COOPERSTOWN, NY, August 8, 2012 — Each year near the midpoint of summer, one of the country’s most anticipated and best organized beer festivals is held in the beautiful setting of Cooperstown, NY, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. It is called Belgium Comes To Cooperstown (BCTC).
What began as a relatively simple affair in 2004 with several hundred like-minded Belgian beer enthusiasts camping on the brewery property and drinking great beer around campfires has grown into a multi-faceted weekend affair with activities to keep more than 2,000 attendees entertained throughout.
Brewery Ommegangsits approximately eight miles south of the bucolic lakefront village of Cooperstown on a property that by coincidence was previously a hop farm. Perhaps that is where the good beer karma begins in setting the stage for this superb festival.
As Ommegang has continued its phenomenal growth through the years — evident in the brewery’s building growth on the property — so too has the popularity of the festival. The festival continues to sell out each year at increasingly faster paces. This year when tickets were made available on April 2, Ommegang tweeted that the VIP tickets had all been purchased within 46 seconds. The remaining non-VIP tickets were sold out later that day.
For the uninitiated, the weekend looks much like this thumbnail sketch: set up camp; drink beer (perhaps while setting up camp); lounging; fun ‘n’ games (some involving beer); socializing amongst campsites (definitely beer involved); brewery tours; live music; decadent dinner (plenty more beer); fireworks; more fun ‘n’ games; and breaking down camp.
If it all sounds like a lot of beer drinking, that would be correct to a certain degree. What matters, though, is not so much the quantity as the quality. Quality beers direct from Belgium and quality beers brewed in the States in the Belgian style, not to mention the quality homebrewed beer that abounds, can be found throughout the weekend from the individual campsites of attendees to the official tasting session tent on Saturday.
The weekend began with a VIP dinner on Friday evening that was once again executed to near perfection and shone as an example of what happens when an event has plenty of motivated volunteers. As in past years, the six-course dinner overflowed with beers from the Duvel-Moortgat family and foods to satisfy both red meat-lovers and otherwise alike. The Horseshoe Lounge Playboys rocked the dinner tent with the sounds of their hillbilly dance music. To call the dinner anything short of a decadent Belgian beer dinner would not be doing it justice.
The “dinner party”, at roughly four hours in length, quickly segued into a roving campsite party that lasted into the wee hours of the night and the following morning. Scheduled group meetups, homebrew tastings, rare beer sharing, and a variety of fun ‘n’ games and other related debauchery ensued as the brewery did its part as well to contribute with live music, a raging bonfire, and movies/videos played on the side of a brewery building.
How the following morning proceeded for any individual depended mostly upon how late their respective prior evening went into those wee hours. Slumbering around the campsite and brewery property was perhaps the simplest and least taxing option. Swimming at Otsego Lake, which extends north from the heart of Cooperstown, was the more refreshing option on the quite hot and humid weekend. Checking out the village of Cooperstown, replete with its farmers market, charming shops and residential neighborhood, and the Baseball Hall of Fame always holds as a fun diversion. Going for a bike ride or a run shows the most fortitude from the person with their personal Friday night most under control.
Having a few more beers was not out of the question either and became the most obvious way for most to prepare for the mid-Saturday afternoon kickoff of the weekend’s official tasting session. VIPs gained early access to the tasting tent and first tasted some of the event’s most eagerly anticipated beers – ones coming from domestic craft breweries with names like Allagash, Captain Lawrence, Lawson’s, Peekskill, Stillwater, and White Birch and nearly a dozen Belgian importers.
While the four-hour tasting session was underway, numerous vendors were plying their own products from Belgian waffles to burgers to tie-dyed tshirts to homebrewing equipment. Off to the side of the tasting tent was a cigar lounge and even a massage tent for free five-to-ten minute massages.
There was likely no greater anticipation, though, than for the conclusion of the multi-city build-up to the Hop Chef competition. After similar competitions were held in Albany, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., the final four contestants were brought to Cooperstown.
Jeff Eng represented Washington, Jaime Ortiz represented Albany, and George Sabatino represented Philadelphia after each winning their respective competitions. Tommy Harder was invited back as a result of winning last year’s competition at BCTC. Harder heads up the kitchen at Manhattan’s well-regarded Blind Tiger Ale House.
Sabatino from Stateside in Philadelphia took home the title of Hop Chef 2012. He won with his plate of smoked capon sausage, mustard, white beans, and tempanade. The dish incorporated Ommegang’s Rare Vos.
After the four-hour tasting session flew by in what felt like the blink of an eye, it was back once again to campsites for continued tastings and partying late into the evening.
BCTC is truly an event that should be experienced by lovers of great beer. For those with a strict aversion to camping, attendees can instead take advantage of local bed and breakfasts and other lodging in nearby Cooperstown and the surrounding area. Taxi service to the brewery is available until 4 a.m. so staying off property is certainly an option.
Taking in the full weekend of festivities is the recommended way to best experience this top ten festival. BCTC has developed into a festival with so many options for attendees that staying for any less takes away from the full experience.
For a full picture gallery and more detailed event and tasting notes, please visit The Brew Lounge via this link.
–Read more of Bryan’s work at After Hours in the Communities at the Washington Times.
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