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Beer Tours #1: Brewery Ommegang
by George de Piro, Brewmaster C.H. Evans Brewing Company
at the Albany Pump Station (article and photo Copyright 2005)

After three years of living relatively close to Cooperstown, I finally visited Brewery Ommegang. It was a dreary, rainy day, typical of this gloomy spring. The ride from Albany down (or is it over?) to Cooperstown was longer than I expected; almost two hours! The wooded countryside was still largely devoid of leaves, but the sun occasionally peaked through the clouds to illuminate the landscape, making for a pleasant drive.

The directions available from the Ommegang website force visitors through the center of Cooperstown. Perhaps they get a tax break for promoting the quaint, pleasant village, but it did increase travel time. It didn’t help that the main thoroughfare, aptly named “Main Street,” was curiously lacking pavement and cluttered with wildly gesticulating men dressed in day-glow orange vests. I wonder what they were trying to communicate?

Ommegang Brewmaster Randy Thiel and his Rare Vos

Jenn and I eventually made it to the brewery, only one and half hours later than planned. Randy Thiel, the brewmaster, joined us for lunch and discussed recent events: Ommegang was recently bought by Brewery Moortgaat, the producers of Duvel. While some beer writers have had less than kind words about this transaction, Randy is optimistic that the brewery’s business will improve under new management.

In case there are any readers who aren’t aware of Ommegang’s history, I’ll summarize it here: Brewery Ommegang was founded by Belgian beer importers Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield in 1997. The brewery is dedicated to brewing Belgian-style beers using traditional methods. They have three brands in regular production: the dark, fruity, malty Ommegang; the hoppier, spicy, deep gold Hennepin, and Rare Vos, a copper-colored ale with a balanced spicy character and pleasant fruitiness (specifically banana). There is also a sugary note to the nose, and it works very well with the spice.

They also brew Three Philosophers, a very rich, strong dark ale with flavors reminiscent of cocoa, burnt sugar, raisins and banana. It weighs in at a respectable 9.8% ABV. All of the beers are very good; my favorites are Three Philosophers and Rare Vos (I couldn’t choose just one).

The brewery is a beautiful and unique structure, built to resemble a large farm house. It blends nicely into the countryside, with a spacious meadow behind it to accommodate festivals and such. Inside is an interesting juxtaposition of modern and, um, not-so-modern brewing equipment.

The glistening stainless steel brewhouse dominates the room like a sacred alter, the vapor stacks soaring toward the pinnacle of the high ceiling. Its complex plumbing serves both to move wort and impress visitors. In the midst of the contemporary brewhouse and maturation vessels is a small room housing the open fermenter.

Entering this room while the yeast are busy takes your breath away, quite literally: the vapors of alcohol and carbon dioxide combine to form a potent smack in the head! Randy reports that there are plans for installing a proper air handling system. While that will take some of the adventure out of visits to the fermenter, it will also make it less likely that purple hearts will be awarded to the brewing staff.

The open fermenter at Brewery Ommegang. The beige crust floating atop the beer is yeast.

Interestingly, each 40 barrel batch is split between the open fermenter and a modern, cylindroconical vessel (CCV). Randy says that the half in the CCV attenuates more completely than the stuff in the open tank. The two halves are blended together prior to filtration. After filtering, the beer is dosed with yeast and priming sugar and then bottled.

After two weeks of warm conditioning (I believe the room was about 86 °F) the beer is cellared at cooler temperatures, ideally 55 °F. In the past, Ommegang has cellared beer at the nearby Howe Caverns. This is a fun idea, and great marketing gimmick, but does it really affect the be
er any differently from aging in a 55 °F room? I guess it doesn’t matter; it tastes great!

Brewery Ommegang brews some of America’s most interesting beers, and their facility is certainly just as fascinating. Hopefully, the new owners will continue to enable Randy Thiel to brew great beers for our enjoyment!