To Rock to see Monsieur Rock (Jean-Marie, that is, of Orval). He and Sharps’ brewmaster Stuart Howe are birthing a collaboration beer born of Howe’s trip to Orval in June (I tagged along, a poor man’s Boswell to Howe’s jangly Johnson). No name to the beer yet (what about Monsieur Rock?), but when I arrive, the mash has happened and the wort is running off into the kettle — onto a bed of whole flower Saaz hops I note, giving off that beautiful delicate aroma that strokes and stimulates every olfactory pleasure zone in my brain (this is the German way of brewing Rock tells me and then writes in my notebook, Vorderwürzehopfen). No more hops will now be added until it is dry hopped in the conditioning tanks. As Howe buzzes about, checks this and checks that, issues commands and confides with his brewers (he’s not as fierce as he’d have you believe), Jean-Marie stands purposefully at the top of the gantry, seemingly commanding the surrounding mash tun and kettle (it seems to me that brewing for those at the top of the tree seems to be about waiting). He’s on good form despite his luggage being lost in transit. Last time we met he’d let slip that Petite Orval (the monks’ drop) would be made as a stand alone brew sometime this year (rather than being watered down) — and it now has been. It’s 4.5% with lots of dry hop character and will be sold (in both bottle and keg) at the Orval café when it reopens next year. Being a bit of an Orval fan we chat about this and that and he casually and unthinkingly drops crumbs of information that I find fascinating— during his early time at the brewery he discovered the recipe for a dark Orval, which was brewed just once but ‘it had a problem’ and never saw the light of day (so to speak); contemporary Orval gets a 45-minute boil but when he arrived it received three hours; what was the result I ask? ‘No head in the glass,’ comes the reply, ‘all the proteins had been dissolved’. Over to Howe’s office we drink Chalky’s Bite with a Cornish Pastie, and then get a glass of Howe’s DW, which is being sold for £10 with all profits going to charity. This is a magnificent beast of a beer: 10.6% in alcohol, hopped with amarillo, cascade and willamette, with amarillo also called up to dry-hopping duty. This is Sauternes as beer, rich, but the sweetness being mellowed by the bitterness, tangerine hints and pineapple blasts on the nose, a fruit salad of desire that I reckon would hold its own in any grapple with a stinky Stilton. Then we try the wort of the unnamed beer (I still reckon Monsieur Rock) — it’s as pale as a lemon that’s just seen a ghost, while the cereal, grainy worty nose has lemony notes in the background and the bitterness is tight and shrill (Howe looks worried but Rock reassures that it will mellow out in tank). I suspect this will be a barnstormer of a beer, something Rock heartily agrees with: ‘This will be the greatest beer ever made in England,’ he laughs, which is not arrogance but the sense of play and fun that this delightful brewmaster brings to his art, yet he’s also someone who garners respect throughout the brewing world (as we talk he gets a text from Mikkeller asking if they can send him some beers and mention something about a Nordic Orval). I now forward to this nameless beer (I still think it should be called Monsieur Rock) and so should you.
The techie stuff: lager malt, Saaz hops, two weeks in fermentation, two-three months in cold condition; bottom fermenting and secondary fermentation in bottle (‘not sure what yet,’ says Stuart with a smile as I suggest Brett).