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The Brasserie

17 September 2010

Each year during Heritage Weekend it is possible for us, the great unwashed, to visit the Abbey Brewery.

The brewing hall

The brewing hall

I was very lucky in that I had been out and about on the battlefields with two Canadians and by the time that I finally tried to reserve our places there were only the three left for the Friday. But that suited us well.

Routing to the Abbey was either across northern France via Stenay and Montmédy or over the top through Belgium via Charleroi and Namur and then crossing the Rossignol battlefield of August 1914.

As my Canadian visitors would get a better feel to the Ardennes by coming in from the north that is the way we went.

The symbol of Orval

The symbol of Orval

On arrival we had our names crossed off, were given a bottle opener, information about the brewery and a ticket for the bar afterwards.

The visit was self guided with the location panels in French and Flemish.

The old copper vats

The copper vats

There is little olde worlde about the brewery which has seen a number of refurbishments over the past twenty years. Now it is pristine stainless steel and computerised bottling systems.

We started upstairs next to the copper brewing vats and were offered the chance to smell the malted barley, caramel malt and hops that would go into the beer.

The brewing hall was transformed in 2007 using up to date German technology and Belgian brewing know-how. The water is taken from the Mathilde spring and injected into the malt crusher at 65°C. This process releases the starch (which, in the form of simple sugars, is going to combine with the yeast to make alcohol) whilst retaining the husks of the malt.

The ground malt is then moved to the mashing tank where it will be mixed with hot water and constantly stirred for a few hours.

The next stage is to transfer the drained the wort to the boiling vats where it will be sterilised and the hops added.

The fermentation tank

The fermentation tank

Down the staircase we passed by the 20,000 litre fermentation vat. Having been rapidly cooled the wort has liquid sugar candy added and is then placed into the tank. At this stage the all important yeast is added. The fermentation vat will hold two brews and over the next four days (at a temperature of between 14°C and 22°C), the sugars and yeast will react to create a top-fermented beer.

Thousands of litres of beer

Thousands of litres of beer - just sitting there

The next stage is the garde during which the beer will be stored for three weeks in vats - the Abbey has twenty-eight 10,000 litre tanks in place.

Hop flowers waiting to be added

Hop flowers waiting to be added

During this stage sacks of hops are added in the English tradition of allowing their oils to infuse the beer. A further dose of yeast is also added allowing a secondary fermentation. It is this important stage that gives the beer its particular flavour.

Rank up on rank of bottles

Rank up on rank of bottles

The bottling machinery was impressive. It made me think of a cartoon where columns of soldiers all march towards you in a menacing fashion. 27,000 bottles an hour pass through the system, everything controlled by machine under the watchful eyes of the staff (who for the most part are lay-workers).

The beer is packaged in just one form: 33cl bottles in the form of a skittle. Just before being bottled a light dose of candy sugar and fresh yeast is added to the beer so that a third fermentation will occur in the bottle.

In the blink of an eye a bottle is rejected

In the blink of an eye a bottle is rejected

The cased bottles are now allowed to mature at 15°C for a further four weeks. Floor to ceiling crates of Orval beer.

The beer will continue to develop and change slightly in flavour as it matures. According to the Abbey:

Young beer is characterised by a bouquet of fresh hops, with a fruity note and pronounced bitterness, light on the palate and a less firm collar than a beer of six months. The latter will feature a bouquet consisting of a blend of fragrances of yeast and old-fashioned hop. The bitterness is more diffuse and the taste has moved to a slight touch of acidity accompanying yeast and caramel flavours. Served without its sediments, a beer of six months or more, has a particularly bright appearance.

In theory it will keep for years. Some people prefer it young, some like it six months or even a year old. The brewing date on the bottle helps the discerning drinker chose their moment.

Bruce Gilbert from Chatham (Ontario)

Bruce Gilbert from Chatham (Ontario)

Whilst wandering through the brewery I also got talking with the Quality Control tasters who follow the brews over a number of stages to ensure that not only is the beer correct as it goes into the bottle but also to ensure that before it leaves the maturing halls that the taste is spot on.

No visit to a brewery is worthwhile without sampling the product and having finished our tour we were now invited to sample the brew together with the Abbey's cheese.


Brasserie d'Orval s.a.
Notre-Dame d'Orval
B-6823, Villers-devant-Orval

The Orval Website



See also

Orval Abbey

The Abbey Ruins

The Beer Museum at Stenay


Godefroi's Castle at Bouillon