The small town of Cooperstown, New York is home to the highly regarded Ommegang Brewery. When I told my friends of a weekend getaway to Cooperstown, the Baseball Hall of Fame is typically what they expected I was going for. But in a town historically known for baseball, it’s the beer that might be the area’s best-kept secret. Tucked away in the rolling green hills of Upstate New York, the Ommegang Brewery grounds are the site for the annual Belgium Comes to Cooperstown Beer Festival.
The immediate draw to BCTC (what the veterans call “Belgium Comes To Cooperstown“) is the showcase of the best Belgian style beers from all across the U.S. and around the world. Being the fan that I am of Belgian brews, and beer in general, I jumped on the opportunity to go when it was presented to me. This was to be my first BCTC and first true beer festival. My anticipation was high going into the weekend.
Turns out I was wrong! I eventually figured out that the highlight of the weekend wasn’t what I’d anticipated at all. I know this might seem shocking but it wasn’t the beer. I have to say that I’d consider the extremely high quality “beer culture” the thing that made my first experience with Belgium Comes to Cooperstown so memorable. From what I’ve gathered, there are a few components to “beer culture” and you can measure its quality at events like these by the beer, the people, and the atmosphere.
Who am I kidding? As much as I love the people and the place, the brew is king. Speaking of “kings,” feel free to leave your 30-pack of Bud Light at home (for your own safety.) With 39 breweries and distributors on site, I experienced some of the highest quality beers I’ve ever had on tap and there was plenty to choose from. Depending on the crew that you’re with, chances are there will be a healthy selection of beers to choose from before, during, and after the scheduled tastings, too. To be honest I think I drank more before the actual tasting began than I did while it was going on. Specialty homebrews litter the camping areas and most patrons aren’t shy about sharing.
That leads me into my next component. The fellow beer lovers that I had the pleasure of “tasting” with made my experience so much more than I’d expected. Our particular pack was a riot. All BCTC vets with an extreme passion for beer, copious amounts of water for rinsing glasses (not consumption), BBQ grills, and arguably the best camping area at the festival. Even though I was a rookie, after a few minutes of my groveling they welcomed me to the fold and sincerely spoiled me rotten.
The crowd in general ties into this particular component as well. It was a more unique crowd than I really expected. Men AND women (see visual evidence below), old and young, home brewers and brew masters, beer reps and bar regulars, all sharing a passion for true craft brew. I encountered plenty of characters along the way. Clad with orange oversized cowboy hats, fitted beer goggles, and even a draft beer dispensing pick-up truck. That last one was pure genius.
That brings me to final, but possibly the most important, beer culture component. Atmosphere. I can’t say enough about what a bang up job Ommegang does with this festival. First of all, the brewery has a fairy tale like quality to it. It looks like a medieval farmhouse, set back in the forest, surrounded by open fields. If Mother Goose were a beer geek, she’d be at Ommegang. The environment was perfect. Because of the location and limited number of tickets available, BCTC really has an exclusive feel to it. I honestly felt privileged to be there.
The entire weekend begins Friday night with a VIP dinner. Dinner includes a delicious 5-course meal complete with the best brews from Ommegang, Duvel, A’Chouffe, and Maredsous.
The next morning patrons start buzzing early and the unofficial tasting begins. One by one everyone takes turns unleashing their latest home brew creation or rare craft brew from their coolers. Each contributor seems to try to one up the beer before with something even better. As an innocent bystander, I quickly realized the beauty of such a system. While I don’t remember everything I tasted, there was a homebrewed Saison brewed with 7 pounds of honey and a bottle of New Glarus Red Cherry Ale that blew me away. Kudos to those who brought them.
The official tasting began at 3 and ran until 7. The schedule gave me more than enough time to enjoy a plethora of Dubbels, Tripels, Quadrupels, Sours, and Saisons and also indulge in the fruits of the Belgian waffle stand. The operation is so well run that the crowd was never an issue. People are there to enjoy great beer, not fight over girls. As a recent college grad, this amazed me. The lack of congestion made walking around a breeze and allowed for maximum tasting. The most difficult part of my day was deciding what to try next, and with certain brewers pouring beers made especially for BCTC it was hard to choose.
Perhaps the most interesting table was the vertical tasting of Ommegang Three Philosophers. This included samples of the famous Three Philosophers Quadrupel aged from the years 2004-2009. They were all delicious, but I had a soft spot for 2005. After the tasting concluded, patrons returned to their campsites and let the corks and bottle tops fly. We just picked up where we’d left off that morning. The night concluded with a late night showing of Caddyshack and a bonfire to put an exclamation point on an exciting day. The fact that they let people camp out on the grounds makes the event that much more unique.
Tips for Next Year
I couldn’t have asked for more. I hope you understand now what I mean by “beer culture” because this event truly showcases it the best. Before I conclude I not only encourage you to experience Belgium Comes to Cooperstown yourself, but I’d like to offer a few tips for potential rookies.
1. Bring a growler.
2. Bring a dish to pass.
3. Get a VIP pass.
4. Don’t forget your business cards.
[techtags:BCTC, BELGIUM COMES TO COOPERSTOWN, BREWERY OMMEGANG, BEER FESTIVAL, BEER FESTS]