Sit back, grab a brew, relax, and let yourself go...this is gonna be a long one.
In just a moment, I'll get to sharing with you the multitude of reasons why Ommegang's BCTC continues to be one of the top beer events in the country each year. But first, try not to call me a negative nancy...it's really not like that.
There were approximately 10 less breweries this year compared to last year (and down roughly 40 beers). Roughly 20% decrease on both counts, while cost for Saturday's tasting event was up to $70 and for the VIP ticket, $185.
The brewery could have setup part or all of their retail shop outside to alleviate the congestion and sweltering heat of the indoors.
Ommegang's special-release beers could have had more attention drawn to the times when they were being poured.
More camping could have been provided for Friday night thus, generating more revenue for the festival and alleviating the angst of some festival-goers who had to decide between paying premiums for gray-market tickets, camping "illegally", or missing out on Friday simply arriving Saturday instead. Maybe consider a Friday, camping-only option. Many did that anyway.
Volunteers, while doing a wonderful job at pouring beer and keeping the short lines moving, would be more valuable if they were armed with just a few bits of information about the breweries for whom they were pouring.
The volatile weather of July and August in this northeast part of the country makes you wonder if it's time for Ommegang to consider changing the date of the festival (more on this one later down below).
Now that I've got some of what you might perceive as nit-picky complaints (or, alternatively, constructive criticisms) out of the way, I can move on to describing confidently to you why I still consider Ommegang's annual Belgium Comes to Cooperstown festival a Top 10, possibly even Top 5, beer event in the United States.
I reminded you that after last year's experience, I would never attend BCTC again if I could only arrive on Saturday. I've said it once if I've said it 100 times (I love that saying!), the best way to experience BCTC is to go for the entire weekend...eat, drink, camp, party, share, relax...all on the property of one of the country's most bucolic brewery settings.
That said, we arrived around an hour later than we expected on Friday, partly due to a late shove-off from home and partly due to crazy weather and traffic along the way in upstate Pennsylvania and into New York State. Upon arriving, it didn't take long to start to see others arrive for what might have been called the Philly North festival. Every direction you'd turn, I'd swear there was another beer personality (of the employed and fan/geek alike) from the Philadelphia region. Case in point...
After choosing a nice and flat perch half way up the hill behind the brewery for our campsite, we looked to our neighbor who turned out to be none other than William Reed, proprietor of two of Philly's A+ bars, Standard Tap and Johnny Brenda's. (They both get high marks for food and beer, while Johnny Brenda's gets an extra mark for regularly scheduled live music and entertainment.) William was holding down fort for the Sly Fox clan (the O'Reilly family as well as representative, Corey Reid, who was right at home in his New York sales territory).
Not a bad start to stake out a campsite next door to one of Philly's finest breweries...one that's about to make a move, have you heard? With pleasantries out of the way, I attempted to trade some 21st Amendment canned beer for some Sly Fox canned beer. A fun gesture, though not necessarily one to ingratiate me with my brewing neighbors. While Brian didn't take any 21A, we had more than enough Sly Fox beer, including this year's just bottled Oktoberfest, at our disposal to get us through the weekend.
That's a big tip for anyone going to BCTC or an event like it. Of course you need to take some beer and food with you. But don't overdo it. From one campsite to another, there is so much sharing going on...between friends and strangers alike. The point is to always have something in your hand as you mosey around the campground, but there's certainly no need to take case upon case or even kegs, or large amounts of food...unless you plan to host a party at your camp.
Sharing: The first reason Ommegang's BCTC is so great is the sharing and the free spirit component.
The VIP dinner on Friday was quite the ordeal. We missed last year's, so we were anxious to discover how or if the dinner would be run differently than in the past. Since I wasn't keeping track of time, I can't say just how long it went, but suffice to say that it took long enough to have 5 courses of food and beer, interlaced by two trips back to the campsite (once to have a beer with the O'Reilly's and once just because), dancing, and table-hopping excursions to maniacally plan the rest of the weekend's debauchery.
