Trappist Orval: the beers and abbey in 2020
DAY 1 – ARRIVAL, ACCOMODATION AND MEALS
One of the best known and most appreciated Trappist abbeys in Belgium is Orval. The fabulous, world renowned single beer is brewed within the monastery’s walls, just 2 hours’ drive from Brussels, almost on the border with Luxembourg.
We, at Belgibeer, could not miss the opportunity to visit the monks in their living environment and let you know how their delicious beer is brewed. In December 2019, we set off to Florenville, the municipality hosting the abbey to deliver a precious and original account of our 3 days stay.
The day our team arrived at Orval, at about 6 pm, the abbey’s administrative offices had already closed, and it was too late to grab our room keys. The monks were already busy with their 5th and final prayer of the day: Vespers and Eucharist. For people who are used living in a busy and noisy world like ours, the abbey’s striking factor upon arrival is the sense of relaxation and calmness. And of course, silence. Yes, complete silence! Not a single word must be spoken among guests and to the monks unless it is in specific assigned areas.
And indeed, it was kind of strange to see fellow retreaters not say a single word, perhaps just a few frugal nods while waiting for dinner. As the clock hit 6.30pm, the doors to the dining area opened and Father Bernard welcomed us to a larger room.
Trappist monks are usually dressed in white with a dark brown central robe. Their Jedi-style cape touches the floor when they stand up and they usually wear sandals. They are mildly tempered and mostly quiet, but it is not unusual to hear them laugh with guests especially with acquaintances who return frequently to the abbey.
The tables were assembled to form a large rectangular structure, differently from your typical restaurant. Diners are seated around the edges as to avoid each other’s looks while eating or perhaps to make it easier for the monks to serve food quickly.
After father Bernard pronounced grace, dinner was served. Or better, you could help yourself to the foods that the monks positioned on the tables.
The first night we were served a mixture of rice salad, with carrots, sliced almonds and apples. Trappist cheese with local breads were also served. And of course! Each meal is paired with a bottle of beer uncapped right before your eyes by the monks.
Dinner was eaten in complete silence with a middle eastern recording played on the stereo which vaguely resembled chants sang during lecture of the Koran.
Shortly after dinner, we helped clear the tables and dry the dishes. Yes dry, as the abbey possess a very efficient dishwasher that only requires one minute to wash and dry all utensils, leaving diners with the easy task of putting everything away and help clean up the kitchen.
After receiving the keys to our rooms, we were guided to our quarters by one of the Trappist fathers. The rooms were very simple composed of a bed (which you must prepare yourself), a table, a wardrobe and a tiny sink to brush your teeth. Tap water in Orval is delicious and comes straight from surrounding springs. The same pure water is used in the production of the Abbey’s beers.
The night was calm, silent and relaxing.
DAY 2- MASS, HIKES AND ABBEY
The following morning, we woke up at 4am for the first mass of the day, Vigils at 5am. The church is located right across the park from the dormitories. It is characterised by a huge statue of the virgin Mary holding infant Jesus Christ in her arms. The facade of the Church is about 30-40 metres high, almost double in height compared to the one burned down by the French during the last revolution. The ruins of the former Abbey lay just next to the new buildings built in the 1930s and can be visited during the day.
Differently from a traditional Catholic mass, Trappist masses are singed. Most of the monks are present, those that are not are generally too old, sick or perhaps busy with other projects and have permission to skip. The monks are seated perpendicular to the crowd but facing each other, usually five a side.
Every sang verse lasts one or two minutes followed by the lecture of a passage from the Bible. Each mass lasts approximately 30 minutes.
The masses are at 5am (Vigils), 7.30 am (Lauds), 12 am (mid-day prayers), 5.30pm (Vespers and Eucharist), 8pm (Compline). Most of the prayers are followed by a meal: breakfast from 6 till 9am, lunch at 1pm and dinner 6.30pm.
By no means the Abbey wishes to restrain guests from moving out of the premises, although external gates are locked at 9pm. Belgibeer came to understand that after 9pm, it becomes very hard (yet not impossible) to gain access to the dormitories.
Breakfast is generally basic and light, composed mostly of coffee, tea, bread, cheeses, marmalades and butter.
