ORVAL - First up – a quick rewind. After 28 years of service, head brewer Jean-Marie Rock recently said goodbye to Orval. The end of one story and... (just maybe) the beginning of a new adventure.
This recent retiree isn't planning to rest on his laurels quite yet. Word on the hop-vine is that he wants to start up his own brewery. We will keep you posted.
In the meantime, the awesome responsibility for this iconic beer has been placed in the capable hands of Anne-Françoise Pypaert, someone who has been Jean-Marie’s right-hand woman for some twenty years.
Wait a minute.. a woman in a Trappist abbey....? “When I started with the brewery I was the only woman here”, Anne-Françoise says with a smile.
“Now there are several of us, in marketing, in the lab...” She is a qualified bio-chemical engineer with a specialisation in ‘malt and fermentation’.
“For the first time ever, women outnumbered men in my year. Employment was by no means guaranteed. With my degree in my pocket I started applying for jobs with a number of breweries. I ended up here at the end of 1992”, she says.
Mentor Jean-Marie Rock taught her that, as a brewer, you give your heart and soul to the product you love. Much has changed through the intervening years, though. The open fermentation basins were replaced with stainless steel cylinder conic tanks, the entire brewing hall became automated, and production doubled from 35,000hl to 70,000hl.
However, just as before, the entire process takes place within the abbey walls. “We have to make very efficient use of the space available”, Anne-Françoise finds.
The Orval recipe itself has certainly stood the test of time. Quality, however, seems to have come along in leaps and bounds.
The beer is much more stable now and always offers a beautiful collar of froth.
There is far better control of the entire brewing process. “We invest quite a lot in analysis. The lab now has three employees”, Anne-Françoise explains.
We are enjoying a ‘petite bière’, the light ‘green’ version of the Orval beer. It can only be found in L’Ange Gardien, the abbey tavern. I am asking Anne-Françoise what appeals to her in the life of a brewer. Can it be compared with that of a cook?
“The great thing about brewing is that the job varies from day to day. You have to deal with everything in this trade."
"It can be compared to cooking, up to a point, but brewing is rather more complex and you are dealing with far larger quantities.
"Also, you need a good insight into biochemistry, as well as mechanics. Pretty quickly that 'quality' word comes up again. “Quality is guaranteed by keeping a firm grasp on the process."
"Quality control and tasting are carried out at each and every stage of the brewing process and also afterwards.”
That window, into what exactly the brew is getting up to at any one moment, is needed. Anne-Françoise points out that no two batches of go Orval through the exact same process. “Make no mistakes, just because we are only brewing one single beer does not mean that things can’t go wrong,” stresses Anne-Françoise.
“We have to deal with seasonal influences, differences in the quality of the barley, the malt, the hops… We will also be testing different varieties of malt from time to time. All of this keeps the job interesting”.
Orval primarily has its markets within Belgium, and it is finding its way into Luxembourg and Northern France. Exports are, however, limited outside of these areas. Orval's efforts remain focussed on perfecting the beer experience for its loyal customer base. Witness its ambassador scheme.
2002 saw the launch of this, the ‘Orval ambassadeur’ brewery initiative. It was set up to promote the quality of service for Orval in the hotel, café and restaurant trade.
Every year, drinks wholesalers nominate their candidates for this honorary title. Anonymous inspectors do the rounds of the various establishments and outlets serving Orval. They will rate, first, the quality of care taken in presenting and pouring the beer.
But they also check whether the landlord knows the difference between young and ‘old’ Orval (from six months), and whether to serve at room or fridge temperature…
Even small nuances are important to the Orval story. The honorary title of 'Orval 'ambassadeur'' is then awarded, and is a big deal for the brewery each year.“When that happens, we have two hundred visitors a day for three days running”, Anne-Françoise tells us.
“The candidates are taking the title at least as seriously as we are. They like to wear the quality label as a badge of honour”.
At the end of the day, the best possible service is what really counts with Orval. This reflects on the beer and its loyal fan base, both young and old, male and female.
This brings us to the subject of women and beer. Anne-Françoise seizes the point. “It is a myth that women only like sweet beer. Orval is very popular with the ladies”, the head brewer assures us.
Anne-Françoise turns out to be a woman with several hats. She is also responsible for the Orval dairy. “Each year we produce around 260 tonnes of semi-hard cheese, including the traditional Orval, the beer-matured Orval and the ‘oude Orval’ which has matured for a minimum of three months.
“Cheese making has much in common with the brewing process, although the basis of cheese is solid curds. But in each case, bacteria play an important role in fermentation and maturation”.
Cheese and beer: they were made for one another. In this case even under the same roof.