As we left Quebec I think the bittersweet emotions were mutual, and even though I told the border officer I had missed the US the entire time we were gone the reality was a bit less straightforward. While the language barrier is minor thanks to the excellent Canadian English language education, a definitive separation between the cultures and customs in the US and French Canada still exists. In our case, the border crossing meant parting with some amazing French-inspired brews that rarely make it out of French Canada in exchange for the ability to find a bathroom a bit more easily. Luckily as we drove away from the tree-lined road I knew we were heading toward upstate New York and some of the best beer in the states.
Our first destination was Cooperstown, where Duvel’s American step-brewery Ommegang operates a brisk business in delicious Belgian-style beers. We arrived in the early afternoon and attached ourselves to the rear of the formation on one of the tours. The guides were informative and fun, explaining most of the equipment in just enough detail to be interesting and fun but not encourage the know-it-alls on the tour. I’m never sure exactly what to expect when an intrepid tour-goer asks a seemingly innocuous question, but more and more I’ve noticed folks asking questions only to answer it themselves, which can be funny when viewed through the right eyes.
The tour begins outdoors, with a view of the silos and fermenters. The fermenters are huge, and you can see what awesomeness having a bit of cash on hand can buy – I can’t say I wasn’t jealous (who doesn’t want to make a 6,500 gallon batch of their favorite homebrew recipe?) I’ve got a Belgian Sweet Stout that’s just begging to be made!
After a quick jaunt inside we were introduced to the brewhouse, a sweet system churning out beer almost non-stop. The lab and some smaller fermenters and brite tanks live in the same building, along with another sign of the good times – a centrifuge filtration beast that pulls miniature particulate matter out of your beer so you don’t have to do it with tweezers at home. The brite beer appears to get packaged only in the building next door, though there were a few random containers around that were likely for experiments, special friends, and to make me wish I was a better burglar.
The packaging hall is warm, with a long bottling line that is used for both 12 oz. and 750 ml offerings. The kegger sat lonely in a corner waiting to make out with the next keg that will come it’s way early on Monday morning. Since all the machines were off the hall was deadly silent, but I could imagine the lines humming away and the immense amount of racket that must be kicked up when everything is in full swing.
Following our walkthrough of the buildings we saw the outside of the refrigeration building, where everything is kept in storage waiting for trucks, as well as the kegs-in-waiting piled high on pallets in the parking lot. That led to the obviously best part of the tour – samples poured from 750 ml bottles of each of the year-round Ommegang offerings, which included Witte, Rare Vos, BPA, Hennepin, Abbey, and Three Philosphers. I’m going to take my cue here from the Aleheads and list each beer individually for quick reference.
Witte – A thin straw colored pour from the 750 into a tiny plastic taster glass on the tour still gives off a pretty impressive bouquet of citrus and spicy yeasty smells. The taste doesn’t miss either, truly a head-on interpretation of a classic wit that tastes as it should.
Rare Vos – Intended to be Ommegang’s every day beer, the 6.5% amber ale was so good I went ahead and ordered myself one in the taproom as well. A terrifically balanced amber ale with strong carbonation makes for a happy time for me, a dark ale drinker with a taste for Belgians.
Belgian Pale Ale – The only Ommegang offering I’ve had before on tap was from a bottle at the brewery, the reverse of my normal situation. That having been said, the beer is still excellent and has pronounced Belgian yeast notes that many Belgian pales lack. It seems that you can either make an IPA/PA and ferment it with Belgian yeast (OK results usually) or craft a recipe around the Belgian style and add some additional hops (better results to my tongue) – this is the latter.
Hennepin – My first introduction to saisons a few years back, this farmhouse beer is still among my favorite versions of the style. Yeasty and funky with just the right balance of malt and bitterness you can’t go wrong with Hennepin on a hot day.
Abbey – The original Ommegang offering is dark brown with all the hallmarks of a Belgian Dubbel – sweet, earthy fruits, mellow finish, and the closest you’ll get to wine people admitting beer is amazing.
Three Philosophers – A quad clocking in near 10 percent and with residual sweetness from one of Belgium’s best sour beers, it’s easy to say this beer is fantastic. An enormous amount of sweet aromas and flavors head your way with each sip, from raspberry and vanilla up front to fig and dark cherry in the finish. The beer is like a juggler with something always in the air and something else landing on your taste buds – simply a delight.
And with that we made our way to the tasting room for a Liefmans’ pour and Rare Vos to accompany some Belgian-style frites. The menu in the taproom looked good as well, though we were mostly in it for the brews. The tour tasting also has a nice little array of pretzels and Ommegang-flavored spreads available to go with the beer samples – pretty awesome.
If you’re in Cooperstown for any reason don’t miss Ommegang – a fun, free tour that includes good info along with good beer and good food – what’s not to like?
As we drove away and headed toward Oneonta to stay the night we started to get excited for more of Upstate’s finest, and Ithaca was not a far way away. Until next time – Cheers!