Belgian-type beers from N.Y. brewery

Brews: Cooperstown's Brewery Ommegang produces a distinctive and flavorful beverage that challenges the American palate.

November 28, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - Belgium is to beer lovers what this town is to baseball fans: hallowed ground.

Few nations, if any, can rival the tiny western European nation in devotion to malted beverages or in the variety of beers and ales it produces. If there were a Beer Hall of Fame, dozens of its "members" would be Belgian - including toasty brown abbey ales that age like fine wine and pale farmhouse ales with the clout of a Barry Bonds home-run swing.

Now the site of the Baseball Hall of Fame is also home to a little bit of Belgium on American soil. In the hills above town, where the Chesapeake Bay watershed starts at Otsego Lake, Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield of Brewery Ommegang are producing authentic Belgian-style beverages that challenge the American palate and blur the line between beer and wine.

The award-winning brewery, which shipped its first beer in 1998, is on the cutting edge of the American microbrewery revolution that is transforming the nation's image as a beer backwater dominated by bland mega-brands.

Over the past two decades, the United States has experienced a proliferation of small specialty breweries dedicated to producing distinctive and flavorful beers. Of these, Ommegang is one of only a handful making beer in an uncompromised Belgian style, using a process of carbonation in the bottle similar to that employed in champagne. The result is about as far removed from Coors Light as Dom Perignon is from Cold Duck.

"We're a small winery that makes beer," says co-founder Feinberg, a former advertising executive who fell in love with Belgian-style brews during a stint in Brussels.

It's a joke and it isn't. Belgium, much like France, is a food-loving country where the interplay of fine cooking and a subtly nuanced beverage is highly appreciated. But unlike its neighbor, Belgium is too far north to grow respectable wine grapes.

The Belgian solution has been to make beers that take the place of wine - both reds and whites. The most prized styles are served just a little cooler than room temperature - far from the ice-cold style American beer drinkers are accustomed to.

Belgian beers also should be consumed with care because their alcoholic content can be twice that of a typical American beer.

Ommegang's flagship beer, a nut-brown abbey-style ale that carries the brewery's name, weighs in at 8.5 percent alcohol - comparable to a German wine and about 3 percentage points stronger than a typical American microbrew. Hennepin, its paler farmhouse-style cousin, comes in at 7.5 percent, while bistro-style Rare Vos is a milder 5.5 percent.

That isn't strong by the standards of Belgium, where some beers exceed 10 percent alcohol, but they take some getting used to for American consumers used to downing a few bottles at a time.

"You can't drink a lot of it," Feinberg says. "We can't be a popular beer because you can't drink it in quantity." Like most wines, Belgian beers and Ommegang's three brands are typically sold in 750-milliliter bottles - a suitable size to be shared over a meal.

Visitors to the winery, many of them drawn by Cooperstown's baseball-related attractions, receive a lesson in Belgian culture as well as a tour of the facility before they settle down to tasting the winery's three standard beers as well as occasional seasonal offerings. (State law says no tour, no tasting.)

The Belgian-style brewing process differs from typical beer-making in a few key aspects. For one, the Belgians are liberal users of spices in their beers, and visitors to Ommegang are shown and given the opportunity to smell such ingredients as star anise, coriander seed, orange peel, ginger, cumin and "Paradise grain" pepper.

Instead of the closed tanks used by most breweries, Ommegang uses an open fermentation vat that visitors can view through a window. The open process gives brew masters less control than a sealed container but imparts more flavor, Feinberg says. One advantage is that if the fermentation process is going badly, brewery workers can smell the results.

Most beers are quickly carbonated, bottled and shipped after fermentation, but Ommegang's are put in the bottle and allowed to carbonate naturally on their yeasts. Feinberg says the beer is then given two months of aging before its release.

"We make a joke that the beer is guaranteed not fresh," he says.

There's an element of whimsy to the place that would feel familiar to fans of Agatha Christie's fictional detective Hercule Poirot, a Belgian. Designed in the style of a Belgian farmhouse, the brewery bears the dates 1549, a seemingly preposterous claim of antiquity, and 1997, when the building opened. Feinberg says that the 1549 refers to the origin of the Ommegang, a traditional Belgian festival whose name is derived from the Dutch word for "walking around in a circle."

Feinberg, who is married to Littlefield, said he and his wife acquired a taste for Belgian beers while working in Brussels as young advertising executives.

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