Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Belgian Beer: Orval, Petrus Aged Pale…

This is an archive my beer columns published in the Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, San Jose Mercury News. Subject: Belgian Beer. Scroll down to find the beer that interests you. Comments always welcome, either on site or to me at william brand

Petrus Aged Pale

Orval: The unique, sophisticated Belgian Trappist Ale

Orval glass

No matter how much one knows about Belgian beer, it seems like there’s always another wrinkle. Consider our Beer of the Week: Orval*****, the stunning, classic, golden ale from the Cistercian Trappist abbey of the same name.

I’ve never had a chance to visit the monastic brewery, which is in Begium near the French border, but I’ve sipped a lot of Orval and thought I knew a lot. Most beer brewed by the other six Trappist breweries in Belgium and Holland, Orval are strong and dark.

Orval Francois de HarenneOrval is different and last week, I learned more from Francois de Harenne the business administrator of the abbey, who is on a West Coast tour and made stops at the Toronado and City Beer in San Francisco. The beer was formulated in 1931 with the help of a German brewer, but it’s a golden colored ale with a lively, rising head of white foam, 6.2 percent alcohol by volume and a unique aroma of ripe pears and spicy hops.

What’s unusual is the way it’s bottled. A bit of priming sugar and two yeasts are added to each bottle, de Harenne says. One is a special ale yeast, the other is a strain of wild yeast, the kind that floats in the air around us.

What happens, he says, is that the ale yeast slowly, consumes most of the remaining fermentable sugars. When it’s exhausted, after a period of months, the wild yeast, Brettanomyces, takes over.

“It goes to work on the complex sugars that the ale yeast cannot digest, working very, very slowly,” de Harenne explains. The result, after about a year, is a beer of great complexity. When Orval is fresh, it’s a delicious ale; when it’s older, it becomes very dry and winelike, he says. In fact, the aged beer is much preferred by winelovers, he adds.

They’re attracted to the sophistication of the palate, the spicy dryness. Amen to that. For the record, the beer’s a blend of pale barley malt and a touch of caramel malt. Hops are a mix of Styrian Goldings and Hallertau, both spicy, aromatic hops. The beer is also dry-hopped, hops are added during fermentation for an extra touch.

The good news is this is a beer widely available in the Bay Area at stores with good beer stocks. Can’t find Orval? Ask for our 2007 Retail Beer Store List. E-mail me at

Photo: Orval’s Francois de Harenne , left, with Jay Harmon
From Merchant du Vin, the importer, at City Beer.

This is my column, published Jan. 2, 2008. Subject: Pretus Aged pale


A sour ‘eau de barnyard,’ anyone?

Article Launched: 01/02/2008 03:03:23 AM PST

THERE WASN’T EVEN ELBOW ROOM the other night at the opening of The Trappist Belgian & Specialty Beer Bar in downtown Oakland. When I finally made it to the bar in this long, narrow, very Belgian-looking pub, I realized that – in a nod to a blue-collar beer-drinking tradition that’s rapidly dying, even in Belgium – I had to order a sour beer.

Petrus Aged PaleThese are beers steeped in history: ales long-aged in ancient oak barrels, sometimes served straight — dry and mouth-puckeringly sour, more often blended with fresh, young beer for a tantalizing sweet-sour taste. They were a traditional drink in the Lowlands from the Middle Ages until the Industrial Revolution died in a wave of Coca-Cola and fizzy hog-wallow lagers.

Trappist proprietors Chuck Stilphen and Aaron Porter have an excellent selection of these increasingly rare brown ales from Flanders – the provinces between Antwerp and the North Sea. I chose a bottle of Petrus Aged Pale (****). It’s a 7.3 percent ale, made by Bavik, a large, family-owned brewery.

Global Beer Network, the importer, says it’s not blended. What you get in the bottle is a pale barley-malt beer, aged two years in large oak casks first used for white wine and Calvados, the French apple brandy.

Aged Pale’s a deep golden brown color with a skiff of foam. The nose is sour: eau de barnyard – hay, straw and, er, animals, just a whiff short of a mild vinegar. Aren’t you intrigued?

The taste is lightly malty, a faint sweetness and a lingering sour edge that intensifies in the tart finish. It’s a pleasing, refreshing tartness. Petrus Aged Pale’s bottled with a bit of fresh yeast. Just like Champagne, fermentation continues slowly in the bottle, and the older your sample, the drier it will be.

If you try Petrus Aged Pale and like it, here’s some good news, perhaps: Tim Webb, author of the authoritative “Good Beer Guide to Belgium,” notes that many Belgian breweries turned their backs on the ancient style and chose not to invest in needed new equipment. Interbrew, the Belgian giant brewer that became InBev, wasn’t interested in old browns, and everyone thought the sour old beer style would fade into history.

A great deal happened. The late Michael Jackson wrote a book about Belgian beer and compared the sour beers of Flanders to the great Burgundies of France. Tim Webb also came along and began chronicling Belgium’s beers. Brewers and beer lovers in England, America and Belgium listened.

So now there’s a bit of a revival in Belgium, and as most of us know, barrel-aged beers here are a big and growing moving movement.

“The eventual fate of oak-aged ales is one of the pivotal issues to the future of Belgium beer,” Webb says. “It takes a lot of cash and even more faith to invest in regenerating a brewery that requires … huge, hand-crafted constructions in oak.”

Petrus Aged Pale labelThe jury is still out, and the decision’s up to us. Well, this is my vote. Where’s yours?

Bavik named the line Petrus, honoring St. Peter, who holds the keys to the kingdom of heaven. What better name for a beer? Global Beer also imports Petrus Oud Bruin (**1/2), which is a 5.5 percent ABV blend of one-third oak-aged brown ale and fresh beer. Then there’s Petrus Speciale, a 5.5 percenter, and Petrus Triple (***1/2), also bottle-conditioned. It’s a beer that blends and improves as it ages.

It’s also impossible to write about Flemish sour ales without mentioning Rodenbach. Michael Jackson described Rodenbach as a Flemish red ale. The beer’s been through some travails. Sold to a large brewery, Palm, the company ditched the truly old oak tuns that gave Rodenbach its breathtaking sourness and tried to duplicate the effect in steel vats.

The project failed. Now Palm’s reclaimed those old casks, and Rodenbach lives again. The very best one’s Rodenbach Grand Cru (****). Sourness that takes your breath away, perfectly balanced by a solid malty sweetness that’s stunning. Importer Duvel Moortgat USA has finally secured a distributor for the Bay Area and the beer’s headed our way, the importer’s agent, Joshua Charlton of Pacific Libations, says.

Finally, you can order Tim Webb’s book at