Wow, what a few weeks. Orval, Chimay, new breweries in France, and then the GBBF, not to mention the Pre-GBBF events, new American brews and much much more…
When I first came on board to help promote and develop Beermerchants.com never once in my craziest of dreams did I think I might get to go and wander around the classical pillars of the world of beer. Yes, ok, I have been to a few breweries on the winding road, but recently I have had the absolute screaming pleasure of visiting the breweries of Chimay and Orval, and one in France that I am sure you’ll hear more of in time. I will say the last few weeks, and perhaps months – life has been on the left side of left field, not that I am complaining – I would just love you all to have seen what I have seen over the past few weeks – so here goes…
Those of you that read this email with some regularity will know of my passions for brewing, the “US craft beer scene” and many other things in beer besides – but, I have always been in awe of the various classical “pillars” of the beer world. The wine world has the old world classics, Burgundy with Romanee Contee, Echezaux et al, and Bordeaux with the Margaux, Petrus, etc, where we are blessed, excuse the pun, with the delights of the efforts of Trappist monetary, classical Germanic breweries… and, well, just open any old Michael Jackson text and you’ll see the lists of greats.
The opportunity to visit the classics, Orval and Chimay, yes for research, yes out of sheer geekiness and as much my love of travel. But, wow… the sight that we, Simon from Reluctant Scooper and I walked into at Orval was something of walking into beyond just the experience you might head into “just for the beer” – The locale (not LOCAL ALE), location and weather were all in our flavor. Simon made an interesting comment on our arrival, he hadn’t researched the trip at all, wanting to really absorb the feeling for the place and it’s beer, for his own interpretation rather than those that had been before. I shut up about then. I was ears open, gob shut. I have been to the Abbey before, a few moons ago – but this was to be the first time that I would have access to their hallowed vaults of the brewery. Passing the lake at the entrance, through the somewhat scary building works to the old cafe, you are confronted by a real gem of an abbey. Then a wander round to the far right of the buildings there is the “tradesmen’s” entrance, to the brewery gates. Stacked high with the iconic orange crates, more and more filled our views. We met with the management, and brewer and then Br. Xavier –
It’s funny, but about then I really got a hankering for an Orval. Ok, there is a lot of hoopla on the web about this beer, not a week goes by with out a monster multi page thread on sites such as Ratebeer, “I don’t get Orval…“, or “Orval, it’s the greatest beer ever…” – you get my drift, but it’s a beer of much debate, simply because of it’s moving target nature. I say that, because it’s partially fermented with a wild strain of yeast, called Brettanomyces that gives the horse blanket, wet grass and something of a farmyard edge to a beer over time. The origins of this very distinctive beer can probably be attributed jointly to Mr. Pappenheimer and to the Belgians, Honoré Van Zande and John Vanhuele who were working in the brewery at the same period. They were daring: the combination of production methods which they thought up is nowhere else to be found. Several of these methods, such as the infusion brewing and the “dry-hopping” are English: it’s mentioned that they probably owe to John Vanhuele, who brought them from England, where he had lived for many years. This results in a beer whose characteristic aroma and taste owe more to the hops and to the yeasts than to the malts. Some like it f
resh, some like it 6 months old, some much older where it’s something of a celebration to open. To each their own. Knowing what I know now of Orval, from it’s early moments heading to bottle, and the complex notes it can take on over time – it’s a worthy challenger to the crown of the greatest beer ever. In the same way as the secret of brewing, the specific beer-glass, the bottle and the label, which we still know today, are witnesses to the origins in the early ’30’s. The “Skittle” shaped bottle, the art deco glass, the insanely beautiful location, the serenity, the ever so charming people who work there and the energetic Br. Xavier, it is a summary of sheer and utter magic. (Yes, you can buy Orval from Beermerchants.com)
Then we went to Chimay…
After spending a day at Orval, the likely hood is that you are typically pretty drained, both emotionally and physically… but, the show must roll on. So, back into the “little blue van” we jumped, bade our farewells to Mr Harenne, and moved on to Chimay. Some of you might realize how close both Chimay and Orval are to the French borders. well, it just so happens over the time we were around these wonderful abbeys, we spent most of our time on the back roads of France, rather than in the expected, Belgian flow of traffic. The fast, slow, fast nature of French roads got us to Chimay somewhat later than expected; well, that was my excuse.
Chimay, more known internationally in years gone by as a street circuit for both bikes and cars, is still a very very well traveled route on the tourism circuits. The busy roads, the beautiful scenery and simple abbey make for a contrast to Orval. Far larger in output, our meet was actually at an outpost of the abbey, their state of the art bottling plant just along the road in a more industrial quarter of the environs of Chimay. At first you might say that this was removing the core from the essence of the abbey, that the beer is packaged down the road. Yes, the beer, like Orval is brewed at the Abbey, but is tankered down the road to their awesome bottling plant. Something like 40,000 bottles an hour whiz around this ultra clean and organized state of the art packaging system; but this is located where it is to protect the heart of the abbey. Rather than have trucks in and out of the lanes around the abbey, just the beer is moved to the outpost site. Simple. The water sources for the brew have been protected, even to the extent of moving roads! Whilst they are different, I found it as easy to love Chimay as Orval. The Tripel, memorably, sitting in a genial cafe in the town square, watching those around us – young guys drinking the Tripel, with little more than a request for another glass breaking the general conversation. It was surprising how much Tripel (Like Tripel Karmeliet) we drank, the “hefty” numbers on the read of the bottles indicating to us Brits, “Beware this might get you drunk ” – what a load of guff, people… drunk
slowly, with friends, as even the lightweight I am frequently reminded that I am, I was not worse for wear; just a simply delightful bright hoppy, stunning brew that has always been a favorite, reminded me just how great, and versatile, this beer is. Chimay is available at Beermerchants.com and the excellent Tripel is here.
Stories of blue vans racing thru the evening dusk following our guide who turns out to be a racing driver, insanely old beer, geeky moments in laboratories, draft beers only for the cafe, meandering drives back to the other Trappist monasteries, missing ferries, and all manner of strangeness and wonderfulness will have to wait for another day, and I will deny anything else. Or just read The Reluctant Scooper.
What was apparent from the trip was that, whilst I was aware of the fact, it really brought it home to me that no two Trappist monastery are the same; yes they might be similar in origin, ethics and more – but I would encourage you all to look at the abbeys as individuals – enjoy their beers, the incredibly high quality these beers are, the pillars of the brewing community that they are – I was just silent when we drove back to France.