Long before ever seeing a bottle, Soggy Coaster had heard quite a bit about Orval. Just check out the beer's impressively high ratings at Beer Advocate.
Thus when I saw a bottle sitting on the shelf at Argonaut Liquor in Denver, I knew it was a must-buy. I'm a sucker for good Belgian beers, and Orval has a stellar reputation.
Orval is named for the Belgian monastery at which it is brewed. The Trappists have been around since 1644, when they branched off from the Roman Catholic Cistercian Order. It takes all kinds in this world.
The beer costs about $10 and comes in an 11.2 fl. oz. brown bottle with curves in all the right places.
Orval is brewed with English ale yeast and later the souring yeast Brettanomyces, according to Charlie Papazian. It's hopped with Yakima Tomahawk and German Hallertauer hops before dry-hopping with Styrian Goldings.
It pours a murky copper color that is characteristic of pale ales, topped by an enormous fluffy white head (see the photo). It was one of the most impressive heads I've seen. It stayed around forever. Frankly, I got tired of waiting. My dinner was getting cold.
Eventually the head receded enough to allow for a taste. The mouthfeel was wonderful. For lack of a better word, I'd describe it as "full."
Orval is a Belgian classic. As such, it lacks some of the interesting twists American brewers add to Belgian styles. I found myself missing some of the complexities of flavor in beers like Ska's True Blonde Dubbel and Avery's Salvation, particularly the more assertive Belgian candy sugar sweetness.
Orval tastes of a mild pale ale with some yeasty Belgian influence. The 6.9 percent alcohol by volume does not show up in the taste; it goes down easy.
As others have noted, Orval changes with age. At first hoppy, the ale yields to its Brettanomyces, imparting a sour note that heightens with time. My Orval was bottled on Sept. 23, 2008, making it a relatively fresh bottle. As such, it was on the hoppy side. The Brett was tart but not cheek-puckeringly sour.
Orval lives up to its reputation, exhibiting a pleasant balance between hop bitterness, yeast sourness and malt sweetness. It's like watching an old James Dean movie: Other, more modern successors may show more flash. But this is a classic. A
Update: Orval is now available at Star Liquors in Durango.