Thanks to great homegrown brews coming out of places like Brewery Ommegang, the empire state may be the next hot spot for beer tourism. That's right - beer tourism.
After winding through curvy country roads and gawking at the splendid hills and lonely Victorian homes, we turn into a driveway and pass through the center arch of a long, white, European-looking farmhouse. It's late November, and the trees that scale the hill behind the parking lot still cling to a bit of autumnal color. The air is cool, crisp. The sun beams. It's a good day to drink beer.
We arrive with a mission: to taste Belgian-style ales at Brewery Ommegang, the first farmstead brewery built in America in over a century and a beer geek's mecca. Located on a 140-acre former hop farm just outside of Cooperstown, New York (home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and where a popular T-shirt reads "Cooperstown: a Drinking Town with a Baseball Problem"), Ommegang has earned critical success and a cult following. Here, they create award-winning, flavorful, effervescent beers that employ Belgian brewing techniques and rely on European ingredients such as Czech hops and Belgian specialty malts.
My friend and I wait behind a group of about 20 people (mostly men), and as we lean against a wall and breathe in the slightly sweet aroma, about eight more people join us. When our turn comes, a knowledgeable host walks us through the process, giving us a history of this hop-growing region, explaining the difference between lagers and ales, extolling the benefits of the two wells on the property that are fed by underwater springs, detailing the process of bottle conditioning (which is similar to that used for Champagne and which gives the beer its bubble), and sharing some of the spices used (following the Belgian brewing tradition of adding flavorings such as coriander, orange peel, ginger, and star anise). The tour ends at a tasting room with a toasty fireplace, a sampling of foods to pair with the samples of ales (chocolates and cheeses and dark mustards to sample with bread), and an educated barkeep who explains the different brews and logical food pairings.
Ommegang (named after a Belgian festival that commemorates a returning king; it went on and on for several dawns) distributes its ales to 34 states (for states with alcohol-content restrictions, the ales' 5.1 to 9.8 percent might take it out of contention). But it can't meet the demand for its product - Abbey Ale, Hennepin Saison Farmhouse Ale, Rare Vos Amber Ale, Ommegang White, and Three Philosophers Quadrupel Belgian Style Ale - necessitating a quadrupling of its facilities. When the brewery began production in 1997, they created about 2,800 barrels of ale. Last year, production stood at 6,500. In three years they hope to triple that figure to 20,000. "It's incredibly painful not to meet the demand that's out there," says Randy Thiel, Ommegang's brewmaster. "It kind of hurts the pride."
There is plenty to be proud of here. Ommegang represents the best of the craft-beer renaissance, a turn to handmade beers that benefited from the microbrewery explosion of the '90s, and a prime example of what's been dubbed "beer tourism," a growing segment of the traveling population that uses its mug as its travel planner.
That's why I'm here today. Beyond the diners sitting down to a nice meal in Manhattan and popping open a $16.50 bottle of Ommegang's Abbey Rare Vos, a light amber ale that uses a caramel malt and grains of paradise to achieve its flavor, there are people like me who want to come and see the place, taste the beers, and witness the production process. A beer tourist, if you will. Last year, Ommegang welcomed 15,000 such beer geeks.
Even by national standards, Ommegang is considered a sort of Holy Grail for beer pilgrims. Press clippings from newspapers all over the country and from magazines such as Gourmet, Bon Appétit, Wine Enthusiast, SmartMoney, Saveur, GQ, and the randy lad mag Stuff cover one of the entry walls. New York State likely will feature the brewery prominently in its recently passed legislation to create an Empire State Brewery Trail program, a tourism campaign that promotes the state's more than 60 breweries. With the New York winery trails as its model, the program will fund signs for brew spots on the trail, vacation itineraries, and a "brewery passport" booklet with discounts and information on attractions. And probably a few boxes of "I NY Beer" bumper stickers.