The meal itself was nice and included many things that we like pairing with beer, sans mussels that I remember fondly from a couple of years ago. Cheeses and meats of various variety dominated the menu. Topping off with pastries and chocolate-covered strawberries for dessert made for a nice meal. The sometimes long spacing between courses was a welcome way of avoiding that bloated feeling by the end of the meal. Plus, the walking around and dancing didn't hurt either.
The beer with dinner? Fuhgettaboutit. There was more than enough to go around. A potluck of beers as a centerpiece to the table had all sorts of Ommegang and Duvel family of beers to choose from. Duvel, Blonde, Brune, Witte, Hennepin, Houblon Chouffe, Three Philosophers, and Chocolate Indulgence were just a few names that you might recognize. And if the table ran out, no worries. Table service was there to not only help clear away plates, but to find more liquid delights for our dining pleasure.
In between the eating, drinking, and socializing came some time to recognize the organizers and guests of the festival. Michel Moortgat (CEO, Duvel Moorgat), Simon Thorpe (President/CEO, DuvelUSA), and Phil Leinhart (Ommegang Brewmaster) all spoke and shared their thoughts and gratitude with the attentive crowd. Tara Aitchison (Events Director) graciously accepted a floral arrangement presented to her for her tireless efforts in organizing what is an gigantic event with so many pieces.
I'm not sure that there's much more to say about Friday night's partying that went on late into the wee hours. The brewery hosted a huge bonfire front and center, while smaller campfires broke out around the property. The brewery also ran a movie (you'd think I'd know which one, right? but I never stopped by long enough to figure it out....the schedule of events says it was 'Across the Universe') that people gathered to watch.
I, on the other hand, wandered around with Patty after the VIP dinner stopping in to see friends who were camped out in various corners of the property. Like I've said in the past, at some point, brewers and reps deserve their privacy, so there are many stories and pictures that will stay in Cooperstown. Those that I've posted have each of their approvals.
Saturday morning came bright and early (my body seems to know no difference after all these years of getting up with the roosters) and I awoke to a bright and rapidly increasing hot sun. Without any rain in the forecast (though, can one ever truly predict the summer's volatile weather in these parts?!), it seemed like it was going to be a steaming day. Even though the temperature barely broke 80F, the humidity level began high in the 90s and dropped only into the 60s by mid-day. Plus, with the saturated ground from the day before's soaking thunderstorms, hunkering under the tasting tent was almost as stifling as standing out in the direct sun. When the sun finally started to get short in the sky, some relief finally came. Though, if I complained about the torrential rain, do you think I should be complaining about a little heat and humidity?
This is the point where I wonder if consideration has ever been given for holding this festival, say, in the fall or even April or May (since there's a little festival out West in the fall that brewers might be distracted by). Don't know, but it seems worth considering since 3 of the 4 years that I've been to BCTC, punishing rain storms have been a part of the festival. Though the weather can't totally crush the spirits of a great festival like BCTC, there's definitely plenty of frustration in camping in the rain and, even worse, breaking camp in the rain, when all you want to do is stay a few more hours. (come to think of it, though, by Sunday the brewery is probably happy to see all of the campers leave early!)
Alright, then let's get to the tasting part of the festival. I never did see much enforcement of the drink tickets that were being doled out but the pourers did stick to the mandated volume. A couple of pouring volunteers did inform me that the "training facilitator" did warn them against volunteering infractions that would result in everything from fines to jail time to loss of home and personal freedoms.
With the reduced number of breweries and beers this year came what I perceived to be a lack of a wow factor. As in, I never heard one person swear up and down that a particular beer(s) was the best they had all day...as in best by a mile. Neither did I hear of a group of beers in that class, nor of a brewery that with its table antics created a buzz around it like, say, Dogfish would with its Randal display of years past, or De Struise pourings, or other such high times. There were definitely, oh, 120 out of 140 very good beers, just nothing I heard anyone saying was so geeky rare, or so geeky good beyond compare, or a you-must-drop-what-you're-doing type of beer to go hunt down before it was gone. Are we becoming spoiled with our access to great beer?
