Deciding to create a Belgian-Style brewery in the US is like opening a classic French-Style restaurant. The degree of difficulty is greatly increased because you’re constantly being compared to the “real thing”.
In 1997, Don Feinberg opened the renowned Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, NY. Set on an old hops farm, the brewery is housed in a building that mimics a traditional Belgian farmhouse which adds to the verisimilitude when you visit. The brewery gives a lovely tour, complete with free samples of their five, year-round, award-winning brews: the classic Ommegang (a dubbel), Hennepin (a farmhouse Saison ale), Rare Vos (amber ale), the Witte (a light, wheat ale), and the Three Philosophers (a Quad). A couple seasonals, including the surprisingly good Chocolate Indulgence in the winter, round out their offerings.
Ommegang took some heat in the beer community in 2003 when the company was sold to Brouwerij Duvel Moortgat, a large, Belgian brewing outfit. However, as far as “selling out” goes, this was hardly the worst crime in the beer world. Unlike when Coors bought out Blue Moon, Ommegang was being purchased by a highly-respected brewer that makes a legendary Belgian, golden ale (Duvel). Furthermore, Duvel didn’t mess with Ommegang’s beers and everything is still brewed in Cooperstown (except for a brief period in 2006 when the Belgian parent company had to lend a hand to meet demand). If you’re going to sell out, you might as well sell out to a company that you at least respect.
Ommegang’s beers haven’t suffered since the buy-out. In fact, the bonus to the Duvel take-over is that with the parent company’s marketing and distibution clout, Ommegang’s beers are now readily available everywhere. On a quiet night at a local Italian restaurant, I was very surprised when the waiter listed the only two beers on tap: North Coast’s Old Rasputin, and Ommegang’s Hennepin. I’ve been entirely too consumed with dark beers of late, so I went with the Hennepin…
The Hennepin was served in a nonic pint glass. It pours the color of straw, with a hazy, golden sheen. A small, but long-lasting head leaves very strong lacing on the sides of the glass.
The nose is fruity, sharp, and sour. There’s a strong citrus odor and a very pervasive earthy, musty smell underneath. It’s a Farmhouse ale and it smells like it was brewed in a barn (I mean that in a good way). The yeast is present in the nose, but only in hints. The sharp, sour tang dominates until the beer warms.
The Hennepin’s taste is uniquely Belgian (you know…for an American beer). The citrus notes and fruit hit you first…it’s tart, but not as sour as you expect, and that initial flavor dissipates quickly. The pungent, sweet, earthy taste lingers and you get a much bigger yeast flavor than you would have thought from the nose. Not much of a hop profile, but there is a spicy bitterness throughout and you get a bit of an alcohol-burn at the end. It’s a medium-to-light bodied beer with a drying mouthfeel.
It’s a drinkable brew, no doubt. Equally at home as a refreshing summer quaff or a warming, spicy, winter ale, the Hennepin is versatile and interesting. The multi-layered flavor keeps you coming back for more and like many Belgians, it improves as it warms. This is a 3 Hop beer for me…I prefer some of the other Ommegang offerings more, but it’s still an excellent and highly enjoyable ale from one of the best Belgian-Style breweries in the US.