This content was originally published by The Hop Review, a digital magazine that joined the Hop Culture family in March 2020.
This piece was written by Jack Muldowney.
INTERVIEWED MARCH 7, 2019 AT BREWERY OMMEGANG
Cooperstown, New York is a town synonymous with baseball. While it’s long been legend that it’s the birthplace of our nation’s past time (a fact which has since been disproven, mostly), it’s also home to the Baseball Hall of Fame, where all the sport’s biggest names find a final home. And while it can be argued that a trip to Cooperstown is not complete without a visit to said HOF, we would argue that the trip would be left incomplete without a visit up the road, to one of the most well-rounded and respected breweries in the country: Ommegang.
A quick trip up the road from ‘downtown’ will land you at the grand gated entrance to Brewery Ommegang, where some of the country’s first Belgian-inspired beers were concocted. It’s a massive, yet efficient, facility with no detail left ignored. There’s a beautifully appointed taproom, bottle shop, and even a well manicured ice rink in the winter (and concert series among the hills out back in warmer months).
And whether you know the brewery for its musical lineup, its Game of Thrones series, or its award-winning saison, Hennepin–there’s a good chance you respect the brand. And that hasn’t been earned overnight, but rather from decades of quality, consistency, and ingenuity. And nobody knows those tenants better than Brewmaster, Phil Leinhart, who in 2020 will see his 13th year at the brewery. We recently caught up with Phil at the upstate New York brewery to discuss his journey through decades of the industry.
Phil, you joined Ommegang in 2007, but had been in the brewing industry long before. What was your path into working in beer?
Well, I grew up in northern New Jersey, and I was halfway through college studying to get a chemistry degree. And it was then that I decided brewing was what I wanted to do. I have an older brother who was in the industry, also, so he was an influence on me too. So I just finished my degree–chemistry is a good base discipline for brewing of course. So, after I just started working for Manhattan Brewing Company, which was down in Soho in New York City, 1986–it was one of the first brewpubs in the country. That was a really good experience for me–the Head Brewer was an English guy who’d worked at Samuel Smith’s–so we got a good introduction into English styles, and cask conditioning…
Did that lay the groundwork for the styles of beers you came to enjoy?
Ya know…I was more into top-fermenting styles of beer at the time. But, I took the job–man, because they’d just opened it was exciting. I didn’t want to go work for a large brewery at that point. My brother was working for a large brewery, and I was just I was more enthralled with the burgeoning microbrewery scene, and all the different styles of beer available.
Where did you end up after New York City?
Then I did a short apprenticeship over at Bass Brewery in England. And from there I went to Harpoon, in ‘87…’88–they had just opened up. Then I went over to work at Paulaner in Munich, and study brewing. And after that I came back to the States to The Lion Brewery in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
The Lion Brewery is a historic beer brand, correct?
Yea, it was an old brewery that started in the early 1900s. And their original brand was Gibbons Beer. There used to be several breweries in that area, but they’d all gone out of business, except for The Lion–so, we were making a lot of those former beers, too. When those breweries went out of business, The Lion Brewery just bought their labels. It was a historic brewery, but we actually stayed afloat by making other products. When I was there, beer was the minority of production. Mostly what we were making was Malta, for Goya Foods–it’s basically wort with high fructose corn syrup. It’s popular with the Hispanic populations in Jersey City and New York City… We also made soft drinks like Reed’s Ginger Beer. And then of course we made beer. That was also my introduction to union labor…which was an eye opener. After all that I went to work for A-B in Newark for 12 years.
That’s quite the beverage journey–you’ve seen it all, from tiny brewpub to big macro-brewer.
Yeah, I mean, I’ve seen all scales of it. And not a lot of people have the perspective I have, and I think that’s a benefit. I always wanted that, even when I first entered the industry. I had a window into the world of big beer and brewing through my brother. I saw what those brewers were doing–where a lot of people were sometimes disrespecting large brewers, I’m like, ‘You have no idea what those guys know–their know-how and expertise…” I feel fortunate to be able to have worked there and get that that level of training. But, my heart was still back in the small brewery world, and that’s why I’m here. I saw the opportunity here.
What did you have to adapt for, when you came to Ommegang?
Well, it’s just learning a little bit more about what makes Belgian beers unique. But no I mean, compared to where it was doing at A-B, though–this is ‘small’. In fact, a lot of what I learned at A-B I was able to bring back here, to do certain things to really make the quality more consistent.
