Ommegang the Unusual
When it was founded back in 1997, Ommegang was one of the most unusual breweries in America. In some ways, it is today even more unusual. Importers Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield founded the brewery with Duvel as a kind of love poem to Belgium. They located it in a remote stretch of rolling hills in central New York, placed it on an undulating patch of green, and constructed it to look like a building one might find along a patch of one-lane road outside Tournai or Namur. Inside this romantic structure they started brewing the obscure kinds of beers Flemish speakers would recognize—but with which few Americans were acquainted.
The cryptic beer styles weren't a liability in 1997, though, because Americans weren't really acquainted with any beer styles. Altbiers and mild ales were just as otherworldly to most Americans as witbier and Flanders red ales. In the decades that followed, Ommegang introduced many drinkers to saison, Belgian pale ale, and dubbel. Over time the brewery's reach grew and its production expanded, and ultimately it became a 50,000-barrel brewery.
But in that time, something else changed, too.
Belgian Beer in a Hoppy Land
Back in 1997, no one was certain if Americans would ever turn to craft beer in a substantial way or, if they did, what kind of beers they would like. (To illustrate this point, consider that the two best-selling American craft beers at the time were an amber lager and a brown ale.) That the style flowing from the taps of every pub and restaurant might be saison was at least as plausible as IPA. And to the extent that Belgian styles are now popular, much of the credit goes to Ommegang and Allagash, the two contemporaneous breweries that built up sizable followings for those beer styles.
The evolution of beer culture did not follow a Belgian path, of course. In fact, Belgian styles are now a more marginal presence than they were a decade ago because the culture that did emerge was so different. When I visited Cooperstown a couple weeks back, two things signaled the cultural transformation that has happened in the US over the past decade—and the strange place in which Ommegang finds itself in 2018, The first was Neon Rainbows, the brewery's recently-released hazy IPA, and the second was a new device brewer Phil Leinhart mentioned he'd installed—it allows him to dry hop beers. Something has changed. Hops play more than a marginal role at Ommegang now; the brewery has highlighted the ones growing in New York state, and more than a few have wriggled their way into newer recipes. In fact, the edge of the brewery grounds are planted with test hops Cornell is using to learn what will grow in the Empire State.
The brewery's bread and butter are still Belgian ales, though. Ommegang is in the unusual position of having no best-selling flagship; instead, a corps of four beers all sell similar amounts (constituting about half of production collectively) and serve as the brewery’s calling card. In their entire line, only a couple beers stray from the Belgian inspiration (though one, Nirvana IPA, is one of those four best-sellers).
While they are expanding to find an audience among IPA-lovers, Belgium remains their touchstone, and they do these beers so well. Indeed, I have been so impressed with Ommegang over the years that when I was looking for a brewer to work with on the witbier chapter in Secrets of Master Brewers (buy a copy today!), I turned to Leinhart. The original Belgian example is now owned by ABI and not traditionally made, and anyway, I like Ommegang's best.
Their sort-of flagship Abbey, the dubbel, is a continual revelation. Dubbels are one of those beer styles that are composed of subtle elements and are very often, even in the case of Belgian examples, insipid, overly sweet, or just boring. Ommegang's is a rich, layered experience. Hennepin is as close as the US ever got to having a national saison brand, and along with Allagash and Dupont defines the style for many people. Their more recent experiments like Saison Rosé, made with gobs of Chardonnay grapes, and Sour Pale are similarly revelatory. I am a skeptic of the rosé trend, but leave that aside—here the beer is vivid but subtle, featuring a creaminess I've almost never encountered. Pale Sour is only lightly soured (and therefore in my view regrettably named) and therefore extremely crisp and refreshing on a summer day—like the one on which I drank it. As far as beer goes, few breweries are doing it as well as Ommegang.
