Under the auspices of Father Marie-Albert van der Cruyssen, the Brasserie d’Orval S.A. was established in 1931 within the Abbey walls – just five years after the site had again become a Cistercian monastery.
At the time of the reconstruction of Orval, the original driving force was not that of developing a new monastic activity since the monks already
worked in the bakery and the cheese dairy. The intention was more that of creating a small
commercial venture which would generate the considerable financial means required for the reconstruction and maintenance of this very large complex.
In the beginning, outside friends bought up shares in the company to show their active commitment to the resurrection of Orval. Once all the founder shares had been returned to the community, this latter would run its company in accordance with the principles of sound management.
From the very start, the brewery employed mostly lay personnel. The tomb of the first Master Brewer, a German by the name of Pappenheimer, is located in Villers-devant-Orval. Today, the brewery employs a workforce of some 28 people.
Henry Vaes’ great architectural talent presided over the reconstruction of Orval. Keenly interested in Cistercian architecture, he drew his inspiration for the brewery from the beautiful ruins of the abbey in Villers-la-Ville. The brewery of that monastery (30 kms south of Brussels) was much larger than the one previously located on the site of the former Orval Abbey. Indeed, the new brewery’s production was destined to go beyond the local demand.
The reconstruction was completed in 1948 and, from then on, the Abbey has allocated all that it earns from the brewery to a very considerable social budget. In accordance with the Rule of the Order, the Orval community lives from the
proceeds only of its own work : cheese-making and baking. A particular feature of the communities of the Order is their provision of assistance to the local population. A number of examples may be cited from Orval’s history from the Middle Ages to the French Revolution whereby the Abbey provided financial support for the reconstruction of this border country, so often destroyed by wars. Today, the brewery enables the community to continue to fulfil this special role.
Among the Abbey’s many projects, there was one in 1931 which considered bottling and commercialising the water from the Mathilda Fountain, the site Of the legend about the trout with a gold ring in its mouth. Despite the many excellent qualities attributed to the water by certain experts, this activity was never started up. However, the Very same water is still used today to brew Orval
Today, all commercial enterprises claim to be concerned with quality and quality control; these concepts form an integral part of the Trappist tradition. The monks already strive to comply with the strict rules of the Order and are also very demanding of themselves. The community would not dream of selling a product which carries its name far and Wide, without having checked to see that it is of the very highest quality.
This constant concern applies at all levels of Orval beer brewing. All the raw materials which are involved in the production process have to comply with very precise specifications. These are tested, analysed and tasted. Blends of 4 to 5 varieties of barley malts and 2 to 3 different types of hops, all of the very highest quality and various origins, produce a highly reliable beer from the quality point of view. The candy sugar, which is added to the beer, is chosen for its very high degree of purity. The brewery’s laboratory cultures 4 to 5 strains of yeast used in the production, with several of these being exclusive to Orval.
In order to comply fully with the natural rhythm of the successive fermentation processes, the main fermentation process lasts six days, together with an additional 3 weeks for lagering. (The abbey opted right from the start of its beer-brewing activity to use the English method of dry hopping). Another 6
weeks or so is required for the refermentation process in the bottle which occurs in strictly temperature-controlled storage rooms.
The brewery’s workforce has been given training in beer tasting so as to be able to taste the beer at all the various production stages, from the water which is used to the finished product.
Orval is not a large brewery, since it has chosen above all to remain an abbey. This restriction of its size is proof of its adherence to the Trappist Order. Similarly, the brewery’s commercial development is dependent on satisfying customer demand and not on high-profile advertising campaigns.
An annual production of nearly 38,000 hectolitres means that the Orval brewery, one of the country’s five Trappist breweries, comes third after Westmalle and Chimay but before Rochefort and Westvleteren. There is only one Trappist brewery outside Belgium and this is located at the Abbey of
Koningshoeven (or Schaapskooi) near Tilburg in Holland.
Orval’s particularity is that it only commercializes one type of beer, whereas the others quite frequently put two, three or even four beers on the market. Sold exclusively in 33-cl skittle-shaped bottles, Orval brews a high fermentation beer which is refermented in the bottle.The brightness of its amber colour is a delight to behold. The yeast base, in the bottom of the bottle, a rich source of vitamin B, can also be drunk.
To appreciate the full flavour of Orval beer, it is best drunk in the glass designed in 1932 by the architect Henry Vaes and which is still manufactured today. The shape of the glass allows the beer to develop its full aroma. The label suggests with reason that the beer be drunk at a temperature of between 12 and 140C. Indeed, the three successive fermentation processes, which have fully blended the beer’s various flavours, have been carried out at 150C. It is only logical that, when drunk at a similar temperature, the beer again achieves all its subtle flavour.
The Abbey of Notre-Dame of Orval
- Conventual buildings
- Medieval ruins and the Mathilda Fountain
- Bakery and confectionery
- Chees diary
- Monastery guest-house
Source: Flavours from Orval (Nicole Darchambeau)