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Magazine

Belgium Brewed in Cooperstown: Brewery Ommegang

Brewery Ommegang: the name is a perfect synthesis of American vernacular and medieval Belgian tradition. Modeled on time-tested Belgian brewing techniques, Ommegang is a local fixture in Cooperstown, N.Y. Though produced domestically, the beer is craft-brewed in accordance with exacting Belgian methods, a quality that has catapulted the brand’s small-batch ales into a sphere of recognition with larger commercial breweries. The Ommegang story may be built on a European model, but it’s also steeped in Central New York’s farming roots.
OmmegangFarmhouse The Belgian flag flies above the Ommegang Brewery entrance. Photo: Sophie Hays.
Designed after a Belgian farmhouse, Brewery Ommegang was the first farmstead brewery built on American soil in over a century. Under the guidance of Belgian beer experts, award-winning Ommegang has become one of the country’s favorite craft beers, distributing to 43 states in the U.S., with all production done on site in Cooperstown. The name “Ommegang” means “to walk about,” and is inspired by a medieval festival in 1549 that welcomed King Louis V to Brussels. A reenactment of the pageant is held every July in Brussels; roughly 1,500 performers dress up and lead a parade through the capital city. Meanwhile in Cooperstown, Brewery Ommegang has established a number of its own traditions with a nod toward its Belgian roots.
IMG_9340 Ommegang's ales are distributed to 43 states in the US. Photo: Sophie Hays.
As Ommegang’s philosophy states, “everything for a reason;” every aspect of the technique and serving of the ale is planned precisely. The brewery's 30-day production timeline abides by specific Belgian techniques, yet incorporates a strong local emphasis on innovation and tradition. All of the water used to make the beer comes from local wells. Open-vat and cork fermenter techniques are very specific to Belgian brews -- rather than injecting carbon dioxide into the ale, a triple fermentation process brings a unique taste to Ommegang’s range of ales ales and controls the level of effervescence. Even the traditional Belgian spicing method — a judicious selection among grains of paradise, ginger, star anise, cumin, coriander and orange peel to achieve a delicate flavor balance — are made specific to the Ommegang ales.  The small glass bottles come from Syracuse, while the bigger sizes are imported from Europe. Ommegang uses Slovenian, German and American Hops, but upon entering the Brewery, you’ll find 20 new blight-resistant strains, once indigenous to Central New York, that Cornell University students are attempting to reintroduce to the area.
IMG_9370 Cornell University is currently testing blight-resistant strains of hops at Ommegang. Photo: Sophie Hays.
Nicknamed “Hop City” during the 19th century, Cooperstown then was a hotbed for hops production. Together with neighboring towns in Central New York, the area produced 80 percent of the United States’ hops at the time. But a detrimental blight, combined with the slowed demand from Prohibition, wiped out the entire area’s crop supply; the last commercial hop crop was sold in 1942. Fast forward to 1996, when Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield (owners of Belgian beer imports company Vanberg & deWulf) established Brewery Ommegang on 136 acres of what used to be a hop farm. Under the leadership of Vanberg & DeWulf, and in partnership with Belgian brewing experts from Duvel Moortgat and Dubuisson, Ommegang was founded with a dedication to Belgian-style beer — a passion of Mr. Feinberg and Ms. Littlefield. In 2004 Duvel Moortgat purchased the founding couple’s majority shares to become the brewery’s parent company. At the turning point of new ownership, Duvel Moortgat provided the Cooperstown brewery with a new bottling line, café and tasting room that has expanded the entire Ommegang experience.
IMG_9345 The entire brewing process is modeled on specific Belgian techniques. Photo: Sophie Hays.
