Thursday, August 9, 2012

Belgium Comes To Cooperstown

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend the annual "BCTC" festival, held in beautiful Cooperstown, NY. Arguably one of the biggest and best Belgian beer festivals in the country, the event is held at the Ommegang brewery and features nearly two hundred beers from ninety breweries. The tasting portion of the festival lasted 4 hours, with unlimited tastings. I did not plan on attending the event this year, as I wasn't able to buy a ticket, but as luck would have it, one of my friends called me up the night before and asked if I wanted to go with them on a free - $90.00 - ticket!

One of the things that makes BCTC unique, is that it combines the best qualities of a beer, music, and food festival. It has it all. Drink unlimited amounts of very tasty and often impossible to find commercial beer, eat quality food, listen to good music, and then camp out with with a few hundred other beer lovers until the next morning. What really makes the festival special though, is the large number of homebrewers in attendance and the huge amounts of beer they bring with them. Before and after the main tasting, it is nice to walk around the festival, meet other brewers and share some beer. A few homebrew clubs even set up 'camps,' complete with mini-kegs, casks, and more bottles of quality beer than you'll find at your local beer store. 

The weather for the day of the festival was mercilessly hot and it didn't take long to realize that the medical staff would have a busy day ahead of the them. Luckily, they had plenty of cold bottles of water available for free and a few places to sit down and relax. The beer tasting was held in two massive tents and even with the huge number of people, there was hardly any wait to get beer. Try one breweries offerings, then walk ten feet to the left and do it all over again. I had planned on only trying those beers I couldn't get in my area, but that wasn't going to happen. With the awful heat and the masses of sweaty people running about, finding a specific brewery amidst the chaos was nearly impossible.

The quality and selection of beer at the festival was very good. I was particularly impressed with the number of Belgian imports they had available, including some nice bottles of lambic, gueuze, oud bruin, and kriek. I had never had some of the Belgian beers before, while others I hadn't tried since I was last in Europe. The selection of American beers was also excellent, with lots of big name beers and breweries present. Virtually every beer at the festival was Belgian inspired, with masses of witbiers, saisons, quads, dubbels, and a whole mess of Belgian IPA's thrown into the mix. I was really surprised by the number of sour beers present from the domestic breweries, as it seemed like every other booth had a brett saison or a sour beer on tap. I would say most of the beers ranged from 5-7% abv, although you didn't have to look hard to find that 10% abv, barrel-aged behemoth.

During the main tasting, I tried to avoid drinking too many of the hugely alcoholic beers and generally stuck to sours, IPA's, and saisons. However, after four hours of drinking Belgian beer, I was pretty much sick of the stuff. Just the thought of taking another sip of a phenolic saison or a funky brett beer made my stomach turn. Amazingly, hidden among the many Belgian beers on tap, one brewery (Roc Brewing Co.) out of Rochester, had the balls to serve an English mild. It wasn't the best mild I've ever had, but it was nice to drink something dark and malty. There was also a Scottish themed brewery from Connecticut that had a few malty beers on tap, although it seemed like every one of their beers was hopped with "C" hops. Where's the EKG and Fuggles!?

A few standout beers include... N'ice Chouffe, Malheur 12, Dutchess de Bourgogne, Ommegang's 15th Anniversary, Heavy Seas Yule Tide (2010), Victory Helios, Lawson's Finest all-Brett IPA (on cask), Barrel aged Ovila, and a bunch of other beers I can't remember the names of. Along with the good beers, there were also a few dumpers; including a lambic and kombucha mix called "Lambrucha" that smelled and tasted like dill pickle juice. It was especially funny to watch people try this beer, as they'd taste it...nearly puke...then find someone else to try it. There was also a witbier that had a burnt electrical cord flavor and a few saisons that were well under-attenuated. In all honesty, there really wasn't a particular beer that absolutely amazed me, but the quality of the beer from the vendors was overall very good.

A few negatives of the festival include, the huge numbers of obnoxious hipsters and beer nerds and the multitudes of sweaty, half naked people that would try and squeeze by while you were standing in line. Another annoying thing was that some people, namely hipsters, seemingly felt obliged to tell you if the beer you were queuing for was worth drinking or not. Having to listen to, "uh, man, you don't want that beer... try this one instead," got really old. Of course any beer that isn't barrel aged, dry hopped 3x times, or includes IPA somewhere in the name, isn't worth drinking in their mind. There were also number of very nice sessiony beers, including a wonderful witbier, that apparently didn't measure up to these douches. They'd take a sip, tell everyone else standing in the line behind them that the beer "sucks," before dumping it out and moving on to hoppier pursuits. I felt sorry for the brewers that had to stand there and watch this happen all day long. It was also hard to talk to the brewers and staff about their products with all the people around.

After the main tasting had ended, my friends and I were in surprisingly good shape after four and half hours of drinking, so we decided to go back to camp and open a few bottles. However, on our way through the sea of tents, we came across a group of friendly beer enthusiasts from Philly who had set up a portable kegerator with eight taps, including an automatic glass washer. It turned out these guys were sitting on the best damn beer of the whole festival, a truly stunning lineup of beer, even for the best of beer bars. On tap was: Russian River Blind Pig, Ballast Point Sculpin IPA, Brooklyn Black Ops, Sly Fox Grisette, Jolly Pumpkin Luciernaga, and three excellent homebrews - a lavender and rose petal saison and a very nice dark sour. The two IPA's alone were superb, Blind Pig is possibly my favorite IPA out there, and I thought the Jolly Pumpkin was the best Belgian beer I had all day. Later that evening, one of the guys in the Philly group tapped his homebrewed cask of amarillo IPA, brewed with a tincture of wormwood. The beer was wonderful! Clean malt with a huge punch of fresh amarillo hops and firm bitterness from the wormwood. Again, the best cask beer I had all day.

Overall, BCTC was great experience. I got to drink a lot of good beer and meet some very friendly brewers and beer drinkers. Besides from the occasional hipster douche, I was really surprised how civil and well behaved people were - I didn't see one person puking or being obnoxiously drunk - and I would gladly pay money to go back next year. Or a free ticket would be cool too. If you are in Upstate New York around this time next year, I would highly recommend a trip to the festival. Just don't wait too long to get those tickets...!


  1. I believe 3 Heads, also out of Rochester, brought a black IPA last year. I needed something other than a Belgian after awhile AND it was a terrific beer.

    Maybe it's something in the water in Rochester but wanted to let you know that they apparently did it first.

  2. what is that black metal (?) design at the top of the tent?


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