Even though we focus mostly on Japanese beers here at BeerEast, we also do like to take a look at what is happening elsewhere as that gives us some perspective on Japanese craft beer relative to the world. Recently we reviewed Songbird’s Brett Table Beer, and since brett beers are only bound to increase in quantity here I thought it would be nice to review probably the most definitive brett beer in the Orval, and Mikkeller’s Årh Hvad?! homage/clone.
Brasserie d’Orval Orval
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Super foamy, amber in color, as with most brett beers foam takes forever to settle
Aroma – Awesome sour funk smell, also hops, some pepper as well
Flavor – Tart, definitely has the funk, also quite hoppy though. dry bitter finish with more funk and some pepper at the very end
For most beer people, the word brettanomyces (quick recap – a wild yeast that usually gives beer funk) brings to mind one beer and one beer only – Orval. Brewed at the Orval Abbey, the Brasserie d’Orval brewery is one of eleven officially allowed to call themselves an “Authentic Trappist Product“, along with some other quite well-known monastery/breweries like Chimay, Westvleteren, and Rochefort. For those of you interested in reading more about Trappist beer and its history, there is an awesome series of posts on it at the ithinkaboutbeer blog here.
The abbey itself and the name Orval have a great origin story as outlined here by Michael Jackson – once upon a time, Countess Matilda of Tuscany lost her gold ring in a lake. A trout was kind enough to bring it back to her, and she decided to repay God by establishing a monastery there. Hence the name Orval, which comes from Vallée d’Or, or valley of gold.
While the monastery itself has a brewing tradition going back to the 17th century, Orval as we know it today was started in 1931, which is when the brewery was built and the recipe for this beer invented. To date, the Orval is the only beer they make commercially available, and the only other brew they beer (the 3.5% ABV Petite Orval) is intended for consumption by the monks, although you can purchase it if you visit the abbey.
While the brett in the secondary fermentation is what this beer is known for, they also make use of dry hopping (their recipe notes that they use Bavarian Hallertau, Slovenian Styrian Golding and Alsacian Strisselspalt hops). It then undergoes bottle fermentation, and continues to age, well, basically forever. There’s usually a lot of debate as to when Orval is at its best, and while the brewery generally recommends around 6 months the official expiration date is 5 years past the package date, and there are many who prefer to let it age.
Ours was packaged on 2015/02, so we’re having ours at about the 8-month mark – how does it taste? The funk is there, as are the hops, and it also has some tartness and spice to it. The finish is very dry with a nice amount of bitterness, but the funk comes back at the end. The aroma as well has the same combination of strong funk with noticeable hops. All in all, it’s a great beer, and very well-balanced. Incredibly smooth, you could drink this all day, although at 6.2% ABV that may not be recommended.
There was actually a bit of a hubbub recently caused by poor reporting by Forbes about Orval’s production capacity and possibly losing their Authentic Trappist Product certification. The root cause was that some suspect research and subsequent article on Forbes (which has since been pulled) noted that because Orval was maxing out their production capabilities, a decrease in the abbey monk population could end up with Orval losing their certification because they wouldn’t have enough monks to brew the beer and that meant it was no longer Trappist beer. Of course, this is total hogwash – Trappist certification doesn’t depend on having monks actually brew the beer (monks do have to oversee the operation, and the beer must be brewed within the monastery grounds), and Orval have outsourced the actual brewing of the beer to secular persons from the very get-go.
The concerns about production, however mislaid they may have been in terms of Trappist certification, do have a grain of truth in them though – Orval on their website themselves state that their current production level of 70,000 hectoliters a year is what they consider to be optimal and is unlikely to grow from here on out in the near future. As demand grows, it may become harder to find, especially if you live somewhere a bit far from Belgium, like say, Japan – 92% of the beer made ends up being sold in the Benelux countries, so that doesn’t leave a whole lot for a place like Japan. For now, though, Orval is pretty easy to obtain in Japan – I bought this one at Bic Camera for 615 yen, which is the cheapest I’ve seen it, and I’ve also seen it at regular supermarkets like Daiei and Tokyu. There probably isn’t much to worry about in terms of availability, and that’s a relief, since this is a great beer and indeed a classic.
Mikkeller Årh Hvad?!
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Similar in color to Orval but more reddish, foamy but nowhere near as much as Orval, settles more quickly
Aroma – Brett funk, less hops but more malts, sugar and spice than Orval
Flavor – Quite malty initially, the brett is big in the middle, finish is slighty sweet and acidic
Apparently when you pronounce Orval in Danish, it comes out sounding like Årh Hvad, which means “Oh what?” in Danish (Google Translate confirmation here). So this is Mikkeller’s homage to Orval, which is allegedly one of Mikkel’s favorite beers, and therefore has the requisite Brettanomyces and is even hopped with Styrian Golding hops, one of the hops used in Orval.
How does it rate compared to the original Orval? The Orval has more balance, I think especially with the hops. The hop character isn’t really emphasized in the Mikkeller version, and is quite malty instead. It ends up being more sweet, and also is slightly acidic. I like the extra spiciness in the Mikkeller, but overall the Orval has a softer, more rounded feel to it while still maintaining very strong flavors. I feel like the Mikkeller has strong flavors as well, but they don’t go well together nicely as well as they do in the Orval, and the lack of bitterness in the Mikkeller really hurts it in terms of balance.
So a decent homage by Mikkeller, but the original Orval is far superior in my opinion. Certainly Mikkeller make good stuff in general, so I definitely recommend doing a side-by-side tasting of the Orval and the Årh Hvad – I’m curious as to what others think about this comparison, but I can’t find any others out there on Google so if you do replicate this review please leave a comment!
Finally, as I mentioned earlier, we’ll be looking out for more brett beers in Japan – there aren’t a whole lot on the market right now. Other than the Tamamura Honten saison brett and the Songbird Brett Table Beer we’re not aware of any others out there, but as we’re suckers for brett (Anchorage Brewing Company, anybody?) we’re definitely looking forward to the aforementioned brewers and others (Kyoto Brewing Company looks promising here) doing more with brett here in Japan.