I will never go to Ommegang's BCTC weekend again....on the Saturday of the 3-day spectacular, that is. Mark my words. If you live, say, more than a couple of hours away, it's near impossible to get to Cooperstown at a decent enough time to get setup, relax, and work your way into a proper festival mood. Ah, don't get me wrong. As in past years, I had a blast; this is one of the industry's best all-around beer events of the year. I just would have preferred to be there on Friday to experience the whole weekend, as I'd always been in the past.
And, that's exactly how this festival should be appreciated...across the entire weekend. Certainly, you can have a blast in the four hours of the festival on Saturday, and go home. But, you'd be missing out on the Friday frivolity, the camping, and the sideshows that go on during the weekend on the Ommegang farm. It's about the 4 hour tasting session on Saturday, but it's also about so much more. Chris LaPierre said it perfectly in his Day 6 notes that I recorded over here.
If you wonder why all this Monday morning kvetching about not being there on Friday, here's the short story. When we originally bought the tickets, we were due to be at The Shore until Saturday, when we would have left and driven directly to Ommegang. Then, our Shore plans changed and we were "stuck" with Saturday-only tickets.
Our usual camping partners decided to take this year off, so Patty and I decided to make a tent camping trip out of this year instead of the RV approach that we've taken in past years. Nothing wrong with this approach at all, just different. So, in more ways than one, we definitely experienced BCTC differently this year than any other year. But, never again. Next year it's back to a Friday arrival and, most likely, an RV.
Why? In addition to my comments already made about the specialness of Friday, suffice to say that it's just so much easier arriving on Friday. Casually pull in during the day, very few others to contend with as we pick out our campsite, leisurely set up the campsite, and begin to crack open some tasty brews as we walk the property and brewery. Stop in at the store to pick through merchandise and beer (get the purchases out of the way before the masses arrive) and maybe even take a nap before dinner begins and the evening unfolds into a celebration of good people and beer. And the RV? Well, a campsite and all the necessities (including your own private facility) on wheels makes things just a little bit easier, especially in the case of bad weather.
Let's see, what can I share with you here to convey the wonder of this year's festival, at least the 21 hours that I was there? Let's start with the nearly 200 beers from around 75 breweries (50, or so, of them domestic U.S.). All beers in and around the various Belgian styles (hm, what's in a style, you ask?!). And, this year may have showcased more Saisons than I've ever seen before in one place. From a style perspective, this is one of my favorites so this, of course, was a very good thing. Just have a look at the list for yourself. Not only do you see a Saison here, a Farmhouse there, but the flavors. Take a look at all of the various additional flavors that brewers are working into their brews. Truly cutting edge, if you ask me (more in a few minutes). A very nice tune-up in preparation for Union Jack's Saison Fest in a few weeks.
My approach to sampling only beers that I'd never had before and my note-taking skills suffered quickly as I made it barely a third of the way around in the first two hours. Trying to make it past a table without running into someone to talk with while drinking the beers became more difficult. Then, we cut away to sit down and have some food while listening to some of the live music. We took a stroll around checking out what was going on back at the campsites (not all the action was at the main festival tent).
We then returned to realize that we weren't even half way around the tent by 4pm. Much more work to do and many beers had already kicked. Fortunately, I wasn't interested in the madness around some of the higher profile breweries (e.g. Russian River). Don't get me wrong, I love me my -tion beers as much as the next guy, but the Supplication and many others didn't make my list of never-before-tasted. Remember my comment about the Saisons? I had much work to do.
You took a look at the list, right? Dominating the American list this year were words like dry, spicy, tart, funky, orange, coriander, apricot, peach, cherries, currants, molasses, figs, oak, sour, banana, candi sugar, clove, lavender, grapes, saffron, pineapple, sweet gale, yarrow, rosemary, hibiscus, cardamom, ginger, raisins, pear, spontaneous, Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, Pediococcus, heather, mouth-puckering, Belgo-French, Belgo-Scottish, Belgo-Russian, Fylya, peppery, mint, melon, chocolate...I'm tired, I think I'll stop now.