Today, the core of Ommegang’s local, national, and international phenomenon is made possible by an extraordinary leadership team on site. Brewmaster Phil Leinhart joined Ommegang in 2007, with a lifetime of experience working with beer (including an education and career at Anheuser-Busch). Mr. Leinhart explains that Ommegang ales encompass both tradition and innovation. “The beer speaks for itself,” he noted. Leinhart has also led a collaboration with other New York-based breweries — Brooklyn Brewery and Saranac — to create a limited edition brew for Saveur’s 2013 SAVOR event. The brew was suitably named “New York Limited.” The craft beer movement in the United States represents seven percent of all American-made beer. Ommegang’s nimble, on-premise operations allow for the company to develop a beer until it is exactly right, and then share it with a vast and loyal audience. Ommegang CEO, Simon Thorpe, describes the American craft beer business as “a collaborative movement, not an industrial one.” After Hurricane Sandy, Mr. Thorpe reached out to the craft beer community, extending a gracious hand to whomever was affected by the storm. Barrier Brewing Company had such extensive damage that the brewery was closed for repairs. To help them recover their business, Brewery Ommegang manufactured a special edition collaborative ale and turned over the profits to Barrier. Though the beer sells nationwide, the company’s entire team is committed to its role as a local Cooperstown fixture. Ommegang Publicity Manager, Allison Capozza (a Cooperstown native) describes the core of the company’s success perfectly in her New York State of Mind: “My state of mind is growth. I grew up here, I brought my family back to Cooperstown to raise them here. The Ommegang family is constantly growing.”
IMG_9356 Learn about this special brewing process on a complimentary tour at Ommegang. Photo: Sophie Hays.
For a complete Belgian-American experience, visitors may tour the brewery free of charge and take part in a tasting of six seasonal and standard ales (NYSOM recommends the Rare Vos (Flemish for “sly fox”), an amber ale with grains of paradise from Ethiopia, inspired by the beer served at the eponymous bar in Belgium). A visit to the Belgian-style farmhouse ends, appropriately, at Café Ommegang, where one can indulge in their favorite beer from the tasting and a traditional Belgian menu item, like a savory crepe or frites. After all, the best way to drink a Belgian ale is to pair it with great Belgian food.
IMG_9309 Sarah Fanion leads a beer tasting at the brewery. Photo: Sophie Hays.
IMG_9338 "Great beer deserves great food" is the Café Ommegang mantra; the menu offers the brewery's signature ales and traditional Belgian pub fare. Photo: Sophie Hays.
In addition to their standard cache of seasonal and standard ales, Brewery Ommegang initiated a collaboration with the cult-favorite HBO series “Game of Thrones.” The series’ producers were so fond of Brewery Ommegang that they suggested a joint project. Though Ommegang initially thought the idea was too commercial, they also realized that the two medieval-inspired brands truly complemented each other. The Cooperstown brewmasters (also big “GOT” fans) now offer three Game of Thrones-inspired ales: Iron Throne, Take the Black Stout, and the soon-to-be-released Fire and Blood Red Ale, which debuts Monday, March 31 to coincide with the premiere of “GOT’s” fourth season. For a celebratory Ommegang experience, every year Belgium Comes to Cooperstown. During the company’s annual Belgian beer festival, better known as “BCTC,” Ommegang hosts “the most beautiful beerfest in the United States.” More than 100 breweries from Belgium and North America set up at the three-day festival, and each offers their Belgian-inspired brews to the event’s 3,000 attendees. In addition to gourmet food vendors (including winners of Ommegang’s HopChef competition), live music and a fireworks display, there’s also a campsite competition. Overnight guests from the festival may design their own campsite for a chance to win Most Creative or Most “In-Theme”Display. This year’s (August 8-9) BCTC festival theme will be Sin City, or, “What happens in Cooperstown, stays in Cooperstown,” and will feature a very special Game of Thrones Experience. Beyond BCTC, Ommegang presents a concert series in the brewery’s backyard. When the snow melts this year, look forward to a Modest Mouse concert. Get your tickets for Belgium Comes to Cooperstown (BCTC) HERE at noon E.T. this Tuesday, April 1,  when they become available to the public. The festival will take place in Ommegang’s backyard on August 8th and 9th. More information about the festival can be found on the Brewery’s Facebook page HERE.