Style: Belgian Pale Ale / Sour
Grade (Young): B+
Grade (Old): A
Ahh, Orval — it's a landmark of Belgian beer, famous in the beer brewing community for its convenient Brettanomyces dregs, and the subtle, unannounced funk that those Brett yeast impart. Orval is one of the seven remaining 'authentic' Trappist ales, and served in maybe the classiest bottle of the beer world. It doesn't go out of its way to announce how unique it is, either; it's simply Orval, the only beer released to the public by Brasserie d'Orval.
For this tasting, I was lucky enough to pick up Orval bottled at two different dates relatively far apart. Most beer stores in the city (when I was looking) only had Orval from a batch bottled on February 10, 2011. However, at the fantastic and random Eagle Provisions in Brooklyn, there were some dusty old bottles from June 1, 2010. Perfect. So in one night, I was able to enjoy 9 month old Orval and 16 month old Orval back to back. I wish every brewery would date their beer in such a straightforward manner, right on the label. It's good to know, especially with styles like this.
I approached Orval much the way I did De Proef's Reinaert Flemish Wild Ale. Again, Orval has a reputation for its use of Brett in bottle conditioning, giving it a unique twist that's not found in any of the other Trappist ales. (Brettanomyces is one of the microorganisms used to make "sour" beer.) But much like Reinaert's Flemish Wild (which, to be fair, has "wild" in the name; Orval doesn't advertise any such claims) it's much better if you don't approach this as a sour beer. Consider it an excellent Belgian, a showcase of craftsmanship and perfect balance. Unless you're lucky enough to also pick up a old-vintage bottle. Then you're in for a treat.
Either way, this beer deserves its world-class status. At its heart, it's an excellent Belgian ale. Younger Orval really retains its Belgian characteristics, with a smooth but noticeable yeast flavor typical of clean Belgian pale ales. Malts are gentle, and the beer is still surprisingly sweet; everything is extremely balanced at this point. The mouthfeel is fairly intense, though, considering the balance, and the carbonation gives plenty of bite. Orval differs from other Trappist ales again with dry-hop additions, and in the younger beer you can still get some earthy, musty flavors from the hops. It's enough to pretty mask any funk that might be hiding in the back there. Brett is barely even a suggestion at this point.
Then there's the older beer. I'm not sure when the change really occurs, but "old" Orval is in a whole other class. When it's young, it's good, but almost too balanced; there's nothing particularly memorable about it. At over a year old, the hops have faded, making the beer smoother, yet also more carbonated, sharper, more acidic. The Brett finally shines through, and it's exactly what I had been looking for. But this isn't a Brett-dominated beer; it's still more Belgian pale ale than 'wild ale,' and the balance of flavors is just more exciting, more interesting. Orval hits a singularity of smooth malts — with any sweet Belgian / yeasty flavors now subdued — and funky, musty complexity. Orval goes from a good Belgian ale to a great Belgian ale, and achieves real uniqueness too.
How good would this beer be after a full two years, or three years? I intend to pick up a few more bottles and find out.