Current Issue #480

On the road to the holy ale

John Dexter

A visit to Belgium’s Orval Abbey proves a thrill for lovers of beer, religious history and graphic design.

Few would expect monks to brew very strong beer. Even fewer would think said beer is made for the good of mankind. But that’s a specialty of Belgium’s Trappist breweries.

Dotted throughout Belgium are half a dozen Trappist breweries where monks brew beer for the enjoyment of the masses, and the commercial benefit of their monasteries.

Indeed, holy men once brewed beer all across this part of Europe as a way to deliver safe drinking water to the masses, while also making a pretty penny for their monasteries. Bustling village populations, and their ablutions, made tainted drinking water common, so churches brewed very low-alcohol beer to supply people with clean, tasty hydration.

Nowadays, though, Belgium’s brewer monks produce potent beer, exporting it around the world to high acclaim.

Orval Abbey, Belgium
John Dexter
Orval Abbey, Belgium

The Orval Abbey, or Abbaye D’Orval, in the south of Belgium is a delightfully quirky place to visit. Nestled in dense forest on the French border, this lush, green, hilly country is familiar to anyone who knows the opening courses of the Tour de France, or watches Second War World War miniseries such as Band of Brothers.  

The monastery sits in a verdant valley atop a spring. Legend says it’s located there because around 1000 years ago the widowed Countess Mathilde of Tuscany dropped her wedding ring in the river flowing through the valley. Distraught, she prayed for its return until a trout emerged from the water with her ring in its mouth.

Aquatic coincidence or not, Mathilde deemed the valley a golden one (‘or’ means gold, and ‘val’ is an old contraction of valley in French, hence ‘Orval’), and kicked off a religious order.

The original cathedral was burned to the ground amid waves of French Revolution, but its bones remain with creepers and ivy climbing up the exposed columns.

The new monastery sits beside the old cathedral, as it was rebuilt in the early 20th century with a distinctly Art Deco flair. Indeed, the monastery’s rebuild coincided with a rebrand for Orval. Its own bottle labels and logo of Mathilde’s fish grasping her ring in its mouth are also deeply Deco.

Orval Abbey, Belgium
John Dexter
Orval Abbey, Belgium
John Dexter

As such, touring the grounds is a curious, somewhat contradictory wander, with Art Deco sculptures scattered about the historic gardens. Part of the dead cathedral has been turned into a museum for the monks, brewing traditions, while other sections are devoted to the Catholic ruins and artefacts lying all over the place.

Then there’s the fully functioning brewery combined with a monastery right next door to the ruins. Casual visitors cannot enter the monastery’s cloisters or the brewery, which is common in Trappist abbeys due to the rules of the monks’ order, but sad nonetheless.

The Art Deco architectural approach is also tied to Orval’s commercial products, which all retain deco twists from 20th-century marketing. The beer, cheese, glass goblets and myriad other trinkets all retain a smooth deco charm.

One section of the monk museum explains this connection in fascinating detail, taking visitors through the recapitalisation of the brewery, with all the old-school beer posters and 1930s fonts a graphic designer could desire.

Orval only produces two beers – one strong ale for mass consumption, and another lighter version of the ale for monks and local restaurants. The beer is a cloudy dry, fruity drop. It’s a beverage with as much complexity as the monastery that produces it, inspiring contemplation of the good things in life.

There is no ‘cellar door’ at which to enjoy the beer (unless you’re there for a religious visit, in which case you’ll drink with monks at every meal), but there is a gift shop, and a restaurant just down the road, which even serves the rare, light version of Orval’s ale.

While the Orval Abbey might appear to be a contradiction at first, it all makes sense after a day in this uniquely Belgian part of the world. As anyone who’s savoured a few glasses can attest, monklike meditation and very strong beer is a match made in heaven.

Orval Abbey, Belgium
John Dexter

John Dexter

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