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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.

But The Boss didn’t sing Happy Birthday to Boulevard

Boulevard beer flight at Flying Saucer in Kansas City

Orval and Boulevard Nommo DubbelSaturday we drove across the state of Missouri to Kansas City so we could see a(nother) Bruce Springsteen concert.

Also Saturday, although Boulevard Brewing didn’t make a big deal out of it, the brewery sort of wished itself a happy anniversary, birthday, whatever, with a tweet: Twenty-three years ago, our founder, John McDonald, tapped the first sold keg of Pale Ale. So it seemed appropriate that I start an afternoon of drinking and conversation at the Flying Saucer1 Draught Emporium with their Boulevard flight (Flying Saucer offers a variety of themed flights, each including five five-ounce pours). It was not my plan going in. I prefer full pours,2 and it’s not like I don’t already know these beers well. Boulevard has a significant presence in St. Louis and, after all, is brewed in Missouri. I choose to call it local although it is brewed 250 miles away. You are free to disagree. Anyway, very familiar beers. Hold that thought.

Springsteen went flat out for about three hours Saturday evening, rolling one song into another. He offered a mix of old, not so old, and new. What struck me, probably during “Death to My Hometown,” is how quickly the new songs can find a spot deep in my bones. Music does that. Not just Springsteen. My experience was the same at recent Joe Ely and James McMurtry concerts.

I would give up beer before I would give up music; it really is an in the bones thing. But there is much to be said for beer (witness the number of words here). And for familiar. When I smell Smokestack Tank 7 (lower left in the top photo) I know where things are going to lead, and I’m happy to follow. Tank 7 is one of those beers tickers chase. They first time I tasted it was like the first time I heard McMurtry’s “Choctaw Bingo.” Wow, give me that again.

If we still lived in New Mexico it’d be one of the beers I’d recommend when I get the occasional request for input from those looking for wow beers to list in magazine articles and books. However, it’s a local beer (for me), and it has become familiar. It’s not just the nuances I’ve come to know. I remember the quick smile on my brother’s face the first time he tasted it. I still try not to giggle when a server says there’s 15 minutes left of happy hour and Tank 7 is one of the choices.

Your regular beers may not be local. Heck, you might not have regular beers. But if they are local, you likely also understand something about they place they come from. You live there. For me, Boulevard’s beers are local not only because I can buy them easily here in St. Louis, but because we’ve spent a certain amount of time in Kansas City.

On Saturday that included an afternoon jawing primarily with Twitter star Jeremy Danner, who in real life is a brewer at Boulevard, and Cris Morgan, another Boulevard brewer, and his wife, Mary — but also several other innocent passersby Jeremy introduced me to.

Thus I should explain the second photo. The Morgans started with Orval. After they poured their beers, and perhaps establishing at the outset I can be short on couth, I asked to see one of the empty bottles, because, well, its Orval and you always wonder what kind of age it has on it. Both beers had been bottled on Nov. 17 last year. They were one year old to the day.

So what you’ve got it is a picture of two birthday beers (the Boulevard beer being Smokestack Nommo Dubbel).


1 The hotel we stayed in was sold out, and it seemed as if every guest was going to the concert. One woman who checked in at the same time we did asked the clerk for directions to the Flying Monkey Draught Emporium.

2 See NEW BEER RULE #3: You must drink at least two servings of a beer before you pass judgment on it.

3 Certainly, there are many beers like that. Saturday I was struck by the Czech Pilsner at Gordon Biersch, conveniently next door to the Flying Saucer. This was the third Czech Pilsner I’ve had at a GB restaurant this year. The first two were excellent. This was better. A beer I’d love to become more familiar with.

Mr. Rock prefers that beer be the star

Jean-Marie Rock began brewing beer professionally in 1972. For the last 25 years he’s been in charge of the Orval Trappist monastery brewery. He understands brewing cred. Celebrity? Another matter.

He’s been to Kansas City twice recently. Posing for pictures, signing empty beer bottles, he found out quickly he wasn’t in Belgium any more.

“The biggest change is the contact brewers have here with the customers,” said Steven Pauwels, a native of Belgium who became brewmaster at Boulevard Brewing in 1999. When Rock agreed to collaborate with Pauwels to brew a beer he probably didn’t realize that 160 people would show up at a Lawrence, Kansas, hotel to celebrate the release of Smokestack Collaboration No. 1.

“The American people are so kind,” Rock said. “You cannot refuse to answer their questions.”

Rock, who is 61, oversees the production of a single beer, Orval. (The brewery also makes Petit for the monks at the monastery to drink and to sell at the brewery’s inn — that is simply a watered down version of the mother beer.) The ongoing production of special, or seasonal, beers is something that makes New American beers (I’m using that term instead of “craft” to see if it sticks) different. Likewise the notion brewers might be celebrities.