Right after breakfast we took a tour of the surroundings and left the abbey. Bernadette, one of the voluntaries providing administrative support, suggested we visited the “monk’s forest”, a short hike of a few miles circling the abbey walls.
The surroundings are indeed breath-taking! The forests are well kept and seemingly located at a certain elevation with respect to the abbey providing an extra layer of isolation from our modern world and probably inconspicuousness during many centuries as well.
As we walked past the abbey, we understood how self-sufficient the site was. The abbey possesses its very own waste management plant for both garbage and used waters. Everything is recycled to as much as possible. This is mostly unsurprising as a great number of the books laying around at the abbey, are entirely dedicated about techniques to preserve the environment and encourage a circular economy. We truly wished these Trappist monks had moved out of their walls to encourage the rest of humanity to adopt similar ecological practices.
The route, we followed in the “monk’s forest” made us pass by to the famous lake which inspired the construction of the abbey. The legend has it that somewhere in the 11th century, Mathilde countess of Tuscany (and aunt of Geoffroy de Bouillon the infamous crusader, see Golden Hops- October 2018) she inadvertently dropped her wedding ring into the water.
This ring was the only memory she had left of her late husband and in distress, she invoked the Virgin for help. Suddenly a trout spouted out of the water, holding the precious ring in its mouth. Mathilde grabbed her ring back and exclaimed: "This is truly a Golden Valley"!”. In French Gold is Or, hence the name OrVal.
In Mathilde’s memory, the spring water with which the beer is brewed today, was renamed after her. The famous trout holding the ring is also depicted in the abbey’s logo.
As we returned from our short hike in the woods, we headed towards the small abbeys shop, were the entrance to the ruins is located. As guests to the abbey, the entrance was free or else a small fee of €6 is required to gain access to the site.
As we passed the gates, our enthusiasm grew in intensity. The original abbey was built about 950 years ago. Throughout the centuries it was burned and rebuilt multiple times.
And indeed, most of the problems the Trappist faced in the past were quasi exclusively with the French and their revolutions. Trappist father Bernard- his role is to welcome pilgrims to the abbey- recalls those moments “some of the Trappist monks were beheaded in France, our abbey was burned to the ground and forced most of us to seek refuge within Belgian communities”.
Women religious groups suffered a similar faith during those difficult times. The only possible refuge for most of these groups was Belgium’s Luxembourg were local population seemed generous enough to various religious groups even though labelled as “subversive” in France.
Today, despite many visitors to the abbey are French nationals, mentioning the words France or French, did make the Father Bernard grim and certainly felt uncomfortable talking about it. We at Belgibeer wonder if this is the reason Orval is exclusively sold in Belgium and very little to France? To be investigated.
Orval Abbey- A Very Short History
Orval’s Trappist history begins in 1131 AC with 8 Cistercians monks travelling to present day Gaume. Under the aegis of Emperor Constantin, Orval’s monastery was built. From then on periods of glory were alternated to barbaric acts and looting. In the 17th century the abbey lived its greatest splendour and the most peaceful century thanks to abbe Bernard de Montgaillard.
In 1767, Dutch architect Laurent-Benoit Dewez, creates new plans to improve the abbey’s design and increase its grandeur. During the construction works, however, the first demolition by French artillery and the consequent fire, destroyed the entire complex in 1793. Whatever remained from the pillage, was sold by the French republic in 1797 to private individuals.
In 1926, the Orval domain was inherited by Lady de Harenne who donated the entire property to the French Trappe order – threatened again by the French socialists in 1924. In 1929 the construction works to the new Trappist abbey begun thanks to the voluntary work of architect Henry Vaes with the support of father Marie-Albert Van der Cruyssen (a former World War One hero, who dedicated his entire life to monastic life after surviving a serious chest wound in combat).
Nine years later, the construction works were well underway, and Father Albert was appointed Abbe of Orval, almost 130 years after his last predecessor Dom G. Siegnitz. Dom Marie-Albert had great business experience with his entrepreneurial past and created a non-for profit entirely dedicated to the reconstruction of the site.
During World War II, times were again difficult for the re-construction of the abbey mostly due to the Gestapo interfering with the works and the death in 1945 of its architectural masterminds, Henry Vaes. Nonetheless more and more Trappist monks kept flocking in and so did the donations via the non-for profit. Although Dom Marie-Albert died in 1955 his mission to rebuild one of God’s greatest temples was accomplished in 1948.