Running Toward, Not Away From, the Duvel Collective
One of the more interesting developments is the way in which Ommegang has embraced its sister breweries in the Duvel collective. This is the opposite approach ABI and MillerCoors are taking with their craft brands—those companies are doing everything they can to make their craft acquisitions appear like independent, standalone breweries. Ommegang isn’t, and has always been transparent about its associations—Three Philosophers has proudly used Liefmans Kriek since its inception. More recently, a beer called Rosetta, a blend of long-aged Liefmans and young brown ale, entered the portfolio. (It may have been the beer that most impressed me on my visit.)
Just after Labor Day, though, they're releasing the first two beers in a more overt partnership with the sister breweries—the Blenderie project. One of the more surprising facts about Ommegang is that it has no wild program. If there's anything from the Belgian legacy that has taken root in the US, it's the wild ales of Brussels and Flanders. But Leinhart doesn't want wild yeast and bacteria in the brewery, and he's refused to start a program. Instead, Ommegang has hit on the idea of borrowing wild stocks from Firestone Walker, Boulevard, and Liefmans, and blending them with beers brewed in Cooperstown for this project.
Ommegang is leaning into the relationship with the breweries rather than pretending they don't exist. Highlighting the relationships, which brings attention to their status as a subsidiary of Duvel (which isn't just a large brewery but a foreign one), is an interesting strategy. The brewery is betting that the collective is stronger than Ommegang is alone. During our tasting of the new beers, Leinhart also talked about how fun it is to collaborate with folks from the other breweries on these beers.
How to Be Belgian ... and Local?
The final quirk is another one the brewery couldn't have predicted in 1997, when breweries were scrambling as fast as they could to become national brands. Ommegang never sought be seen as a “local” brewery. Owing to its identity as a Belgian-style brewery (one often confused as a Belgian import by customers), as well as its location miles from any large population center, is not well-positioned to capitalize on the trend of hyper-local. And leaving aside ownership, one thing that is crucially important for American breweries in 2018 is to connect with local audiences. Ommegang is now thinking about how to bring a sense of place to what they do.
One way is tourism. Ommegang always tried to position itself as a destination brewery. Their remote location is mitigated by being in Cooperstown—where millions come each year to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame. Moving forward, they want to create even more reasons for people to stop into the brewery. The Blenderie project beers will only be sold on-site, and they offer tours and have a lovely, Belgian-esque cafe. They want people to look at the brewery as a place to visit for its beautiful architecture—and come back for the beer.
In a small irony, the brewery is one of the leading proponents of "local" in terms of malt and hop promotion—though this has gone mostly unnoticed outside the state. They introduced a beer called Hopstate NY, made from New York hops, back in 2015. This year the beer is made with locally-grown barley malted at a micromaltery near Syracuse called 1886. Their work with Cornell on hops is another element of this. These are all programs Leinhart would like to extend, though the local hop and malt supplies are not large enough for this to become a major part of Ommegang's production in the near future. The question—especially germane around the brewery—is how to broadcast a sense of localness when the brewery’s larger image is national and international.
Let’s return to the ways in which Ommegang is such an unusual brewery in 2018. The brewery makes yeast-forward Belgian-style beer in a country that loves hoppy ales. It makes Belgian-style beer but not wild ales. It is a national brand in a time when everyone prizes local. It is a rural brand when the excitement is happening in the cities. It is a 21-year-old brewery, but has not developed a single flagship brand. All of these things make it a brewery almost perfectly out of step with current trends in brewing.
I'm not entirely sure that's a bad thing, though. There's that old joke that the opposite of love isn't hate, it's indifference. In the US right now, the worst thing for a brewery to be is generic. Ommegang may have zagged when the buzz breweries zigged, but it remains indelibly distinctive. The beer continues to not just be made at a high level, but continues to evolve and improve. And all of those odd quirks also add up to a quality of timelessness, and this may be the brewery's secret weapon. In a world of strong and fast-moving trends, it's great to be the brewery associated with the newest/latest—while the trend is hot. But how well will those breweries age when the market shifts, as it inevitably will? Being the signature brand of leisure suit-makers looked incredibly smart in 1978, but not so much in 1988. When new styles and preferences emerge, as they inevitably will, Ommegang will still be Ommegang, perhaps not exactly on-trend, but never out of fashion, either.