Rock, who visited Kansas City first to brew the beer and then again two weeks ago for the debut, left no doubt he found brewing something different just plain fun. When Pauwels suggested the possibility of the collaboration last year Rock knew immediately that he wanted to brew a strong pilsner using a hopping technique from 30 years ago.

Rock first worked for the Palm Breweries, then for Lamot in Mechelen, brewing lagers. At 8 percent alcohol by volume Collaboration No. 1 is about one percent stronger than the beer Rock was thinking of. Although it is labeled an “Imperial Pilsner” is does not resemble beers such as Samuel Adams Imperial Pilsner.

Hopped with excessive quantities of German Hallertau Mittlefrüher (as it is spelled where it is grown) Boston Beer brewed an 8.8 percent abv beer that had 110 International Bitterness Units (IBU).

Collaboration No. 1 is hopped entirely with Czech Saaz and brimming with hop flavor, although with 30 bitterness units it appears almost pedestrian compared to 110 IBU.

Where does the flavor and aroma come from? First wort hopping, a practice no longer used in Belgium. “No, no, no, no, no, no,” Rock said. “It doesn’t exist any more.”

A quick primer for those who aren’t homebrewers, commercial brewers or among those who spend too much time with either. Brewers boil hops a an hour or more to extract bitterness. In the process flavor and aroma are lost. That’s why brewers make flavor and aroma additions later in the boil.

In this beer two-thirds of the hops were added before the beginning of the boil (or “first wort”), but their flavor ended up in the beer. German also brewers used the method at the beginning of the last century (you can read much more here, including results of tests conducted in 1995.)

“It seems like a contradiction. You’d think you’d get more bitterness and less flavor,” Pauwels said. “It’s more subtle, almost crisper. Sometimes with late hopping it can get vegetative.”

These days many American brewers are experimenting with first wort, and even mash, hopping (recall at the steps Deschutes took in making Hop Henge). Additionally dry hopping (adding hops after fermentation is complete, sometimes shortly before packaging) to produce even more aroma is commonplace.

“You can try all the things you want,” Rock said. “A lot of brewers they are doing all they can dream. The dream is not always the reality.”

Rock is happy with Collaboration No. 1 (“Not just because it is our beer”). “It has a taste you don’t get when you use late hopping,” he said. “You get an old taste. That is my opinion.”

You know, old like the good old days. When a brewer could go to the store to buy a loaf of bread and didn’t have to stop to sign autographs.

(Photo courtesy of Boulevard Brewing.)



New Beer Rule #4: Variation is not a flaw

Looks good to meNEW BEER RULE #4: The god of beer is not consistency.

Full credit for this rule goes to Mark Dorber, the venerable British publican who uttered these words in 1996 at the first Real Ale Festival in Chicago.

He was speaking specifically about cask-conditioned ale, but the rule applies fairly to most small-batch beers.

This doesn’t mean that a beer needn’t be consistently good; only that it doesn’t have to taste the same every batch. Or in the case of cask beer, the same the second day it is on dispense as the first. Or in the case of a beer that you might cellar for a few years the same two years into the process as five years in.

Look, same is OK. It’s what most people seem to want. That’s why Anheuser-Busch goes to incredible lengths to make sure beers such as Budweiser – brewed in 12 different plants in the United States and other around the world – taste the same no matter where they come from. They don’t want us commenting on the nuances of Newark (New Jersey) Bud versus those of Fort Collins (Colorado) Bud.

Small batches lend themselves to greater variability. Hop varieties taste different not only from year to year, but from lot to lot – depending, for instance, if they are grow high on a hill or in the lowlands of a rolling hop district. The same may true for barley that will be turned into malt. (And then there are process differences, etc., but let’s keep this short).

Large breweries may blend to minimize differences. Not so small-batch brewers. “We’re going to have variability from batch to batch,” said Great Divide Brewing founder Brian Dunn. “I think the flavor profile doesn’t change enormously, not enough that drinkers necessarily notice.”

This is why it is silly for Consumer Reports to rate beers (see what Ron at Hop Talk has to write about that), and just another reason that assigning a number to a beer doesn’t work for me.

Back in the 1980s, Michael Jackson discussed consistency with Roger Schoonjans, then brewing director at Belgium’s famed Brasserie d’Orval. “People should not want our beer to taste exactly the same every time,” he said. “They want the gout d’Orval (flavor of Orval), for sure, but they want to be able to chat about it: ‘I think this one is a little more hoppy — yesterday’s was rounder . . . .’ In that respect, they treat it like wine.”

You don’t have treat your beer like wine to appreciate that worshiping at the foot of consistency means that you’d be giving up something you should not want to.

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