A very odd side effect of this situation is that until the ABV limit was raised, no more than a handful of beers fermented with anything other than a Saccharomyces strain of yeast were sold anywhere in our state. Which means that if you’ve only been exposed to beer sold in Alabama, you’ve almost certainly never tasted a beer fermented with a yeast other than strains of Saccharomyces. At this point your eyes may be glazing over and you’re wondering why you should care about yeast strains.
Orval Trappist Ale is why you should care about yeast strains, for Orval undergoes a secondary fermentation with Brettanomyces Bruxellensis. “Brett” — as it is affectionately called by those of us who love beers fermented with it — produces completely different flavors from anything you have ever encountered in beers fermented with the most common ale and lager yeasts. People often describe the most prominent Brett characteristic as “horse blanket.” I realize that doesn’t sound very appealing, but Brett actually produces more depth and complexity in beer than traditional beer yeasts are capable of producing on their own.
Beware that Orval is not the sort of beer about which you can have a neutral opinion. There are many beers sufficiently nondescript that you can sip them unthinkingly, developing no preference for or against. But Orval is unusual and polarizing. Not everyone will like its funky beauty. For some, it might be the first beer they truly enjoy (my wife enjoys it, unlike most beers).
It has a magnificent earthy funk from the Brett, as well as a surprising level of hop flavor and aroma. As the hops used are earthy and herbal European varieties, it can be difficult to pinpoint where the hop flavor ends and the Brett begins. They complement each other perfectly.
Although Orval was the first Brett-fermented beer to arrive in Alabama, I am certain it won’t be the last. American craft brewers are increasingly experimenting with unusual yeasts and even bacteria that produce wild, funky and sour flavors in beer. They have created a whole new style of beer: American wild ale. These beers exist in a completely different universe from all other alcoholic beverages. Orval Trappist Ale is the godfather of these wild ales and a masterpiece that has been revered since its inception in the 1930s.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org