Now apparently Ommegang was doing special pourings. I'd heard of these back in June when Brian the assistant brewer told me that there'd be a strong winter ale, a triple IPA, and a Belgian Scotch (or Scotch Belgian?!) available at the VIP and following day during the festival. Apparently, during the tasting festival, they were being poured at special times, but the volunteers were not armed with this information and I missed out on any of these beers. Volunteers tend to do a great job with the information they're given, but all too often I feel they're not given enough. And, with this year's restriction on brewers pouring beer, I found more often than not tables being staffed with no one who knew much of anything about the brewery and/or the beers being poured.
Let's get passed that minor quibble and allow me to shout out to a few beers that left a mark on me. In no certain order: Sam AdamsKriek (a bit Brett/horsey in the aroma, smoother in the taste, pleasant summer kriek); SouthamptonCuvee des Fleurs (one of my repeat faves, isn't it about that time of year to find some bottles for at home?); Brooklyn Sorachi Ace (is all this flavor really only from the Sorachi Ace hop and the yeast? I must find more of this...now); Piraat (been a while, where have you been, you beaut?!); Duchesse de Bourgogne (perennial tart delight from Belgium); Brown'sBelgian Raspberry (from Troy, NY, a subtle raspberry that was a real nice drinker); IthacaBrute (a stellar sour powerhouse).
WRAPPING UP (yes, finally)
Like I said, just a few. Actually, if I had more than twice that, I'd be surprised. But, that was all part of the game plan and yet another tip for those of you reading this in 2010. Go light on the tasting at the festival, because, once again, the tasting is just one part of the festival and you want to make sure that you have staying power for the remainder of the evening.
Oh, speaking of reading this later---Thanks to all of you that made the effort to recognize my t-shirt and let me know that you read material that I'd written about past BCTCs to get prepared for 2009. It is gratifying and humbling at the same time to know that the words (the many of them, at that) I put out there are read and useful.
Once the tasting portion of the day ended, it was back to business as usual. In other words, gallivanting the property sharing beers, foods, and good times. I can't emphasize this aspect of the BCTC festival. I even heard several people say that, with no disrespect to the tasting portion, they could do without the 4 hour tasting and instead camp, eat, and drink around the campsites for the entire weekend. Not that the tasting showcases anything less than very good beers, it's just that the amount of very good commercial and homebrewed beer that shows up from one campsite to the next (save for the occasional Bud Light Lime case) is nothing less than very impressive.
So with that it was off to another night of cooking, eating, frisbee toss, relaxing, partying, and fire hula hoops (you'll have to visit the picture link to see what I am referring to). A tethered hot air balloon went up to give post-festival revelers a new way to see the brewery. The bonfire and movie went off again. And late night debauchery ensued. At that point, the camera went away (sort of) and, yes, that was I at the Pong table playing with the strongest beer I ever played pong with!
As hard as it is to bring closure to the BCTC weekend, it's equally difficult to bring closure to this review...did you think I'd ever get to this point?! As I eluded to earlier, we broke camp in the rain, fighting the need to leave. We never did get around to breakfast with the rain coming down, harder by the half hour. We pressed some coffee, kibitzed a while long with the O'Reilly's, Reid, and Reed...then hit the road. Our trip home was uneventful, unlike a certain Beer Lass who has her own story to tell.
Did you feel like checking out what I had to say about previous years? Really?! Fine, go ahead and proceed at your own risk. Maybe it will help with your insomnia ;-) Here are some handy links.
2006 wrap-up2007 wrap-up, pics2007 wrap-up, words12007 wrap-up, words22008 Primer2008 wrap-up2008 Cycling wrap-up (Philly to Cooperstown)