"For people who know beer, America is probably the best beer country in the world right now because of the variety of people brewing and the amount of styles being brewed well," says Mike Saxton, founder and president of beertrips.com, a travel company that organizes outings for small groups. "We're not the big, yellow brewers we've always been." Saxton cites New York's breweries in particular as stereotype busters and predicts the day will come when his beer travels will include many of them on the itinerary. "Someday there will be a New York State beer bus, or something like that, and we'll follow the tourist route and stay in cool little towns," he says.
Saxton says he sees more women on his tours than in the past and that his clients range from a 23-year-old software designer to a 77-year-old retiree, a church organist, and a space shuttle engineer - exactly the kind of people we saw at Ommegang. Not a lot of college kids and no "pounders." Many bring lists of beers they want to taste, many brew at home, and all approach beer like a connoisseur approaches wine. He even gets a few beer snobs - "the people who have three minutes of dialogue before the first sip and enjoy asking brewmasters questions that they know the answers to."
Beer snobs sound a lot like wine snobs - grasping for the perfect adjective to describe the flavor, seeking to find the right meal for the right brew, making a quest out of finding new and interesting varietals that reflect the season and a person's mood. Many of them were flocking to the area even before legislation passed in the New York State Assembly to officially create the Empire State Beer Trail. "We've got our own little Napa Valley here," Angelica Kofin told the New York Times in July. Kofin was a spokeswoman for Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol, who sponsored the bill. (Lentol, as it happens, drinks very rarely.)
In addition to the legislation, there has been other help for places like Ommegang along the way, sea changes in the culture. The artisanal food movement is the biggest supporter; it has bolstered craft brews by making people aware of how homogenized the offerings were at the local supermarket and inspiring a little experimentation. "It's a question of identity," says Ken Turow, a dean at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and cocreator of the Ale & Lager Educational Society, a student society at the school that invites craft brewers, beer writers, importers, and beer experts to the school. "You want to be seen sporting a ball cap that says 'Woodstock Brewing' because you're identifying with your region."
Which may explain why I left with several four-packs of Ommegang’s Three Philosophers (a strong dark ale and my favorite of those we sampled), a bar of intense dark chocolate, and one Ommegang hoodie sweatshirt.