Cooperstown Chronicles: Brewery Ommegang

If you read my article on James E. Pepper Rye you’ll know that I recently visited Cooperstown, NY to visit my girlfriend at grad school.  We like to go to breweries, because my girlfriend is awesome and likes to drink good beer and eat delicious food with me.  Maybe she’s just humoring me.  Anyways, just outside Cooperstown happens to be Brewery Ommegang—perhaps you’ve seen their beer, it’s omnipresent in bottle shops and even grocery stores in something like 43 states.  If you’ve ever experimented with craft beer it probably began with a bomber of Hennepin or Three Philosophers and led to borderline alcoholism, a beer gut, and the inability to enjoy anything that comes in a red, white and blue can (expect Dale’s Pale Ale).  I’d had several Ommegang offerings in the past and found them very enjoyable, so I was looking forward to this trip.  I’m not going to go too deep into what I drank, what it tasted like and all that jazz—go buy some and try for yourself you budding beer genius.  What this article is all about is the lowdown on what a visit to Ommegang is like.

After a drive through the winding roads of the New York countryside you arrive at Ommegang, driving through an archway declaring the dates of the first Ommegang festival in Belgium, and the opening of Brewery Ommegang.  The parking lot was filled with the interstate license plates of beer pilgrims, and on approaching the pub and shop you see Ommegang’s experimental hop vines growing on the rolling hillsides of their beautiful grounds(apparently the area used to be the American hop hub in the 1800’s before a blight settled in that remains to this day.)  The shop was a buzz of activity as we signed up for the $3 tasting and the free tour, and settled into shopping while we awaited our tasting time.  There was a lot of cool stuff in the shop, from the standard: shirts, limited release beers, and a fantastic glassware selection, to the more creative: beer based cheeses, spreads, and mustards.  I bought a glass, because I love glassware.  The tasting session was great, something like 6 beers were served to us in our little complimentary glasses and there was a spread of pretzels and the aforementioned spreadables for us to snack on as the knowledgeable staff gave us all the stats on the beers we were drinking.  It was a good time, with just the right amount of information to satisfy the geeks and a solid background for the less initiated.  I do have one gripe though: the beer.  The Ommegang that you buy in your bottle shop has been sitting around in a bottle with yeast, what we call bottle conditioning, and that means it’s sitting there getting smoother, more complex, and more delicious.  In the tasting, or at a bar, Ommegang is often in a keg, force carbonated.  I’m not just being a snob here; it was a very noticeable difference, so I recommend seeking Ommegang out in bottles.  Anyways, the tour of the brewery was pretty standard, with some interesting facts about how their relationship with Belgian brewery Duvel blossomed from an initial 40% investment to a friendly full ownership.  By the end of the tour I was quite hungry and of course thirsty, so we proceeded to the eatery.

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Between the two glasses I got there I can hold one 12 oz beer!

The café is a rather unique experience for an American restaurant, with large communal tables that encourage meeting your fellow beer pilgrims as you slowly (or quickly based on Ommegang ABVs) lose any reservations you may have about having dinner with strangers.  The beer menu, as expected, is full of Ommegang’s best: on tap, in the bottle, standards and ultra-special editions all included.  M’lady boldly ordered their excellent “Wild at Heart” ale that happens to be one of those rare offerings.  I had a beer on tap, probably wisely because her bottle cost $25 due to its special status.  The food was also great, as you’d expect from a brewery that has a beer and food pairing section on their website.  They even have Belgian waffles, which I barely resisted ordering for dinner.  Anyways, the café was a great end to a great time at Brewery Ommegang.   The place was basically designed to serve the beer pilgrim, and from what I understand they host tons of great events and concerts to keep the people happy, if the beer isn’t enough for you.  So if you’re one of those people going to Cooperstown for the baseball stuff or the scenery, go to Ommegang, get a good meal and a nice beer. Then stock up on glassware and beer cheeses.

Review: James E. Pepper 1776 Rye

Over the long weekend I paid a visit over to Cooperstown, NY to see my girl and dig the town.  I know what you’re thinking—and I don’t really blame you for it—baseball.  Well in spite of my All-American appetite for liquor, I’m not much of a fan of America’s pastime  I’ll play it, but that’s as far as my interest goes, so I avoided the museum and all that bat and ball capitalism and made my first stop a liquor store.  Actually, two of them.  It was 10 am and the girl was in a meeting, what’s a boy to do?  Anyways, this is where I met the star of this show—James E. Pepper and his 100 proof and thoroughly patriotic 1776 Rye Whiskey.  I may not like baseball much but damn do I love rye.  I’ll admit this bottle reached out to the historian in me with its “aged” label and an evocation of the American Revolution I was only too willing to buy into in a town that once served as a camp for the Clinton-Sullivan Campaign during the war.  So I dropped the hammer at around $27 bucks, and now I imagine you’re wondering—do I regret it?

No, of course not, because money may not always buy happiness but it can always buy tastiness, and friends, James E. Pepper is that.  Apparently the Pepper family started making rye in 1776 and continued doing so until around prohibition, and supposedly this whiskey is the result of the extensive study of studies of the original Pepper Rye.  The odds of me getting my hands on pre-prohibition Pepper are pretty low, so I can only tell you what I taste here.  First off this whiskey is pretty hot, which is no surprise at 100 proof, and fortunately I find it’s that sweet spot of bold heat that doesn’t over-power the underlying flavors.  This is particularly good because there are some great flavors in here.  Of course there’s the obligatory rye spice and, dare I say, pepper—but there’s also some sweet honey that plays in both taste and consistency on my palate.  There’s something else here, something I find a bit unusual…is that peppermint?  Damn, another pepper pun: but there really is some soft and almost refreshing peppermint that lingers oh so sweetly near the end of a good quaff.  This is quite pleasant, easy sippin’ rye, perfect for a crisp autumn day on Lake Otsego reading with a lovely lady at your side.  So, while the history nerd in me may have bought this because of a likely exaggerated history based marketing scheme, the drinker in me has quite enjoyed this reigniting of the Pepper family brand and wishes them many more years of history making hooch.

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Also note: I am drinking this out of an unusual choice of glassware—perhaps that portends a coming article on a visit to Ommegang brewery?