Today the ruins, museums and the new abbey are all available for visits thanks to this great Monk.
DAY 3 - THE BREWERY
Finally, on our third and last day of stay within the Abbey of Orval, we were granted the honour of a visit to the brewery. Brewing activities begun in 1936 as a complimentary activity to cheese production which begun 10 years earlier. The objective was to raise enough money to finance the reconstruction of the abbey.
The day we visited the brewery we were welcomed by Anne-Francoise Pypaert. She begun working at the abbey in 1992 after completing her university degree in brewing techniques at Meurice Institute in Brussels. After a short period of time she applied and got accepted as quality engineer.
She explained that work activities carried out by the monks in the past were entirely consecrated at raising funds for the reconstruction of the abbey which had been destroyed during the French revolution. She also disclosed that the brewer who was responsible for the original beer recipe was a German national named Pappenheimer.
His very first beer recipe was diluted with more water and it also contained a lower alcohol content. This first recipe is, however, still brewed today and goes by the name of “green Orval” (or Orval Vert, in French). This version of the beer is drunk by the monks and served on tap at the pub across the street “L’Ange Gardien”- well worth a visit.
Today, daily operations are managed by Father Xavier who’s also the CEO at the brewery, with actual brewing activities carried out by professionals not necessarily identifiable to a strict religious faith.
Anne-Francoise was quick to mention that their beer is a rare commodity, due the to the abbey’s desire to work with selected bars and restaurants. These official distributors are called “Orval Ambassadors” and their yearly gathering at the abbey, extraordinarily, occurred during our stay. “It’s a tough selection process” Anne-Francoise continued, “we only work with those that best represent and protect our brand”.
Limitation in production volumes is partly the cause for low supplies. For a Trappist beer to be named as such, ales must be brewed within the abbey walls. That is the general rule. For decades production at Orval had been confined by the little space the monks had been operating into.
In 2019, major construction works have been started to meet this ever increasing demand. The new installations are scheduled to end by the end of 2020 and expected to more than double the current production rate of 78,000 HL per year (1HL = 100L).
Orval’s spectacular ingredients
Water plays a vital role in beer making. At Orval, it comes directly from source “Mathilde”. As previously discussed, it is unfiltered and pure water delivered by a spring that passes close to the abbey.
The ale also contains specific hop varieties. Hops from Germany and Yugoslavia are used as originally utilized by Pappenheimer in his original recipe from 1930s. The German brewer was also trained in English dry hopping techniques- as most UK brewers currently did and still do nowadays! It is therefore a clever mixture of German, Yugoslavian and English know-how that provides Orval beers its diversity of aromas, while maintaining its level of bitterness.
Yeast is probably one the most important aspects of the whole process. The abbey produces its own yeast strain and its quality and purity is so advanced, that other local brewers from the Gaume shire make the journey to purchase it off the monks. Worth mentioning that Orval also makes use of Brettanomyces or Brett in the jargon. This is a wild yeast contained in the air and responsible for that slightly sour aftertaste of the bottled beer. It is completely absent in kegs when served at the pub across the street, the “Ange Gardien”.
A few useful data and tips on the Orval beer
Rate beer classifies Orval as the 2nd best Belgian beer in the category “Top 50 Belgian beers”. It is also the second best Trappist beer according to us – some of our readers may disagree, but waththaheck.
Malts used: Caramel and Pils. Hops: Hallertau, Styrian Golding and Taman. Dry hopping: Spalter.
Exports: 85% is sold to Belgium, 5% Luxembourg, 4% to France, Italy 1%, USA 0.3%.
Some beer aficionados may appreciate drinking it at (room) temperatures ranging from 12°C to 14°C.
Just like wine, an Orval tends to improve with time. Thus, a six months old Orval, or more, will tend to present a mixture of yeast and seasoned hop aromas. The bitterness will be diffused, and the taste will have evolved into a subtle touch of acidity, caramel and yeast.
Up to three years in the cellar are often recommended by true Orval beer lovers to properly enjoy a mature Orval. It is, however, not uncommon for professional beer drinkers to wait their drinking experience to 5 years!