Friday, August 12, 2011

Belgium is going to stay a while longer in Cooperstown at Ommegang

Ommegang Belgium Comes to Cooperstown (BCTC) 2011

Belgium came to Cooperstown again this year. So did I. I've pretty much settled on declaring this year the best installment yet of the annual Belgium Comes to Cooperstown (BCTC) event. So then why has it taken me this long to get some wrap-up words and pictures to you, you may ask? That, my friends, would be a perfectly acceptable and good question to ask!

Let's get to it then.

Instead of getting into time-consuming lengthy paragraph after time-consuming lengthy paragraph after lengthy time-consuming paragraph (and not to mention, superfluous wordiness that would serve only to fill the page and make me look/sound more eloquent than I really am, does that make sense?!), here's a quick hit list of what made this year's BCTC the best one yet from this guy's perspective. The only order that these points are in is the order that they come to mind.

And I speak to this as a VIP attendee (all-weekend, all-access), which in my opinion is the optimal way to experience the weekend. We tried the non-VIP (tasting festival-only) approach a couple of years ago and, for my appetite, it came off not nearly as ideal as staying for and taking in the whole weekend.

The Property - for first-timers, oh heck for veterans alike, the setting of the brewery in the foothills to the Adirondacks is the first thing that strikes visitors to the brewery. There's little chance that Ommegang's brewery setting is not a top ten or even top five in the country. Witnessing the sun set over the brewery and the lifting, passing fog in the morning as day breaks is beauty to behold. It sets the scene perfectly for a weekend of ideal beer karma. It doesn't hurt that the property used to be home to a hop farm in a former life.

The Growth - the new Visitor Center/Retail Shop and new Café Ommegang are just the two most recent additions to the brewery. And what new additions they are! To sit in a climate-controlled pub and enjoy any number of Ommegang, Duvel, and related beverages is simply amazing. The café's menu features Belgian-themed items such as mussels, fries, assorted aioli for dipping, stews, crepes, ice-cream, and waffles. And even though the retail shop no longer comes with the aromas of a working brewhouse, it also is climate-controlled and much more spacious. Both are absolute joys to explore. Seeing these new facilities first-hand makes the "no RVs" ruling for the festival more obvious. Speaking of growth and expansion, I just saw a Facebook posting from the brewery announcing the installation this week of a 40-head bottle filler that will reportedly triple their bottling capacity to more quickly meet skyrocketing demand.

The Organization - the early wild-west years of this festival are behind us. Sure, there are ways in which to bemoan this. But, at the end of the day, I think all agree that organization and control -- for an endeavor of this size -- are not bad words. There's control, but there's not too much control. The fun is organized but only to the point of being reasonably safe and where the fun can still be organic. Now if we could only do something about special festival permits for out-of-state breweries and the silly (not to mention, wasteful) drink ticket regulations.

Simply put: the job that lead organizers Tara Aitchison and John Tuchowski and the whole team of employees and volunteers that it takes to pull off this awe-inspiring event impresses more with each passing year.

The Dinner - sure, as some have said, it's not totally necessary and of course only adds to the overall ticket price. But, the way in which it adds to the total weekend experience is important in my opinion. After an afternoon of setting up camp and mingling amongst campsites, having a dinner prepared and delivered table side with copious and virtually unlimited amounts of beer to choose from is just what is needed for most. The dinner was seven courses this year and does draw out over a few hours, but, to me, that makes it for the better. The duration provides plenty of time to take in the food and beer at a leisurely pace, wander around the property, and dance to the always entertaining Horseshoe Lounge Playboys.

The Tasting Event - every year it seems that I taste less beer than I go into the tasting festival intending to. In some ways, that disappoints me and in some ways it doesn't really matter. I seem to take away more from the tasting tents in the personal interactions that I have with longtime and new friends alike. (Plus, it's important to keep in mind that there will still be another 8-12 hours of debauchery to take in, depending upon how one counts their hours.)

So, did I regrettably miss Captain Lawrence's Rosso e Marrone (I've had it before and is spec-friggin-tacular)...Ithaca's Brute (bottles at home)...Ommegang's Eleven by Volume (brewed just for the festival...or, so they say :)...Malheur Dark Brut (still waiting)...Ithaca Fula (still don't know what this was supposed to be). Sure. But, the beauty of the beer world that we are fortunate enough to partake in is that there's (usually) always another great beer lurking around the next tap handle.

Of what I did taste, however, there were some clear-cut winners. For the sake of brevity, I'll simply list Ithaca Le Bleu (again and again, please!), Allagash Coolship (this project has been well worth the wait), Ommegang Aphrodite (this will likely evolve nicely over a couple of years), Lagunitas Lucky 13, Shmaltz Jewbelation (reminds me of a vertical I must get around to doing at home), Stillwater (anything by Strumke works for me), Lawson Session in the Rye (what a great concept serving it "regular", regular-dry hopped, and cask-conditioned), White Birch (the tripel/barleywine blend aged in wood, wow!),  Allagash Vrienden (oh, if this could be a couple of ticks less than its advertised 9.3%, I'd drink this all night long), Pretty Things (some of the more interesting beer being made in the Northeast)...and a lot of homebrew. I'm still scratching my head as to how I could have forgotten to box up a few bottles of my own Sour Cherry Chocolate Imperial Stout. This was the perfect venue for sharing and tasting.

The Extracirriculars - multiple bands during and after the Saturday tasting portion of the festival. Numerous food options from waffles to barbecue to wood-oven pizza to chocolates. A "Mussel Tussle" (for VIPs only) with six different chefs doing mussels prepared with Ommegang beers six different ways was an extraordinary addition to this year's festival. (I'd only request that they include the beers that were used in cooking also for tasting/pairing under this tent.) Fun movies, firepits, and late night musical entertainment. A 15 minute fireworks display over the brewery to cap off Saturday night. Plenty of extracirriculating from campsite to campsite. What else could be asked for?

This 'n' That - Beer Sessions Radio. Didn't know where else to put these guys here in my wrap-up. The last time I saw Ray Deter was at 2010's BCTC and I can easily recall discussing our mutual affection for Petrus Aged Pale Ale just before going our separate ways. (I seem to recall him also joking about getting lost so far from NYC!) So, it was fitting that I hung around for nearly an hour watching and listening to co-hosts Jimmy Carbone (Jimmy's No. 43) and Dave Brodrick (Blind Tiger) conduct an on-site taping for Beer Sessions Radio. They were joined by Phil Leinhart (brewer) and Larry Bennett (marketing) from Ommegang, Dann Pacquette (Pretty Things), Simon Thorpe (Duvel/Moortgat USA), and Naomi Neville (Allagash National Sales Manager).

I feel like I should end with an apology for the late, half-arsed, and scattershot approach to sharing BCTC '11 with you. Plus, there's a ton of parentheticals, which I realize doesn't lend to easy reading. It doesn't feel up to standards...particularly for an event that is one of the best in the land. But for now, well, I'll leave it that. 'Til next time.

You can find all 100 or so pictures that I uploaded to Picasa over there.

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