Belgium Comes to Cooperstown at Brewery Ommegang

(The Brew Lounge)

It’s finally time to put the bow on the annual extravaganza that is Belgium Comes To Cooperstown at Brewery Ommegang. Every year on the outskirts of the quaint and lovely throwback of a village called Cooperstown, the brewery puts on what has without much argument turned into a bucket-list type of beer festival.

You may have caught up with the pictures that I loaded immediately in the days after BCTC ’13. The words, though, have taken me longer to get around to. Remember how I’ve always boasted that the words come easier to me than the pictures? Hmm.

Bryan Kolesar | The Brew Lounge

Anyway, to get this all properly shared with you and to close out this 10th anniversary chapter of BCTC at Brewery Ommegang, I’ll again thank the brewery for their hospitality and get on with the sharing in abbreviated bullet format. Also, for the sneak peeks and tastes of new beers from Ommegang soon to be hitting retail shelves, look below for where I mention them.

Theme – Always the clever theme-setters at BCTC, the brewery played up the Seinfeld theme in ways big and small (and probably some I didn’t even notice) throughout the weekend. From the episodes being projected on the side of the building for late-night viewing entertainment, to VIP dinner menu and table decorations, to Costanza’s infamous Timeless Art of Seduction (see pictures for the full picture if you dare).

Weather – Other than a quick storm on Friday evening, Mother Nature offered up a nice respite from last year’s heat. If you’ve been to BCTC multiple times over the years or followed along with The Brew Lounge’s annual chronicle of the event, you know this is always a wild card element of the weekend given the wacky microclimates of the region.

Bryan Kolesar | The Brew Lounge

Organization – More than ever, the brewery has battened down the hatches and turned this festival into a well-run and organized event. Keeping the total attendance under 3,000 seems to have helped the brewery find its sweet spot in terms of optimal crowd control and event management. This year, that included expanded parking, the registration tent pushed out into the field, and golf cart transportation hospitality for campers arriving on Friday with all of their campsite gear. That last feature scored big points with many of the VIP guests, including me, who have asked in past years for a more accommodating option to set up campsites in lieu of being permitted to drive on to the property in order to drop off their cargo.

Hop Chef – I love this thing called Hop Chef that they coordinate around the country for a few months leading up to BCTC. The culinary competition, which involves beers from the Ommegang/Duvel family (natch), culminates with the finals during BCTC but I hesitate to say that it’s everything that it can/should be. The celebration of food and beer is played up big time in the regional showdowns and would seem to be deserving of a grander culmination. Whether it was the tasting tables running short of samples or the rather tepid gathering by the main stage for the winning chef announcement, there seem to be elements — and I’m not able to put a finger specifically what those one or two things are — missing that would make the Hop Chef competition finals a more wildly successful conclusion than it currently is.

Extracirriculars – Each year, BCTC offers up a little something new to add to the well-rounded nature of the weekend. This year, it was a bit larger than just a “little something.” A ferris wheel gave rides late into the evening and was quite popular with a seemingly never-ending line of eager riders. Our campsite neighbors even found their way up there for a memorable wedding proposal (and acceptance!). Congratulations to Jen and Jeff!! Adding to the extracirriculars, as well, was an ever-expanding vendor area that included everything from homebrew equipment to massage chairs to a phone-charging station. Food options plus plenty of free bottled water were readily available too. If you follow me closely enough around here, you know how big that last bit about abundantly available free/included water is to me.

Bryan Kolesar | The Brew Lounge

Brewery shoutouts – It’s easy to give props to the recurring great work on display from longtimers like Allagash, Brooklyn,Dogfish Head, and, of course, host Ommegang/Duvel.

And then there are the ones not quite as old, but almost as familiar, like Captain Lawrence, Ithaca, Peekskill, Smuttynose and White Birch.

