Nestled in the mountains in Cooperstown, a rustic archway welcomes you into a Belgian brewery that takes their centuries-old brewing traditions seriously. For the past two decades, Ommegang’s dedicated brewers have been meticulous about crafting each and every detail.
Inside the Duvel-owned brewery, pounding rock music echoes off of the ceiling-level vats of beer as workers check on the latest batch, clad in hard hats and protective glasses.
“The building is modeled on a Belgian farmhouse,” Ommegang head brewer Phil Leinhart says. “As a consequence that makes the brewing process very linear.”
It starts in the brewhouse where dried and malted barley, crushed in the brewery’s mill, is mixed with warm water and to make a mash. It takes 15 minutes to pour out the mash into a vat, where it is put under controlled temperatures for set increments of time. It is here where Ommegang brewers start to regulate the potential alcohol level of the batch.
“We’re activating the enzymes in the malt,” Leinhart explained. “To convert into simple sugars that the yeast can ferment, but also [activate] non-fermentable sugars.”
After about an hour and 15 minutes, the process turns the future beer into a sugary sweet oatmeal and is pumped to the lauter tun–a giant industrial colander of sorts–that separates liquid or “wort” from mash. The wort goes into the brew kettle after another three hours, where it will cool. The thick mixture that was the brewer’s mash is now spent grain.
“It’s not much use to the brewer anymore but it’s very valuable for cattle feed. We pump that out to a tank outside and sell it to a company who then sells it to dairy farmers,” he says.
It will take another hour or so for the wort to boil, where it will become concentrated. At this point, hops are added. The ingredient that has made IPAs so popular are full of iso-alpha acids that make the brew bitter as well as oils that bring out the aroma–it needs a delicate balance of heat.
Spices like coriander, orange peel, and cardamom are staples in Ommegang brews. Gathered in a mesh bag, they’re thrown into the boil to steep. The boiling wort will then become a whirlpool as it filters out any solids that remain before it is cooled, aerated to help the yeast grow and pumped to fermentation. The process of creating the mash until the cooling of the wort will span a full eight hours.
The process of fermentation will be another five to seven days of brewers closely watching the batch to monitor density and alcohol levels. “Fermentation is just the yeast eating those fermentable sugars from the mash,” Leinhart says. “Most importantly it’s producing hundreds of esters and peat tones that give beer its flavor.” After fermentation the 50 barrel batch will undergo cold conditioning for another week before clarifying in a centrifuge. It will be pumped to the bright beer tanks to be carbonated before finally making its way across the archway to packaging.
Ommegang has mastered the bottle game, going so far in their commitment to the Belgian style that they have imported their 750 mL bottles from Europe for their specially crafted sturdiness. A number of the brews are bottle conditioned, meaning that an extra level of brewing occurs to ensure longevity in the packaging. The bottles are moved to a warm cellar, where it will sit for another week and a half to allow the flavor to perfect and settle.
From the building they operate in, it takes hours and weeks to ensure the flavor is just right, right down to the glass you drink it from, Ommegang has fine-tuned their recipe to find the best way to enjoy their beer.
The golden, gingery saison Hennepin should be served in a tall, stemmed glass for example, while the fruity and dark Three Philosophers drinks best from a short, wide-mouthed goblet. It’s detail-oriented, but with good reason.
Even in its off season, the brewery brings in a steady flow of loyal followers looking to stock up for the winter. “We had a guy pull up the other day to pick up 40 cases,” Allison said with a shake of her head.
The quality of their beer lives up to its potential. The innovation team is always planning a new experiment of flavors, yet underneath each brew is the trademark taste of Ommegang. It’s delicately spiced–“to the Belgian style . . . if you can pick out a spice, there’s too much in there,” Leinhart says. The flavor settles pleasantly and makes the five weeks of brewing–or more–undeniably worthwhile. Variants like the delicate Witte are made from recipes that are centuries old. “A long time ago beer was brewed on farms and brewers used whatever ingredients they could get their hands on. These styles have evolved over time,” he said.
While they have their line of reliable classics like Hennepin and Rare Vos, the brewery has a set of limited edition releases that have those 40-case-fans lining up at the door. There’s the malty, winter ale, Adoration, that is released over the holiday season and Ommegang’s ode to the harvest season in the toasty Grains of Truth.
One of their biggest crowd-pleasers is draws upon more mystical inspiration. The brewery teamed up with HBO to create their Game of Thrones beer series for the opening of season three with the inaugural Iron Throne, an ale as golden blonde as the Lannisters.
“HBO gives us direction in terms of character and setting that they want it to tie into,” Leinhart says.
Today, as the show’s seventh season approaches, the brewery features seven themed brews based on the key turning points of the show. The latest, Valar Dohaeris Tripel Ale, “pays homage to Arya’s season-long struggles within and around the House of Black and White.” Each beer is sold in the signature imported 750 mL bottles and come with commemorative glasses.
The food spread at the attached cafe is equally impressive as the drink. It’s beer-infused down to the mustard and ketchup that accompany thick cut, seasoned fries. The menu is dynamic and downright mouthwatering: Savory chicken and waffles, a real mashed black bean burger with a hearty serving of aioli or a bowl of macaroni and cheese, tumbling over with cheddar and chunks of sausage. You name it, it’s there. The food is best served with an accompanying flight of fresh, varied beers. Bring a friend and make it two.