A lot of young brewers might get caught up with the new hops for example, and you know, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s about how you execute with them, and the recipe. You’ve got to pay attention to the details. At the end of the day, you’ve gotta pay attention to what’s going on in the process to be able make consistently excellent beers.
Why did Ommegang’s founders [Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield] want to go with a Belgian-style brewery to begin with?
Well Don and Wendy were importing a lot of Belgian beer [through their import company Vanberg & DeWulf]. And they lived in Belgium for a year, and were importing Duvel–in fact it was all Belgian beer, that’s the only kind of beer they were importing. Outside of Allagash Brewing, perhaps, they were the ones who helped bring Belgian beer to the U.S.
They were raising their family here in the area, and the idea of starting a Belgian-style brewery here just stuck. Then, the import business and the brewery just got so big that they decided to sell. In fact, they ran the import business until just a few years ago, I believe. So yea, Duvel was really an original partner with Ommegang. A lot of people think we just sold to them recently, but they were a part since the beginning.
I remember a lot of Ommegang’s beers stood out to me early on because they were in cork & cage bottles. Was that format here since the beginning?
Yeah, that’s that was the only package format at the very beginning, for a long while. Then it was 12 ounce bottles or kegs as well. Sadly that that bottle size is just going downhill in this country. It’s moving to all cans. We still have pockets where we do well with the large format bottles–it’s still so elegant, I don’t think we’ll get totally out of it, but we’ve really seen the volume of those formats die off. But the thing about a can is you can’t re-ferment to as high of a carbonation as you can with a bottle–you’ll start getting leaks in the cans. So they have their limitations too, you know?
What’s something unique about the brewery here–that people might not realize.
We’re just a three-vessel brewhouse: a mash tun, lauter tun and combination brew kettle/whirlpool. Our core beers are all Belgian-style, and use dextrose, which is a long-standing practice in Belgium and helps create these higher alcohol beers like the Tripels and Dubbels. We also just recently installed a flash pasteurizer, because we’re getting beer from Liefmans Brewery in Belgium that we’re then kegging here. Liefmans is our sister brewery now, after they were purchased by Duvel about eight years ago.
So you do blends with their beer, too?
We can, we can. But what we get sent in here are beers like our sour kriek, Rosetta, which beers that are brewed over at Liefmans, but their Ommegang beers, made by the guys over in Belgium. Same with our Pale Sour. We bring that all over in bulk now. Originally it was all packaged there and shipped over, but now they just bring it all over in tankers.
How does this arrangement work exactly?
They’re a sister brewery to us, so it’s not as if I got on the phone with them and just said, ‘Hey, I need ya to make this…’ I went over there, and spent time with them to make sure we were making it the right way, together. That’s the thing–being part of a family of breweries through the Duvel Group…besides us in the U.S. there’s Boulevard and Firestone Walker, and in Belgium there’s Brasserie d’Achouffe, and De Koninck Brewery in Antwerp, and of course Liefmans… So if there’s capacity somewhere, we’ll cross brew–it just make sense for the group to do that. I mean, I wouldn’t be able to sour beer in this building, we’d have to build a totally separate building to do all that. Why go through that investment, you know? It just makes sense when you’re in the same family of brewers to utilize each other to do these things.
Is your customer different, would you say, than a lot of other craft breweries–being that you’re doing more traditional Old World Belgian styles?
I mean, it’s…we always strive for well-blended and well-balanced beers. We’re not super flashy. I like solid, well-balanced beers. Some brewers get that that concept; say you have sourness and dryness in your beer, then maybe you add a little bit of sweetness to balance that out, you know? And sometimes people just want whatever is ‘extreme.’ I don’t understand that–I want something that I can have another one of–something really drinkable.
There are plenty of ‘first wave’ breweries that are still around of course. And the market has started demanding they create some of these newer, trendier styles. How does Ommegang fit into that approach?
Well, our DNA and philosophy here will always be rooted in Belgian brewing, but at the same time, why do we just have to stick only to that? Justin Forsythe is our Innovation Brewer and he has been really crucial to pushing the boundaries here. We have an NEIPA called Neon Rainbows, for example–but he’s also doing things like re-fermenting with apple juice, and other fun stuff like that, too.
Justin, he’s a lot younger than me. I feel like I’m kind of going over the hill to these kids, hah! But it’s good that we have that here–that’s another type of balance. And it’s because that’s what a lot of consumers demand, too.
Do you think the idea of ‘intentional scarcity’ is an appropriate sales tactic for breweries?
