Ommegang brings Belgium to Upstate New York
By Mark Tichenor and Bruce Lish
It’s only Monday, but that doesn’t stop your intrepid beer writers. We raise our glasses of Ommegang Witte and inspect the apricot-colored liquid within. Then comes the first sip. The light body of the Belgian witbeer (wheat beer) cools the mouth pleasantly. The flavors of coriander and orange peel, so characteristic to this style, are augmented by a citrusy grapefruit flavors. We are happy men.
And not just because Chris Sayer, Regional Sales Manager for what might be the most unique brewery in the United States, is buying.
Of all the world’s great brewing nations, tiny Belgium is held in highest esteem by beer lovers. The beers produced within its commercial breweries and venerable Trappist monasteries are unique and complex and the traditional methods of Belgian brewcraft diverge radically from the clean-room fanaticism of beer makers in neighboring countries.
The things that make these ales great have also served to limit their brewing to within Belgian borders. Natural airborne yeasts, century-old storage casks, and the devotion that comes with a cloistered blend of brewing and religion make these beers difficult to reproduce on this side of the pond. Many breweries flirt with Belgian styles, but rarely do they accurately match the real stuff’s parameters.
Cooperstown’s Brewery Ommegang, however, pulls it off, thanks to some heavy financing from Duvel, its parent brewery in Belgium, authentic imported yeast, and a commitment to tradition which is reflected in everything from the corked bottles to the architecture of the brewery itself.
Let’s be clear. Brewery Ommegang is not just another microbrewery that decided to go heavy on Belgian styles. It is a Belgian brewery in design and function, built to be so from the ground up. The place even looks more like a small cathedral than a brewhouse.
Standouts among the Ommegang range of beers include Sayers’ favorite, Rare Vos. “It’s a very nice session beer,” he explains,” very easy to drink and very pleasant in the summertime. It’s also nice and malty, which I like.”
The pale golden Hennepin, an example of the farmhouse ale style, is rich, complex and strong. To describe Hennepin’s flavor as “well balanced between maltiness and bitterness, with citrus fruit hints and a grassy finish” really doesn’t do it justice. It tastes like, well, good Belgian ale.
Then there’s Ommegang Three Philosophers. Hopefully you like your beer strong. It’s a Quadrupel, which is apparently a Flemish word for “owwww, get me an aspirin.”
At 9.8% alcohol by volume, Three Philosophers needs to be consumed with some respect. But this very malty brew with lots of cherry and alcoholic warming in the finish is not a chugging beer. It almost resembles port whine in its character and mouth feel.
Ommegang’s beers are readily available throughout the region. Wegmans and most specialty beer stores carry them in bottles, and some are available on draft at enlightened pubs.
Or you could sample them in their natural habitat. This July 15th, the brewery will be hosting its annual Belgium Comes to Cooperstown festival, offering a chance to try a diverse assortment of beers from various Belgian and American breweries, as well as the full line of Ommegang ales. If you’re new to Belgians, the festival will provide fantastic insight into the staggering diversity and iconoclasm of beer from one of Europe’s more diminutive nations.
In other beers:
The California Brew Haus up on Ridge Road remains a bastion of good beer, although their clientele has lessened as Kodak slimmed down. Even now, the selection of bottles to be found within their coolers is staggering: four Scotch ales (from Scotland!), several English bitters, beers normally found only within the beer halls of Munich, and a full selection of American micros. It may be a bit out of the way, but the Brew Haus staff knows their stuff and deserves your business. After serving up some delicious Augustiner Edel-Hell, they sure as hell have ours!
Bruce is a certified beer judge and former commercial brewer. Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at http://beercraft.blogspot.com. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org