Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Belgium Comes To Cooperstown 2013 at Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, NY

(This pretty much pulls the whole of BCTC at Brewery Ommegang into one image.)

2013. Yes, 2013. This is not a typo. While BCTC 2013 is now over four weeks in our rear view mirrors, I'm not here to write about 2014 quite yet. Nope, still must wrap up the 2013 edition.

I've started, been interrupted, re-started, got distracted, had a hard drive issue, and yadda yadda yadda. It's finally time to put the bow on the annual extravaganza that is Belgium Comes To Cooperstown at Brewery Ommegang. Every year on the outskirts of the quaint and lovely throwback of a village called Cooperstown, the brewery puts on what has without much argument turned into a bucket-list type of beer festival.

You may have caught up with the pictures that I loaded immediately in the days after BCTC '13. The words, though, have taken me longer to get around to. Remember how I've always boasted that the words come easier to me than the pictures? Hm.

Anyway, to get this all properly shared with you and to close out this tenth anniversary chapter of BCTC at Brewery Ommegang, I'll again thank the brewery for their hospitality and get on with the sharing in abbreviated bullet format. Also, for the sneak peeks and tastes of new beers from Ommegang soon to be hitting retail shelves, look below for where I mention them.

(a-Chouffe-ing we will go)

  Theme - Always the clever theme-setters at BCTC, the brewery played up the Seinfeld theme in ways big and small (and probably some I didn't even notice) throughout the weekend. From the episodes being projected on the side of the building for late-night viewing entertainment, to VIP dinner menu and table decorations, to Costanza's infamous Timeless Art of Seduction (see pictures for the full picture if you dare)

  Weather - Other than a quick storm on Friday evening, Mother Nature offered up a nice respite from last year's heat. If you've been to BCTC multiple times over the years, or followed along with The Brew Lounge's annual chronicle of the event, you know this is always a wild card element of the weekend given the wacky microclimates of the region.

  Organization - More than ever, the brewery has battened down the hatches and turned this festival into a well-run and organized event. Keeping the total attendance under 3,000 seems to have helped the brewery find its sweet spot in terms of optimal crowd control and event management. This year, that included expanded parking, the registration tent pushed out into the field, and golf cart transportation hospitality for campers arriving on Friday with all of their campsite gear. That last feature scored big points with many of the VIP guests, including me, who have asked in past years for a more accommodating option to set up campsites in lieu of being permitted to drive on to the property in order to drop off their cargo.

(Brewery Ommegang, resplendent in red)

  Hop Chef - I love this thing called Hop Chef that they coordinate around the country for a few months leading up to BCTC. The culinary competition, which involves beers from the Ommegang/Duvel family (natch), culminates with the finals during BCTC but I hesitate to say that it's everything that it can/should be. The celebration of food and beer is played up big time in the regional showdowns and would seem to be deserving of a grander culmination. Whether it was the tasting tables running short of samples or the rather tepid gathering by the main stage for the winning chef announcement, there seem to be elements — and I'm not able to put a finger specifically what those one or two things are — missing that would make the Hop Chef competition finals a more wildly successful conclusion than it currently is.

  Extracirriculars - Each year, BCTC offers up a little something new to add to the well-rounded nature of the weekend. This year, it was a bit larger than just a "little something". A ferris wheel gave rides late into the evening and was quite popular with a seemingly never-ending line of eager riders. Our campsite neighbors even found their way up there for a memorable wedding proposal (and acceptance!). Congratulations to Jen and Jeff!! Adding to the extracirriculars, as well, was an ever-expanding vendor area that included everything from homebrew equipment to massage chairs to a phone-charging station. Food options plus plenty of free bottled water were readily available too. If you follow me closely enough around here, you know how big that last bit about abundantly available free/included water is to me.

  Brewery shout-outs - It's easy to give props to the recurring great work on display from long-timers like Allagash, Brooklyn, Dogfish Head, and, of course, host Ommegang/Duvel. And then there are the ones not quite as old, but almost as familiar, like Captain Lawrence, Ithaca, Peekskill, Smuttynose, and White Birch. More interesting, still, every year to me is the emergence of the new guys on the scene. This year, I counted nine breweries that not only have I never had a beer of theirs, I've never heard of them. Notable amongst the ones I did have this year came from the likes of Good Nature (Hypocritte Witte — refreshing with chamomile), Hopshire Farm (Zingabeer — a Belgian pale with a zing of ginger), Port Jefferson (H3 Trippel — nicely balanced for a 10.1%), and Singlecut Beersmiths (Le Von La Saison D'Falle).

