December 17, 2012

14 Random Facts Learned on a Tour of Brewery Ommegang

Brewery Ommegang entry way
Cooperstown, NY, is well known as a mecca for baseball fans. But if you have free day after visiting the Baseball of Hall of Fame you'll find a deficit of things to do, especially in the off-season.

This is the predicament I found myself in with my father about nine years ago. Since it was the pre-smartphone era, we couldn't just start up Google Maps and locate anything nearby without advanced planning.

Our plan of attack was to just drive around until we found something. Luckily, we stumbled upon Brewery Ommegang located in an old farmhouse outside Cooperstown.

On that cold November day, we were clearly the only morons to stop by and ask if we could do a tour. The brewer on premise obliged and even provided what I assume was a longer-than-normal tasting.

This little tale gives me some foodie pride since no one I knew had heard of Brewery Ommegang back then. Now it's a popular, award-winning brewery owned by Duvel since 2003.

Brewing area
Fast forward to this fall and I ended up in Cooperstown for another Hall of Fame pilgrimage with some first-timers. A second visit to Brewery Ommegang was in the cards to see what's changed. We were even able to get a private tour with Brewmaster Phil Leinhart.

What struck me most on tour #2 was how much the brewery has grown operationally and in sophistication. Nine years ago, the atmosphere was that of a couple of guys hanging out making good beer. The "tasting room" was really a glorified table outside the brewing area and staffed by whoever was available.

Since then, Ommegang has added a visitor center, a real tasting room and a café. The café is likely the top restaurant in the Cooperstown area based on everything I've tried over the years.

But despite all the changes, Brewery Ommengang still has those farmhouse roots that made it a fun visit the first time. Even though the operation is bigger and more sophisticated, it is still dedicated to making great beer in the Belgian-style envisioned by original founders Don Feinberg and Wendy Littleton.

Here are 14 fun facts, tips and observations I learned from the most recent visit.

1. In addition to working in Germany for several years, Brewmaster Phil worked at Anheuser-Busch before joining Ommegang. Despite common perception, Phil had a ton of respect for the brewers of Bud, especially before Inbev took over in 2008. The process and technology he learned at Anheuser has helped him immensely at Ommegang.

2. Ommegang installed a new packaging and bottling plant last year. The brewery can now bottle in 8 hours what previously took 4 days, thus the operational growth mentioned above.

3. The leading keg filler company in the world is KHS. Yes, that is actually a title. The new KHS keg filler equipment installed at Ommegang can fill 100 kegs an hour!

Bottling machine
Keg filling machine

4. Tip: Go ahead and try ageing high alcohol content beer. Phil had a nine-year-old Three Philosophers that morphed into more of port tasting beer.

5. In 2007, Ommegang produced about 6,000 barrels of beer. Today, it produces 35,000 barrels.

6. The brewery installed a new tile floor made by Argelith, a German company that specializes in tiles for breweries.

7. Tip: Phil said the triple hop slogan used by Miller is a bunch of garbage. Every brewer triple hops their beer if worth their salt, since hops are always used during the boil and then again for finishing (for example, adding more hops with five minutes left and then again with two minutes remaining in the boil). The triple hop slogan is just a creative way of stating something that most brewers already do.

8. Business idea: The spent grains from the wort at Ommegang is used as local cattle feed. Anyone want to start a Ommegang-fed burger chain? Note: these slightly sweet grains are highly nutritious and will not intoxicate the livestock.

9. The water during the brewing process comes from on-site wells.

10. Duvel Rustica, Ommegang’s newest beer, is a collaboration with Duvel. It’s made with Duvel’s original recipe, but with the yeast strain used by Ommegang.

11.Pronunciation tips: Duvel is pronounced Doo – vul; witte is widda; and Hoegarden is who – garden.

13. Tip: Looking for a beer for a winter stew? Phil suggests the Abbey.

14.  Every summer, Ommegang hosts a huge event called Belgium Comes to Cooperstown. The event features beer tasting, cooking competitions, lectures and live music. Here is YouTube clip of highlights from the 2011 event.

Below are some pictures of the lunch we enjoyed at the cafe. I would highly recommend visiting Brewery Ommegang on any trip to Cooperstown. Of course, make sure you go to the Baseball Hall of Fame, too.


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