More interesting, still, every year to me is the emergence of the new guys on the scene. This year, I counted nine breweries that not only have I never had a beer of theirs, I’ve never heard of them. Notable amongst the ones I did have this year came from the likes of Good Nature (Hypocritte Witte — refreshing with chamomile), Hopshire Farm (Zingabeer — a Belgian pale with a zing of ginger), Port Jefferson (H3 Trippel — nicely balanced for a 10.1 percent), and Singlecut Beersmiths (Le Von La Saison D’Falle).

New beers from Ommegang – Brewery Ommegang plans to keep the hits coming with four new beers that will be hitting the market in coming months. I’m betting that they’ll be big hits. I was invited to take a quick sample of them with Innovation Manager, Mike McManus. First up, for you Game of Thrones junkies, Take the Black will be released throughout September as the second beer in the series with serious thematic ties to the HBO show. While the first Iron Throne was a pretty good Belgian ale, I’m liking this one even more as it strikes a very nice balance with licorice root and anise. These are two flavors, when in beer, I’d typically be cautious of. However, back to the word balance, the brewery has done such a nice job with a deft balancing of these flavors in a 7 percent imperial stout.

I’ve been high on Grisette this summer, particularly from Sly Fox, as perfect summer thirst-quencher. The Grisette presented by McManus from Ommegang was similarly refreshing, but with a bit more of a pepper spice kick, mostly likely thanks to the pink peppercorns used in the recipe.

Wild at Heart is the 100-percent Brettanomyces fermented beer due out by around Thanksgiving time in 750ml bottles. This was a “bonus beer” that McManus unveiled at the end of the “new beer” presentation and I could not have been more pleased. The beer was undergoing its house yeast conditioning and was exhibiting wonderful tropical and slightly tart fruit flavors without laying on too much Brett funk that you might expect to find when you hear the word Brettanomyces. The brewery employed two relatively new hops from New Zealand, Topaz and Motueka. You should find this beer to be quite the crowd pleaser, full of flavor and delivering plenty of thirst-quenching refreshment. A small taste of this has me looking forward to grab several bottles of this in November for both fresh drinking and a bit of storage.

Last, but certainly not least, while the retirement (or, at least, retirement from year-round production) of the BPA will come as sad news to many of you (myself included), the Hop House is shaping up to be a very fine replacement. Resplendent with a really nice hop flavor and aroma, the 6 percent dry-hopped pale ale should be entering the fold by end of 2013.

That’s all? To close with some nuggets from Larry Bennett, who graciously sat with me to discuss his ten years of involvement in both planning and executing the festival, ” … drinking really great beers with old friends that make up the ‘community’ is truly one of the high points of every year. Meeting new friends and meeting old brewer friends in ‘tent city’ is a fun part of the weekend.” I couldn’t agree more.

Bennett was one of the four original compatriots that conspired to put together this little beer festival on the brewery grounds on a shoestring budget of not even $10,000 and less than three months of planning in 2004 shortly after he joined the company. Tickets were $25 — sold over the phone and in person — and around 800 locals and people from around the region showed up to camp and drink great beer.

These days the health department and fire marshal complete thorough inspections for two days prior to the event and the total undertaking runs into the six digits and people travel from far and wide to attend with tickets that sell out with minutes (VIP) and hours (general). Now, a staff of three headed up by Tara Aitchison (who also oversees the store and café) begins planning around the winter holidays with the construction of an overall theme.

Having Duvel Moortgat USA President & CEO Simon Thorpe, previously a Stella exec, on board certainly doesn’t hurt given his enthusiastic support of the annual event as well as other events throughout the year like concerts (which can draw 3,000-5,000), family-oriented events, and old-time baseball games. Bennett says that Thorpe loves throwing events such as these, even if they barely break even, because they “bring people in, especially a more diverse group, including more women, than ever, to reach new audiences to experience new beer, but profitability is not the first goal in mind when event planning.”

I concurred on the point of introducing new people to new beer. If we still like the term “gateway beer”, I suggested that Wild At Heart (see above) will be a great gateway for all of Bennett’s and Ommegang’s new friends that visit the brewery.

With that, Larry went off to taste some Wild at Heart and I went off in search of the rest of the day’s events at one of the country’s best beer events/festivals.