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A Taste of Belgium from Upstate NY

On Monday April 8th The Wine and Cuisine Society brought the Ommegang Brewery to the Williams Room in Spangler for a delicious taste of their award winning Belgian style beers. The owners and founders of the brewery, Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield, were on hand to give those in attendance an informative and personal taste of the workings of one of the most admired craft breweries in the US.

Founded just five year ago in Cooperstown, New York, the Ommegang Brewery has become an instant success. Having lived in Belgium for a number of years after college, the married couple became enamored with the culture and beers. When they moved back to the US they decided to start a small import company to keep in touch with the Belgium they left behind. Their main success in this business is Duvel, a strong golden ale that is one of the few Belgian brands to make a mark in the US market. Having found success in the import business, they decided to try their hand at brewing Belgian style beers themselves and the Ommegang brand was born.

They converted an old farm building to a brewery, hired brewers specially trained in the Belgian style, and began crafting a line of beers that has won three platinum medals at the World Beer Championship-a feat matched by no other brewery. Moreover, small batch sizes (55,000 cases per year) allow the staff to focus on quality over quantity.

As the first brewery to devote itself solely to Belgian style beers, Ommegang is a pioneer in the American brewing industry. In recognition of their dedication, it is the only American brewery that is a member of the Belgian Brewer’s Guild. It was also nominated for the Mercurious Award for the promotion of Belgian culture around the world. The word Ommegang is Flemish for “to walk about” and is the name of an annual festival in Brussels that dates back to the 16th century when Belgium was part of the Holy Roman Empire. As Feinberg explained, they chose the name because it not only represents a joyous event in Belgian culture but also because it is one of the few Flemish phrases that Americans would be able to pronounce and spell correctly.

Littlefield began the night with a short introduction to the company and how the couple came to be involved in the beer business. She included a clip from the Martha Stewart show that featured Ommegang and showed the beautiful grounds where the brewery is located and some of the workings of the brewing process. She then handed things over to her husband for the tasting. Feinberg used his extensive experience as a brewer, importer and Belgio-phile to point out the nuances and subtleties of the beers. He enhanced the presentation with interesting facts about the brewing process and history of the Cooperstown region and the Belgian influences in the beer. In particular he pointed out the different attitude that Belgians have towards beer and its place at the table.

Unlike most beer drinking cultures, Belgian beer is treated as part of a meal, not just as an alcoholic beverage. With a climate unsuitable for vine cultivation, beer takes the esteemed place of wine at the table. The great variety of exceptional beers makes it possible to find a Belgian beer suitable to accompany any meal. Their dedication to flavor and complexity is an aspect of Belgian culture that Feinberg and Littlefield brought when they founded Ommegang. Their three main beers are brilliant examples of the art of Belgian brewing, and, as we tasted them, Feinberg recommended food pairings and menu ideas.

The event featured six beers, all either produced by Ommegang or imported by Vanberg & DeWulf, their import company. Each is described, in the order they were served:

Ommegang Hennepin-A farmhouse style ‘Saison’, this golden pale ale is named after a Belgian missionary who was the first European to write about Niagara Falls. It is delicately spiced with coriander, orange peel, and ginger for a bright, refreshing taste. The citrusy and spicy aroma accents the flavor nicely and contributes to the taste. Despite the 7.5% alcohol content, the Hennepin is light and easy to drink and would make a nice companion to a light meal.

Ommegang-An abbey-style ale made in the tradition of Belgian Trappist monasteries. This ‘Dubbel’ is typically dark brown with a rich tan head and a spicy malt aroma. Brewed with a generous amount of malt and a variety of spices including licorice and anise it is genuinely flavorful and enjoyable to drink. A strong tannic flavor with nutty overtones warms the mouth and finishes dry with a delicate spice aftertaste.

Ommegang Rare Vos-Touted as a common Belgian caf‚ ale, the Rare Vos is a very drinkable beer. The name translates to ‘sly fox’ and is taken from the name of one of Feinberg and Littlefield’s favorite bars from their time in Belgium. Of the three beers in the Ommegang line, this one is least spiced and most familiar tasting to American palates.
Boon Kriek-This lambic, imported from the Brussels region, is an example of one of the oldest styles of beer still in production. Lambics are fermented in open containers that allow the naturally occurring yeast in that part of Belgium to spontaneously enter the wort. The result is a sour tasting beer that is often tempered with the addition of fruit. This cherry flavored version is magenta colored with practically no head. It has an almost soda pop sweetness to it from the cherries that glosses over the sourness. It was the perfect accompaniment to the Ommegang brownies that were served for dessert.

Scaldis-Another of the imports, this heady ale weighs in at a whopping 12% alcohol. Despite the strength, this beer is relatively light in color and flavor. It provided a nice counterpoint to the lambic and reset our palates for the complexity of the final beer.

Three Philosophers-We were very fortunate to have had the opportunity to taste the last beer of the night. Though brewed by Ommegang, it is a one-time release that’s the result of a competition where contestants described their perfect beer. The winners had their visions interpreted by craft brewers. Ommegang made only a few hundred bottles of this strong “aged fruit” flavored beer that aren’t available for sale to the general public. The beer is an intriguing dark brown color with accents of dried fruits and banana esters. Like an after dinner brandy or cognac, its dark complexity was the perfect way to end the evening.

Overall, the night was a great success. The beer was excellent, and the presentation was well organized and highly entertaining. For beer connoisseurs, the night was a rare instance when beer is treated with reverence and respect in a forum normally reserved for wine. Feinberg and Littlefield showed how their “small winery that makes beer” is bringing the fine art of Belgian brewing to the US much as the California vineyards adopted the grapes and methods of French winemaking. While beer-drinking habits are not as sophisticated here as they are in Belgium, the efforts of breweries like Ommegang are opening doors and changing the way that Americans think about beer.

The Wine and Cuisine Society should be applauded for giving beer a chance. Overall, the event was very well organized and was a great time. Many thanks go to Meg Stern who organized the event. For more info on the society and their upcoming events, visit their web page at //sa.hbs.edu/wine/. They regularly host wine and food tastings around town. If you enjoy fine cuisine and good wine, the society is a great way to get the best that Boston has to offer.

April 16, 2002
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