Compare this to the menu that I'm looking at from two years ago and you won't find nearly the range of styles, plus the range of experimentation within styles and with varying flavors that brewers are now doing. This has always been a great festival, no doubt, but the words used in describing the beers then were along the lines of wit, trippel, saison, grand cru, a few saisons/farmhouse scattered around, with just a bit of Brett here and there. But, there was not nearly the complexity of flavors illustrated at this year's festival.
What stuck out to me? Great question. Well, like I've already said, I failed miserably in getting to all of the beers that I would have like to sampled. I even dumped glasses of perfectly great beer just so that I could move on to the next sample. Here is a quick list of some of the beer and breweries that made it into my notes and my long-term memory as some of the best that I tasted during Saturday's session.
American Flatbread of Burlington, VT - How many breweries/brewpubs from Vermont can you name? There are a few that everyone should and hardly any more so than American Flatbread. So much of what brewer Paul Sayler does is masterful and the dry Wilson Saison on Saturday was just another one of 'em. He's made my list in the past with his maibock and pilsner as well.
Cambridge Brewing of Cambridge, MA - Will Meyers doesn't often get mentioned in "American brewer rock star" terms, but he should. The flavors he works into his beers are as "out there" as they get. Using sweet gale, yarrow, and wild rosemary in the Weekapaug Gruit and the tartness and funkiness of the Cerise Cassee are perfect cases in point.
Captain Lawrence of Pleasantville, NY - Admittedly, I don't know a whole lot about Scott Vaccaro and these guys. But, what I do know is that every time I taste something from them, especially the Rosso e Marrone on Saturday, I'm usually blown away. This Rosso may not have been the best-est beer I've ever had (though it was jockeying for a position on the podium), but it certainly was one of the more complex and very interesting with flavors of wood, wine, and Brett. This beer was aged for two years in oak, merlot and zinfandel to be exact. A WOW! beer to be sure.
Honey - Beesting Honey Saison from Bullfrog (Williamsport, PA), Honing Honey Pale Ale from Haverhill/The Tap (Haverhill, MA), Buckwheat honey in the Tiny Tim Ale from Brewer's Art (Baltimore, MD), Aphrodisiac Ale with organic honey, fresh ginger, and dried lavender tips from Empire Brewing (Syracuse, NY), and Great Adirondack's way of saying Quadrupel in the Abbey Dubbel Dubbel were all beers that showcased the use of honey in making beer and proved that we've moved passed the Honey Brown Lagers of the past (not that you miss it, right?).
Harpoon of Boston, MA - I heard a few snide comments about Harpoon. Why, I say? When they bring a 4.2% Belgian Brown and a 5.5% Wild Hibernian from oak and they taste the way they did, they deserve a good comment or two here. These were my second and third beers at the fest and I couldn't have been more pleased.
Haverhill/The Tap of Haverhill, MA - Sure, it was the first beer that I had of the day, so it was bound to leave an impression either way, right? Well, it was a good one. The Honing was an easy starter, but one that had just a nice undercurrent of sweet honey to balance with the tickle of Saaz hops.
Three Floyds of Munster, IN - These hop-crazed folks from the midwest are not new to me, but the Rabbid Rabbit (Saison) was. It was one of my last beers to sample, but one of the best. In between their Fantabulous Resplendance (don't recall the "special twist" on this beer, maybe someone out there does?) and the Gumballhead (ditto the last comment), Three Floyds represented well...and without an Alpha King or Dark Lord to be found!
Stops along the way that I missed out on, but heard great things about from others around the fest: Albany Pump Station; Boulevard Brewing; Ithaca; and Olde Burnside.
Then the official tasting session ended, and the real party began. Grills were fired up, piñatas were strung up (Happy Birthday to Chris), frisbee discs and footballs were thrown up, bonfires were lit up, and many more glasses were tossed up.
The best weather in my experience with this event provided for one of the best all-around beer fest days that I have encountered in a while. Unfortunately, getting up at 6am, driving through the rain of upstate Pennsylvania, madly setting up camp, and dashing through 4 hours of beerfest sent me to bed by 1am. What happened after that point, I couldn't tell you. But, I'm sure there are many untold stories that will remain, properly, untold.
Then, I woke up, it rained, we packed up, and we drove home. Mission accomplished, will try harder next year.