You know, I’ve never been so exposed to the marketing and sales side of this stuff. I’ve spent my whole career deep in the bowels of the brewhouse. I’m thinking about production, and how to make the process tighter and tighter, in order to make the beer better and better.
I know how to make beer. And if I deviate from that, the beer is going to suffer. It’s the same reason I’m not helping design the menus in the taproom. I know how to make beer.
How about hype, and the role it has in how new drinkers approach beer?
I think sometimes hype can play a factor, of course. I hear about these beers sometimes, and then I have ‘em and I’m thinking, ‘It’s okay, ya know? It’s fine.’ But it’s not the fountain of youth, right? Hype can create a lot of buzz–and I think sometimes people’ll love it just because of the hype. And they’ll make themselves think they love it even if they might not actually.
Look, I play guitar. You can buy a 1956 Fender Stratocaster for $30,000. But, is it really worth that much money? I mean, you can get a brand new guitar that plays and sounds just as well for a fraction of that cost. So, a lot of it is the collectibility of it–and the hype around it.
The whole footprint at Ommegang is fairly large, but as you’ve mentioned, the brewing facility itself is somewhat small compared to other breweries. Have you felt the pinch of your growth at all?
For example, we have this little space that was part of the original warehouse that we’ve converted this to the temperature-controlled storage. So we keep that 55° and it’s become one of our barrel-aging facilities now. We have to expand. So we’re doing some work currently–converting some other warm storage into barrel-aging space. But as this has all grown, you know, we just need more space…
We do a new beer sometimes, and we have a budget volume for that beer. And sometimes the the actual pre-order volume comes in way over that original budget. That happened with one of our Game of Thrones beers–it was five times what the budget line was. So it’s like we’re scrambling for how we’re going to actually do all this, you know? That’s why it’s good to have sister breweries, where we can kind of help each other out.
What is that connection? How did the Game of Thrones beers get their start here?
In 2012, HBO’s licensing department wanted to do a craft beer marketing tie-in for the show. And so they had a shortlist of American craft breweries, and we were one of them. So our marketing director at the time went down for a meeting, and it was just like an instant connection in terms of the look and feel of the show, and the quality of the show–and what we feel is the quality of our beer. So, we announced the partnership at the end of 2012, and have done one to two new beers for it every year.
Did you notice that the series exposed Ommegang to a new type of customer?
It definitely did. Of course there were already fans who were followers of us and the show. But HBO’s megaphones reached their audience about the beers, too, and it has been incredibly helpful to us. The fan reaction to every beer is hugely positive, and people really get excited about each release.
And how does it work, coming up with the beers? Does HBO come to you with a theme that they would like you to craft a recipe towards, or does ideation kind of go both ways?
In the very beginning, they were very clear about what they wanted the beer to tie into–whether it was a character or a setting or place in the show. So yeah, the first were really very exact that way. And so it’s been a different way to think about formulating a beer, since you’re getting input that’s not just about the flavor or the style. You’re getting input from from someone outside of the brewery and then trying to incorporate that into the beer in some way.
Being in Cooperstown, baseball seems an obvious tie-in as well. Have you ever done any explicit baseball-inspired beers?
We did one, a Cooperstown Ale. And we may be doing another. But, you know, we’re not necessarily making the type of beers that are huge with baseball crowd. We of course get a lot of visitors here that come from the Hall of Fame, or come for the baseball tournament at Dreams Park and a lot of them might be used to Pale American Lagers and stuff like that. But yeah, there is certainly a tie-in to be had there. And we may be doing another beer for it.
We certainly support each other, but I don’t think Don and Wendy’s original decision to build their brewery here had anything to do with the HOF being here. I think it’s just this is where they were living, and heck it looks like the Ardennes Forest in Belgium…
When you’re not at the brewery, what are you drinking?
I try to try other breweries’ beers. Especially when I go out of town, I like to try the local beer. But I like other stuff too, like wine and whiskey…or Scotch–you know, various forms of alcohol beverages. But I can’t drink like I used to, I’m slowing down!
You know, it’s been a lot of fun to come here to Ommegang and to help the brewery grow–and see other brewers here grow. And even if they move on to other breweries. I understand that, I get that. I did that.
That’s how you learn and gain that new perspective.
Photographed by Nick Costa and authored by Jack Muldowney.
A huge thank you to Phil for showing us around the beautiful Ommegang campus and to the Brew Central NY for partnering on this trip to Upstate New York.