(Tastes of more great stuff to come from Brewery Ommegang)

  New beers from Ommegang - Brewery Ommegang plans to keep the hits coming with four new beers that will be hitting the market in coming months. I'm betting that they'll be big hits. I was invited to take a quick sample of them with Innovation Manager, Mike McManus. First up, for you Game of Thrones junkies, Take the Black will be released throughout September as the second beer in the series with serious thematic ties to the HBO show. While the first Iron Throne was a pretty good Belgian ale, I'm liking this one even more as it strikes a very nice balance with licorice root and anise. These are two flavors, when in beer, I'd typically be cautious of. However, back to the word balance, the brewery has done such a nice job with a deft balancing of these flavors in a 7% imperial stout.

I've been high on Grisette this summer, particularly from Sly Fox, as perfect summer thirst-quencher. The Grisette presented by McManus from Ommegang was similarly refreshing, but with a bit more of a pepper spice kick, mostly likely thanks to the pink peppercorns used in the recipe.

Wild At Heart is the 100% Brettanomyces fermented beer due out by around Thanksgiving time in 750ml bottles. This was a "bonus beer" that McManus unveiled at the end of the "new beer" presentation and I could not have been more pleased. The beer was undergoing its house yeast conditioning and was exhibiting wonderful tropical and slightly tart fruit flavors without laying on too much Brett funk that you might expect to find when you hear the word Brettanomyces. The brewery employed two relatively new hops from New Zealand, Topaz and Motueka. You should find this beer to be quite the crowd pleaser, full of flavor and delivering plenty of thirst-quenching refreshment. A small taste of this has me looking forward to grab several bottles of this in November for both fresh drinking and a bit of storage.

Last, but certainly not least, while the retirement (or, at least, retirement from year-round production) of the BPA will come as sad news to many of you (myself included), the Hop House is shaping up to be a very fine replacement. Resplendent with a really nice hop flavor and aroma, the 6% dry-hopped pale ale should be entering the fold by end of 2013.

  That's all? To close with some nuggets from Larry Bennett, who graciously sat with me to discuss his ten years of involvement in both planning and executing the festival, "...drinking really great beers with old friends that make up the 'community' is truly one of the high points of every year. Meeting new friends and meeting old brewer friends in 'tent city' is a fun part of the weekend". I couldn't agree more.

Bennett was one of the four original compatriots that conspired to put together this little beer festival on the brewery grounds on a shoestring budget of not even $10,000 and less than three months of planning in 2004 shortly after he joined the company. Tickets were $25 — sold over the phone and in person — and around 800 locals and people from around the region showed up to camp and drink great beer.

These days the health department and fire marshal complete thorough inspections for two days prior to the event and the total undertaking runs into the six digits and people travel from far and wide to attend with tickets that sell out with minutes (VIP) and hours (general). Now, a staff of three headed up by Tara Aitchison (who also oversees the store and café) begins planning around the winter holidays with the construction of an overall theme.

Having Duvel Moortgat USA President & CEO Simon Thorpe, previously a Stella exec, on board certainly doesn't hurt given his enthusiastic support of the annual event as well as other events throughout the year like concerts (which can draw 3,000-5,000), family-oriented events, and old-time baseball games. Bennett says that Thorpe loves throwing events such as these, even if they barely break even, because they "bring people in, especially a more diverse group, including more women, than ever, to reach new audiences to experience new beer, but profitability is not the first goal in mind when event planning."

I concurred on the point of introducing new people to new beer. If we still like the term "gateway beer", I suggested that Wild At Heart (see above) will be a great gateway for all of Bennett's and Ommegang's new friends that visit the brewery.

With that, Larry went off to taste some Wild At Heart and I went off in search of the rest of the day's events at one of the country's best beer events/festivals.

(Fireworks at Midnight light up the Cooperstown sky to close out BCTC '13)

(Probably an apt illustration of the love festival-goers feel for BCTC and Brewery Ommegang)


Anonymous said...

