a lot of good ideas. The architect Vaes designed the chalice glass of Orval respecting the rules of the "golden ratio," and also got down to the design of the bottle that we still know today. He also designed labels, coasters, and enamel plaques with such artistic talent that these models are still used today, with great success. In the 1930s, the shape of the Orval glass was widely copied by many Belgian breweries.
Orval ale, from the start, was characterized by a blend of English and German brewing methods.
Its first master brewer was a Bavarian named Martin Pappenheimer (1883-1942), who introduced the strong hopping of Orval beer. He was assisted in particular by John Van Huele, a Belgian brewer from around Ostend, to whom we very probably owe the introduction of cold hopping in Orval (pouring hops in a cone into the cold storage tanks). Cold hopping gives a particular bitterness and the yeast contains a cultivated breed of English Brettanomyces (a family of yeasts of a particular type with a characteristic odor, tending towards sour and sour, present in gueuze and in many wines).
From the summer of 1932, there was a lack of space to ferment beer and the abbey rented the cellars of the town hall of Arlon for this purpose.
Orval was incorporated from the start as a public limited company and established its head office at rue Joseph II in Brussels, before moving to avenue Marnix. In 1950 the headquarters was permanently established in the abbey.
That same year, the Trappist monks modernized the brewery and equipped it, most importantly, with a fermentation tank. The open fire boiler was installed in 1952 and transformed in 1979 by a steam heating system. The cellar was renewed in 1957 and the bottling in 1983. The original recipe has hardly changed; only changes in brewing methods have altered the beer and its taste. The monks remain vigilant in maintaining a high quality of brewing.
The brewery (2/2)
Water, malted barley, candy sugar, hops and yeast are the basis of the production of this famous beer. Brewing begins at 5:00 AM and ends around 2:00 PM.
Once reduced to flour, the barley is mixed with water at approximately 62 degrees. Then, the temperature of the mixture is increased by ten degrees and the content filtered.
The wort is then brought to a boil.
Hops and candy sugar are added to the boiling wort, and the temperature is gradually lowered. The wort is then placed in fermentation tanks.
The first phase of fermentation is in an open tank for 5 days. The wort is cooled to 14 °, after which the yeast is added and left to ferment.
Once the sugar attenuation phase is sufficiently advanced, the wort is cooled to 12 ° and then pumped into a storage tank. Reseeded with yeast, the beer stays for 3 weeks in the storage tanks. This is where it acquires its hoppy specificity, since large bags filled with hop cones are inserted into the storage tanks to macerate and infuse the beer with the aroma of hops. This is the method of cold hopping (or dry hopping).
Just before bottling, a little fresh yeast and liquid candy sugar are added in order to allow refermentation in the bottle for about 5 weeks in maturation rooms. This yields the beer's finesse and final character. The beer can then be sold, and it is recommended to consume it within 5 years of bottling. However, it is perfectly possible to keep it for more than 5 years. The optimum taste can be considered reached after 2 to 3 years.
The sales policy practiced by the Abbey of Orval is based on a network of exclusive distributors who each develop their own business area. Production reached approximately 45,000 Hl in 1999 and approximately 72,000 Hl in 2018. This quota in no way hinders the export of Orval, which is distributed approximately at a rate of 90 to 95% to the Benelux (including approximately 85% for Belgium) and less than 5% to France as well as to the rest of the world (Japan, USA, rest of Europe, Canada etc.).
The taste of Orval beer, unique in its kind, deserves an apprenticeship, almost an education. Its nose is very complex; one detects tones of acidic and bitter fruits (apple, rhubarb?) and others (Brettanomyces yeasts play their role). On the palate, the aroma is mixed with tones of bitter yeast and aromatic hops. The flavor is simply extraordinary, with its dry and intense bitterness. Its full and velvety body reveals a slight saltiness / dry acidity.
It's a beer that divides opinions, but it is a very great Trappist beer, atypical and unique in its kind. A true "classic" to taste at cellar temperature.