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Orval, Nova Scotia, spruce beer

I’d argue that Orval qualifies as a beer “from a place.”

I think this mysterious spruce beer that James Robertson wrote about in 1978 probably did as well. This is his entry for Orval from The Great American Beer Book (pages 223-224):

Brasserie D’Orval

ORVAL ABBEY’S ALE BIERE LUXE – dark orange foamy appearance, soapy-sweet malt aroma, intense resinous aromatic flavor that fills the senses, sharp and sweet. This reminds me of a highly alcoholic spruce beer, which is definitely an acquired taste. Years ago an Englishman named Charlie Grimes used to make this in the little French seaside village of River Bourgeoise in Nova Scotia. It was very popular and reputed to have once put the local parish priest back on his feet when he was near death from the flu. I like it, but as I said, it is very much an acquired taste. it is doubtful if Orval can be found outside of Belgium. This beer is made by the Trappist fathers and is considered to be one of Belgium’s classics.

That’s more than Michael Jackson wrote about Orval in 1977 in The World Guide to Beer: “In its skittle-shaped bottle, the distinctive and vigorously-hopped Orval beer is another of Belgium’s classics.”

It wasn’t much later that Merchant du Vin began importing Orval.

5 Responses to Orval, Nova Scotia, spruce beer

  1. SteveH August 9, 2013 at 5:46 am #

    Boy, based on that description I guess it’s been an awful long time since I’ve tried an Orval! Time for a revisit, methinks.

  2. Gary Gillman August 13, 2013 at 8:33 pm #

    It’s an open question whether Orval still tastes like that. Jim Robertson (a true pioneer of beer writing who deserves to be better known) was writing over a generation ago..


    • SteveH August 14, 2013 at 5:44 am #

      After I replied I went back to check my notes and I actually had an Orval in ’09 — an ’07 Orval with a best-by date of ’12.

      I’m not sure where my notes cross with Robertson’s, but I didn’t get any spruce to my senses — though I did enjoy it.

  3. Gary Gillman August 14, 2013 at 1:56 pm #

    Stan, when I had a chance, I wanted to talk more about Canadian spruce beer. The beer Charlie Grimes made was probably similar to artisan Quebec spruce beer, because Robertson mentioned that River Bourgeois was a Francophone community. I would think it reasonable to infer that French Canadians in two eastern provinces in Canada had the same kind of drink, one that was made since earliest times (I have read) in French Canada.

    Recently I had a non-alcoholic version in Montreal, in a pot-stopper bottle with yeast sediment floating free. (Not sure how they stop fermentation, perhaps it is pasteurized). It tasted just as Robertson wrote, sweet with a sharp resinous bite from the spruce extract added. (It tasted just like the bark from a spruce tree smells, like certain traditional American soft drinks actually, sarsparilla or root beer).

    To me this is completely different to Orval, as it was to SteveH, but maybe Orval was different back then, or maybe Roberston was striving for a broad analogy only.

    Incidentally, a little web research disclosed that Charlie Grimes was American-born, not English, and he and his wife operated a quick lunch restaurant in this remote community from the 30’s until the 60’s. He passed away in 1981 at the age of 83. I would hope his descendants are living in the area and perhaps still make the good old French Canada spruce beer. Even in soft drink form it is a good solid beverage and a taste of history.


    • Stan Hieronymus August 14, 2013 at 2:03 pm #

      Thanks for the additional information, Gary. My guess is that Jim was making the broadest of analogies. I wish he was still around to ask. He would often add an interesting extra bit, and sometimes surprising, bit of information when I’d ask what I thought was a routine question.

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