|Belgium Comes To Cooperstown 2012
(First, please check out my filing over at The Washington Times and then come on back for more details.)
The more things change, the more things change...and stay the same. The best thing about this annual event at Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, NY is that it is still as much fun and a celebration of the craft brewing industry as it ever was. And yet, most long-time returning attendees will agree that the festival looks almost nothing like it did in the early years.
As Ommegang has continued its phenomenal growth through the years, evident in the brewery's building growth on the property, so too has the popularity of the festival. The festival continues to sell out each year at increasingly faster paces. This year when tickets were made available on April 2, Ommegang tweeted that the VIP tickets had all been purchased within 46 seconds. The remaining non-VIP tickets were sold out later that day.
Compared to the early years, the festival looks like a tightly-run ship. Mind you that not any of us ever complained in those early years about parking our car next to our campsite, bringing a camper/RV, seeing rare/out-of-state beers being poured at the festival, having random bonfires break out across the property, or welcoming dogs that came with their beer-loving companions.
But, as a festival grows up, so too do some of the rules that need to change. Though, I am fairly certain that not one VIP who paid over $200 for their ticket is pleased with not being able to drive their car to their campsite to do a simple dropoff before parking their car potentially as far as 1/2 mile walk away in the field. This is still one rule that I cannot wrap my head around and wish a VIP-pleasing compromise could be reached.
Humorously, I heard one VIP claim, "I'd give up the whole VIP dinner to be able to drop all my camping supplies off from my car at my campsite rather than lugging it all from the field. I made six trips and must have walked nearly two miles doing it."
But, I am digressing from the theme here.
Each year seems to bring a "most" of something related to the weather. There's been the most wet, the most cold night, the most windy, the most perfect (last year). This year's will likely go down for quite some time as the most hot. With temperatures in the mid-90s and humidity levels feeling like they weren't far behind, setting up camp was a slow and exhausting but necessary task before the night's events began.
But the exhausting heat was no match for that bit of refreshing beer consumption, meeting new friends, and catching up with old ones at our respective campsites. The hours were quickly whiled away and it was time for a fresh change of clothing for the evening. Another sign of change at the festival is the presence of two shower trailers that give attendees a chance for a somewhat more dignified freshening-up during the course of the weekend.
Friday night's VIP dinner was once again executed to near perfection and shone as an example of what can happen when you have plenty of highly-motivated volunteers. As in years past, the six-course dinner overflowed with beers from the Duvel-Moortgat family and foods to satisfy both red meat-lovers and otherwise alike. The beers flowed, the food was more than enough to create a solid base for the weekend (or at least the evening), and once again the Horseshoe Lounge Playboys rocked the dinner tent with the sounds of their hillbilly dance music. To call the dinner anything short of a decadent Belgian beer dinner would not be doing it justice.
The "dinner party", even at roughly four hours long, quickly segues into a roving campsite party that lasts into the wee hours of the night and the following morning. Scheduled group meetups, homebrew tastings, rare beer sharing, fun 'n' games, and other related debauchery ensues as the brewery does its part to contribute with live music, a raging bonfire, and movies/videos played on the side of a brewery building.
Based upon how late and how wee of an hour the previous night was defined as, any number of activities filled each person's Saturday morning. Slumbering around the campsite and brewery property was perhaps the simplest and least taxing option. Swimming at Otsego Lake which extends north from the heart of Cooperstown would have been the more refreshing option. Checking out the village of Cooperstown, complete with its farmers market, charming shops and residential neighborhood, and the Baseball Hall of Fame is always a fun diversion. Going for a bike ride or a run shows the most fortitude from the person with the Friday night most under control.
Having a few more beers was not out of the question either and became the most obvious way for most to prepare for the mid-afternoon kickoff of the tasting portion of the weekend festival. VIPs gained early access to the tasting tent, for a modest 30 minutes, and first tasted some of the event's most eagerly anticipated beers. Ones coming from domestic craft breweries with names like Allagash, Captain Lawrence, Lawson's, Peekskill, Stillwater, and White Birch and nearly a dozen Belgian importers.
Some notable buzz from around the tasting tent included:
~ Sly Fox going through four sixtels with a non-stop enthusiastic line of fans probably faster than any other table. Grisette was a big hit.
~ Terence Sullivan flew all the way in from Sierra Nevada to pour a special magnum of vintage Bigfoot Barleywine.
~ Spider Bite Beer Company from Long Island had people buzzing with its saison, lambic, and berliner weiss.
~ Speaking of berliner weiss, Jeff O'Neil has his new shop setup at Peekskill Brewery and brought a berliner weiss that was also perfect for the heat and humidity of the day.
~ Allagash and Lawson's may have had the longest lines throughout the event. Allagash's Peeterman was perhaps one of the most talked about beers of the festival and when it and the Coolship Resurgam were kicked, bottles of Mattina Rossa kept the crowd satisfied.
~ Consensus seemed to hold that the White Birch Tripel IPA struck a nice balance of Belgian Tripel and American-hopped ale.
~ Captain Lawrence created quite a buzz with its Hops 'n' Roses, one that I was too late to the party to try.
~ Pretty cool to see 21st Amendment make an appearance with its Monk's Blood.
~ The Lambrucha and the Posca Rustica from Vanberg & Dewulf were both excellent, funky choices for a hot summer afternoon.
While the four-hour tasting session was underway, numerous vendors were plying their own products from Belgian waffles to burgers to tie-dyed tshirts to homebrewing equipment. There was likely no greater anticipation, though, than for the conclusion of the multi-city build-up to the Hop Chef competition. After similar competitions were held in Washington, DC, Albany, and Philadelphia, the final four were brought to Cooperstown. Jeff Eng represented Washington, Jaime Ortiz represented Albany, and George Sabatino represented Philadelphia after each winning their respective competitions. Tommy Harder was invited back as a result of winning last year's competition at BCTC. Harder heads up the kitchen at NYC's well-regarded Blind Tiger Ale House.
Sabatino from the rather new Stateside on Passyunk Aveune in Philly took home the title of Hop Chef. More pictures can be found via link to Foobooz and video from Philadelphia's City Paper.
For as long as a four-hour tasting session might initially sound, it feels like it ends in the blink of an eye. Then it was back to campsites for continuing tastings and eats. The stories could go on for pages and some just simply are not meant for sharing unless you were there.
As I have pointed out in the past, BCTC is truly an event that should be experienced by lovers of great beer. I realize that some have a strict aversion to camping. More than any other year, I heard of attendees taking advantage of local bed & breakfasts and other lodging in nearby Cooperstown and the surrounding area. Taxi service to the brewery is available until 4 a.m. so staying off property is certainly an option.
Each year I've attended save for one, I've stayed for the full weekend of festivities and recommend this as the best way to experience this top-10 festival. BCTC has developed into a festival with so many options for attendees that staying for any less takes away from the full experience.
And, if you still haven't registered your visit over at my column in Communities section of The Washington Times, please do so before you leave here. Every click counts!
Link here to a full picture gallery.