We didn't go this year, couldn't squeak in and get tickets in the 45-second VIP ticket availability window.

I have heard from several people who did make it that the VIP dinner itself was pretty disappointing this year, and would have been at the previous $200 ticket price much less the new $250 moneygrab.

Your thoughts?

Bryan Kolesar said...

Not such an easy answer, while on the surface, it might seem like it should be. $250 is not a small number.

My first thought is that as long as the event continues to sell out, and sell out quickly, it's a pretty short conversation. No, the price is not too high.

But, then, let's peel back and try to analyze. We'll stick to just the $250 VIP price tag which seems to be raising the most eyebrows.

Let's, for sake of argument, say that every person holding a VIP ticket this year says "bollocks! This was not worth it" and chooses not to attend in 2014. If the VIP tickets again sell out in a minute or two next year, even at the same price, but with a whole other batch of new attendees, is the price too high? Not in the eyes of first-timers looking to experience what is often described as one of the country's top festivals and even a "bucket list beer festival".

On the other hand, what if every VIP attendee this year gets, or tries to get, VIP tickets for next year? Again, that proves the demand is there, but as opposed to newcomers that only go on heresay, these are experienced BCTC-goers who must think they're getting their money's worth. Obviously, the scenario that plays out will be a mix of the two.

Bryan Kolesar said...

Where does it become problematic for some? It seems (and I see this too having attended since the second year) that those that have the toughest time with the $250 price tag are those that have been going for the longest. When the event was less expensive. When you could park your car next to your tent. When it was "easier" and more casual and with less rules.

It's human nature, I suppose, to see the festival that you've been a part of from the beginning turn into something much bigger, more expensive, and with more rules and feel like it's "not the same as it used to be" or that it's "not worth it anymore". But, we've had at least two things at play here during the last ten years. Both a maturing ten-year-old festival and an industry that has experienced explosive growth and popularity have been major contributors to the BCTC evolution.

What's the alternative? Find a cheaper festival is one answer, though, you'll be hard-pressed to find many of similar profile to choose from. These days, it's more feasible than ever to drink many of the beers pouring under the big tent at home, but what fun is that? Well, you could invite some friends over and, of course, that can be fun, but if you're looking for your BCTC of old, that's pretty difficult to replicate in your backyard. I'm guessing most people that are going to BCTC are looking for a bit something more than just drinking beer.

So why do we go to BCTC and what does the $250 VIP cost cover? The tangibles: a six-course meal with nearly-unlimited beer (let's not even debate the quality; too subjective, just like one person's versus another's taste in what each considers great beer. or what exactly was "pretty disappointing"? the service, the format, the food, the beers, the music, etc?); a 750ml bottle of beer; tasting glass; Saturday breakfast; unlimited five-hour Saturday tasting; brewery tour; fireworks; live music throughout; movies; extras (this year, a ferris wheel). The intangibles: "lodging"; sharing hard-to-find beers, homebrews, and food at campsites; being amongst like-minded friends; making new friends; meeting many brewers/owners that attend, and many camp, as well.

The big question seems to be how much do the tangibles actually cost and how much value do attendees place on the intangibles. Some may argue that many of the tangibles are not necessary, but like pointed out above, this is a growing/maturing festival and if you strip away enough, you're left with just sitting around drinking beer which may be okay for some, but obviously not the direction that the brewery wants to grow in and one that appears to be popular enough with customers to drive demand to where it is today.

And to call it a "moneygrab" I believe is a bit unfair. I've not seen published anywhere the breakdown in the total event cost and/or profit margins. The brewery suggests that events such as this barely breakeven, if not operating at a loss. We can either take their word for it or ask for financials, which I think we know how that conversation will end. Seeing everything that goes into putting on the festival that it is today and in the absence of more concrete financial evidence, I wouldn't call it a "moneygrab".

As Larry Bennett (head of PR/Communications/Marketing/etc. with nearly ten years experience at the brewery) concurs and says that when demand slacks off, they'll know that they've found the price ceiling.

Sorry if this was more analysis that you were looking for; I've obviously given this topic some thought over the past few years.

Maybe the brewery will choose to comment here as well to help clarify anything I may have misstated.