I'm working on some stuff for Ale Street News this morning -- the first entry in my new, as yet untitled column for ASN -- but I wanted to take a moment to talk about one wonderful thing that happened when I was in Belgium. Actually, it happened several times: I finally had Orval.
Before you react in astonishment, yes, I've bought and drank bottles of Orval. But after realizing that A)none of them ever tasted even vaguely similar; and B)people I respected told me that it was a completely different beer fresh, I decided that I'd just stop drinking it until I got to Belgium. And I did.
So when Steve and I got to Brussels, the very first beer I bought (not counting the one glass of Hoegaarden at the comped lunch we enjoyed thanks to Flemish Tourism: fantastic mussels, the Hoegaarden was kinda eh) was an Orval at Poechenellekelder. It was a revelation. I wanted to have more, so I did, but just one; we had other places to go.
When I had time to sit and muse (on the last full day of the trip, at Het Waterhuis in Gent), I thought to myself that the thing I came to love about this fresh Orval was its simplicity. It's not a huge beer, or a layered beer, or a rich beer. It's very refreshing, without being light beer insipid: Orval's crispness comes in a much more substantial package than that. It's funky without being off-putting; a subtle brettanomyces character that doesn't insult my intelligence. It is, as Steve said, three things at once: sweet, tart, and dry. It's the combination that is the genius, and I'm afraid, the balance of these three varyingly robust elements is what makes this such a fragile beer. The first bottle I had at the Poechenellekelder was less than five weeks old, and it was nothing short of brilliant. I guess I'll just have to drink more when I go back.
(Is Orval different, has it changed? Many have said so, and decried its loss of character. Steve told me yes, how they make it has changed; certainly so. But I can't judge if it's better or worse, because of my variable at-a-distance experiences; I had my first Orval back in 1989, and it was quite a bit fizzier than this fresh stuff, more bitter, and not as much brett character; I actually remember it distinctly, remember where I bought it, where I drank it and who I was with and what we were eating, and the beer stands clear in my mind: it was not this beer...but what does that mean? All I can say is that I find this Orval very damned nice...and leave it at that.)
Okay, another addition to this. Stan Hieronymus picked up on this and expanded it with something Vinnie Cilurzo told him: go read it there. So... "Orval is best fresh" is personal preference. And the way it tasted differently to me every time I had it...is the way it works. Brett is a many-splendored thing, and it takes a long time to work, and it never sleeps. I should not be surprised when it tastes differently, or disappointed. I'll work on that. (Although I'm still happy to drink it in Belgium, particularly at the price.)
I'm not afraid to admit my ignorance in this. This is why I make these trips, at not-insignificant personal expense, and not always for a particular assignment (although I sold a number of stories on this one, happily). I do it to learn, to fill in the gaps (the same as many of you). With luck, I'll keep learning the rest of my life, and I'll happily share it with you.