While in Cooperstown this month for the Rural Schools Conference, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to stop in on the area’s biggest tourist attraction. No, not the Baseball Hall of Fame, but Brewery Ommegang, probably the best Belgium Brewery outside of Belgium. I’ve come to Ommegang relatively late in the game, given that I didn’t grow up on Belgian beer, the particular yeast varieties, brewing methods and the resulting heavy alcohol content of which, not to put aside the price, have typically seen them side-lined in my eyes (and throat) for more readily thirst-quenching and substantially less expensive lagers, ales and the like. I always saw Belgian beers as something of an expensive treat rather than an everyday drink.
That’s come to change a little in the past year or two. I’ve been aware that Ommegang, though positioned 100 miles northwest in an area I rarely visit, is a local Brewery, and also that none other than Belgium’s Duvel, presumably operating on the principle “If you can’t beat them, buy them,” is now Ommegang’s parent company. This infusion of capital may explain why Ommegang seems to have become more high profile of late; the beers are on tap at Plattekill Ski Mountain, and they have started showing up by the bottle at more and more bars and restaurants. Where they do, they make an impact: a recent trip to the Belgian bar Petite Abeille on Manhattan’s 1st Avenue and 20th Street (right where I used to live), had a Belgian beer-loving friend genuinely surprised to find that Ommegang’s beers were made in New York State, not the other side of the Atlantic.
Of course, and as you would expect, those beers still come in different styles. The Witte, the Wheat Ale, is the lightest in color and alcohol content, at just 5.1%; though wheat bears go down well in warm weather and have long proved popular in NYC, they are not my favourite. At the other end of the scale, the Abbey Ale, 8.5% ABA, is a seriously dark ale which you will find poured in a much smaller serving than you might otherwise be used to; Ommegang’s first ever beer, it’s based on a Trappist Monk recipe and has that whole caramel-toffee-licorice “is this beer or is it dessert?” thing going on. The Three Philosophers, even heavier at 9.5%, is also poured in smaller servings; a blend of Belgian dark strong ale and Lindeman’s Kriek (a classic cherry lambic directly from Belgium), it’s for gentle sipping if you expect to do any philosophizing of your own.
Inbetween these extremes are the beers I’ve recently come to know and love – most notably the Rare VOS, which the brewery claims its both its “brewers choice and dark horse… an amber ale of medium color and strength, with aromas and flavors of caramel, orange, hops, plus an elusive fruity-yeasty flavor which will have you tasting in circles.” At 6.5%, it’s right in that IPA range and goes down as smoothly as described, truly Ommegang’s flagship beer. The Hennepin Saison, meanwhile, is a bottle conditioned golden ale, with ginger notes and citrusy hops, a little deceptively forward given that it’s 7.7% alcohol: confuse the word “Saison,” a particular Belgian style, with the concept of a “session” beer, at your peril.
Stopping in at Ommegang for the first time, a much larger operation than your average micro-brewery though not noticeably any bigger than Magic Hat in Vermont, I had the option of joining a free guided tour of the facilities and enjoying a complimentary tasting of the year-round beers at the end of it. Given my limited time, I headed straight to the hi-tech bar/café, and pounced on the newest name on the roster, that which I’ve yet to see in local stores or on tap: the Belgian Pale Ale or, as the Brewery seems to prefer it, the BPA. Containing five specialty malts and three hops, there’s nothing shy about it; rather, it pulls off that difficult feat of wrapping the classic Pale Ale appeal of forward zest inside that very distinct, strong, imposing Belgian baggage. At 6.2% you’re not going to knock it back as quick as a regular pale ale, but nor should you – there’s more character and depth to it.
As I sat back with a decent $4 sized glass, I pondered some purchasing options. As well as its perennials, Ommegang brews up some seasonal beers and a couple of specialties, available only in 750ml (wine-size) bottles. Unfortunately, these specialty beers are not on tap to sample, but I came home with the newly released Gnommegang all the same. “A Belgian Golden Ale using Chouffe yeast in the primary fermentation and Ommegang yeast in the secondary,” coming in at a whacking 9.5% alcohol, the brewery describes the taste as follows: “The nose focuses on distinctive clove aromas, combined with yeasty fruitiness typical of Chouffe beers. Flavors include ripe fruit, clove, light caramel, non-cloying candy sweetness, smooth maltiness.” All of which makes me feel like opening it up right now. However, to toss that back would be the equivalent of knocking back a full bottle of Riesling. I’ll save it to savor with guests.
Ommegang may no longer be a small operation but it continues to think local as it acts global. Every year, it hosts a “Belgium comes to Cooperstown” weekend long celebration, for which it wisely and kindly invites guests to camp out on its considerable front lawn. Sadly, the event clashes with the Escarpment Run – besides which, I doubt if I could get through more than a few Belgian beers in 28 hours without keeling over, let alone those from some 75 breweries. I am, however, sorely tempted to visit the Brewery for one of its concerts. On August 5, it is hosting Steve Earle, the Felice Brothers and Langhorne Slim and more for a big one-nighter; the idea of camping out and drinking in the best of Americana and the best of American Belgian beer has a distinct appeal.
Another reason to sing Ommegang’s praises is that it has come out swinging against hydro-fracturing – fracking – in New York State. In May of this year Ommegang hosted a benefit concert featuring Arlo Guthrie and Woodstock’s own resident Levon Helm to raise awareness on the issue; 2,000 people attended and some $20,000 was donated to the local Otsego 2000 pressure group. As Ommegang Public Relations and Creative Services Manager Larry Bennett put it to the local paper, “If we can’t get water, we can’t make beer. Whether you’re raising livestock or watering vegetables or making beer, if the water is contaminated, we all have enormous problems.” Acknowledging that some local landowners want to make a quick buck by leasing out their land to the gas companies, Bennett agreed that New York State is having hard times but that fracking is not the answer. “We have to find other ways for our economy to survive, and we don’t think gas drilling is the way to do it.” Amen to that.
Good beer, good attitude, good people, good music, and great scenery to boot. Oh yeah, there was good food on sale as well, but I had just come from having lunch up at Glimmerglass State Park on Cooperstown lake itself and so didn’t get to try what looked like delicious Belgian fries. In fact, my decision to only partake of a quick glass at Ommegang was partly driven by my desire to stop, just down the road, at the region’s “other” brewery, the much smaller, truly micro operation, the Cooperstown Brewing Company. Though just about all their bottles have a baseball reference, they brew them in a pronounced English style, increasingly rare for American micro breweries. This made for a fascinating comparison, like taking a trip across the English Channel from Belgium to the homeland in a five minute drive, while never leaving New York State. Look for the upcoming review.