After stopping in at Brewery Ommegang (see previous post), I continued just a couple of miles down Route 33 to Cooperstown Brewing. The difference between the breweries could hardly be more pronounced. Unlike Ommegang, Cooperstown has no guided tours, no public bar, no café, no giant external tanks, no concerts on the lawn, no sales staff, no limited edition wine-bottle sized special brews, and certainly, no Belgian yeast. What it does have is a proprietor, Stan Hall, welcoming you into something approximating an old-fashioned corner shop, where he will pour you two free samples for free, and all six of them for just $2, all the while alternating between beerish enthusiasm regarding his British-style brews and boarish antagonism at the Government bureaucracy that seems to continually drown him under a sea of paperwork. When I enquired as to why he was constantly opening fresh bottles of beer for my samples, he explained that a recent lightning strike had knocked some of his taps. In the hour that I hung out, I was the only customer (I estimate that at least 50 people stopped in at Ommegang during the same time frame); this is not a wealthy enterprise.
The beers at Cooperstown, meanwhile, are an absolute anomaly – a throwback to the pale ales, golden ales, brown ales and porters that belong in a cozy pub set on the English Village Green. As an Englishman abroad, I’ve come to belatedly appreciate these styles of beer that I sadly ignored during my tempestuous youth; to be drinking an American imitation of same, courtesy of an all-American micro-brewer in the town that gave birth to baseball did, I have to say, seem somewhat askew.
Ah yes, baseball. A brewery has to do what a brewery has to do, and from its infancy – all the way back in 1994 – Hall’s company has named its beers mostly (though not exclusively) for the American game. The most popular of these beers is the Old Slugger Pale Ale which, I am pleased to say, I had seen on the wine list at the Ostego Hotel the night before. Made with four barley malts, balanced with three different hops, and fermented in open vats using England’s finest Ringwood Yeast, courtesy of its chief American proponent, the English brewmaster Alan Pugsley (currently to be found at Shipmaster Brewing in Portland) (you are following all of this aren’t you?), it has a soft, warm, subtle glow both in colour and in taste. This is not the bright, zesty kind of American pale ale I’ve recently developed a great thirst for (especially after a long summer run) but that bitter style beer you see poured at leisure from a cask in the snug of your village local. It’s a treat, and I’m glad to see that it does so well.
The Old Slugger was the second beer Stan poured for me; the first was actually the Nine Man Golden Ale. Not sure what it’s named for but it’s a combination of English malts, Cascade hops, with a touch of terrified wheat (shown in the photograph above). It started out as a Cooperstown summer beer but has subsequently become a year-round brew. A relatively light 4.9 ABA%, I liked this for its simplicity.
At 6.1%, the Backyard India Pale Ale is but a very small step up from the Old Slugger Pale Ale’s 5.5%. But it is a very different beer, made in a good hefty English pub style, with solid body and just the right kick. The beer is rounded off with hops from Cooperstown Brewing itself, which Stan was keen to show me but which are not part of the line-up in the picture up above..
The Striker Brown Ale breaks with baseball tradition to feature – yes, a football. With a dog atop of it. Of course. Either way, it’s a sop to the Beautiful Game and a grand beer to boot. A mild dark beer with roasted flavours, this was one of my favourites, especially because I’ve been getting turned off my some of the heavy duty brown ales coming out of places like Brooklyn. At 5% you can throw it back without a second thought. (Or two.) As with the Old Slugger Pale Ale, I brought back a six-pack.
The Benchwarmer Porter returns to the baseball references, though ironically this was about as English as anything on display. In fact, Stan says he got the recipe from an old English history book, back before Porters (a blend of light young ales and dark older ales) were mass-produced and turned into Stouts. Only then did he add his beloved Ringwood Yeast. Anyway, there was a lovely smoky coffee texture to this; the high gravity brought it in at a relatively hefty 6.4%.
I finished off with the Strike Out Stout, a lighter beer than the Porter in terms of alcohol (4.6%) but arguably more complex, what with its six different malts and some flaked oats. A deep black texture, with roasted flavors, you could certainly sit down with a bottle of this and a bottle of the Benchwarmer and truly examine the difference between Porters and Stouts, assuming you had the time. I, sadly, did not.
Ther is one other beer in the Cooperstown line-up. Before he got to the Porter, Stan poured me, from tap, the Pride of Milford. It’s aptly named, not just because Milford is the village outside Cooperstown where the brewery is based, but because it’s by far and away the most distinct – the best – of all the company’s brews. Stan warned me that it was a massive 7.7% alcohol, but that wasn’t what I noticed straight away (which is always a good sign). Rather, I got a sense of fruitiness, almost as if it was one of those currently trendy apricot style beers. Before I could say anything, fortunately, I read the accompanying notes in front of me; “When “Pride” was first brewed in December 1999, many thought the flavor and aromas of this beer had fruit overtones. No fruit or adjunct flavoring is added to this beer. The unique flavor comes from our special brewing process.” Unlike the other beers, Cooperstown is less willing to give away the ingredients on this one, other than to say that there are five malts, the omnipresent Ringwood Yeast, and that the beer is brewed at a higher temperature. God damn, but this was fine – a copper red colour with a zesty attack, that bright fruit on the palate and a delicious long finish, and if you think that sounds a little like a wine review, well you’re right; this was the one beer on the list that got me thinking in terms of grapes. I’d brought a spare Growler on the trip and noting that this beer was poured from tap and, noting that this was one of the few beers I tasted on tap, and figuring it just might not be the same in bottle, I took 64oz of the stuff home with me. Shared at a friend’s birthday party the following Sunday, it was greeted by accolades galore. This is the kind of beer that makes friends – fast.
I’d like to thank Stan Hunt for being so generous with his time and his beer. He had no idea I would be writing any of this up, yet as he took me through the brews, he twice picked up the phone to say he would call back as he had a customer. (A business that still uses phones, not e-mail! Yay!) My two six-packs and the growler cost all of $20-something; I felt like a cheap-skate (especially as I then dropped about $40 on three very average wines down the road). Fortunately, there appears to be demand for Cooperstown’s beers, locally if not necessarily nationally. I did not ask Hunt of any ambitions to brew on a larger scale, but judging by the comments he made about Ommegang and Magic Hat’s corporate paymasters, I got the sense that this is a man (along with his Head Brewer, Dennis Heaney, who deserves special commendation for doing such a fine job) who is proudly, indeed fiercely independent, someone who is just as happy making ends meet as making himself rich. He could do with getting the bureaucrats off his back – and you know what else? He could do with a few more customers stopping in to buy his beer. If you head up Cooperstown way, by all means stop in at the Baseball Hall of Fame, if that’s what calls you there. Treat yourself to some lunch and suds at Ommegang; they’re good people too. But make sure you find time for Cooperstown Brewing on your travels; these are astonishingly high quality, incredibly subtle, authentically old-fashioned, truly artisanal English style ales. Surely you can drink to that?