Over the past 13 years I've come to know Orval quite closely. Few beers deliver this unending cease-to-amaze factor; it drinks as refreshing or thought provoking as you need and is both cherished and gulped depending on your mood. Many have told me that the longer they've consumed a beer, the less attention they actually pay it (probably much like a loved sibling that lives next door - when you see them everyday, you don't ponder their intricacies). Although this may be true for certain wines & brews, I could not imagine it happening with Brasserie d' Orval's one heralded, tri-fermented beer.
I visited the monastery months ago and had the RARE opportunity to see the inner workings of the brewery. My guide made it known on several occasions that this was an unusual circumstance (hand selling Orval for 15 years and having a devout Catholic traveling with me seemed to be my ins). I expected the space to feel spiritual and well, like a brewery; loud at times, bustling with activity. The placidity however, was astounding and the smell of nascent Orval permeating my clothes for hours afterward was a welcome surprise I will never forget.
The history of the monastery & brewery are well documented in books and websites so I won't go into that here. A few little known details about this serene backwoods hamlet: The brewery operates two days per week and is at capacity. Not willing to raise production has met with pleas for more beer from the national & international markets. They brew enough to satisfy financial needs (55% of profits are donated to charity) and this makes the current output satisfactory. People pine after this miraculous beer stemming from the water, attention to detail, and three very closely monitored fermentations. The main fermentation lasts four days, the second takes place in horizontal tanks w/ brettanomyces + dry hops (of Belgian + Slovenian origin) for four weeks. The young beer goes through a final mini-fermentation/conditioning in bottle via a dose of candy sugar + yeast at bottling and will finish in the maturation hall over the course of three to four weeks.
There were many historical tales told over the course of my visit. I was lucky in my encounters with a few head brewers, markedly skeptical in the release of decades-old methods. My swearing to secrecy with at least a few crucifixes in eye's view will not render them on this virtual page but I thank them for confiding in a trustworthy soul. Whilst wondering a tunnel under the main modern chapel, I found my name etched in stone, no other names or etchings in sight. I knew traveling 4,200 miles was where I needed to be in that moment.
The ruins are awe-inspiring, the tale, mythical. The beer is one of Belgium's best and when two, three, four, five years old... This beer too is living...