When putting together a beer list for a restaurant, the resulting product should read something like an endorsement, even an imprimatur. So that when a customer comes in, I'm able to wholeheartedly recommend anything on the list as being a superb example of its style, be it a Helles-Bock, a sour, or an Imperial stout. Since our particular restaurant tries to source things locally, we very rarely venture across an entire ocean to bring a beer on. So if somebody asks me, “What beer do you wish you served at The Golden State?” I might have to cross the Atlantic to provide an answer.
It's no secret that some of the finest beers in the world come from Belgium. Their masterful brewing techniques and quality of ingredients are part of a preserved tradition that stretches back for centuries. Many of my favorite beers are part of this tradition. I love Tripels. I really love Saisons. Saison Dupont is one of my absolute desert island beers. And there is no substitution for a great Geuze: a classic aged Belgian sour ale. But there is one beer that stands apart from the rest. In fact, it really stands apart from all other Belgian Trappist ales.
Orval, stylistically, may be a kind of Belgian pale ale but both its crispness and depth belie that description. It is very subtle but has a wonderful bread-y aroma that rises far beyond the glass. While it is a light beer with relatively low alcohol (6.8%), Orval's flavor density makes it a nearly perfect match for almost every food imaginable. This is perhaps its greatest magic trick. There are so many levels — a bit of floral on the nose, some citrus and spice on the palate, and a slightly “funky” finish — that almost every dish will pick out aspects endemic within the beer itself. Much of the complexity of the beer might be due to transcontinental influences. While it is a Trappist ale, demarcated as such because it is brewed on the premises of a monastery, it is certainly the least traditional Trappist ale. In fact, it's a relatively new one. While the monastery has been there since at least the 1500s, the present brewing recipe is from 1931 and incorporates elements from German beers and the additional step of “dry hopping” which, in the 1930s, was a predominantly English brewing technique. The cross-cultural interplay is certainly one of the secrets of its unique flavor as well as its bone-dry finish, a feature that no other Trappist ale displays.
To be sure, Saisons are generally considered the ultimate summer beer because of their light lemon-peppery finish, Orval is still light enough to be enjoyed with most of our lighter summer fare. It's sort of the grey worsted suit of the beer world. Elegant for every occasion almost any time of the year.
Another great aspect of Orval is availability. One doesn't have to track it down in a remote corner of the world. It's not seasonal: it's made all year long. It ages relatively well too. As it gets older, some of the fresh hop aromatics fade a bit, but they're replaced with a wonderful spice depth: coriander, clove and a bit of earthy straw. But one of the greatest attributes of the beer is the single reason that we don't serve it at the restaurant. It's bottle conditioned. This means that there is living yeast in the bottle. In fact, Orval is racked and rests for no less than two months before it is even released for sale. This allows the beer to grow and mature as it sits. Orval is never kegged. There can be absolutely no debate as to whether it's better on draft, because it simply isn't available in that form. The bottle that you buy at Bevmo is the same bottle you would buy at a fancy restaurant. You are therefore able to indulge in one of the world's greatest beverages for less than five dollars. I may just open one right now.
Jason Bernstein is the co-owner of Golden State.