In previous columns, I’ve talked a bit about the history of beer. Truly, it traces back millennia, to the Egyptians and the Chinese, but a more “modern” view of beer goes to the Middle Ages. When most Westerners think of the grandfathers of suds they think of the Germans, the English, and maybe, if you scratch your head long enough, the Belgians. It is to these forefathers that most of the beer styles of modern American harken back to. What is increasingly becoming the case is that the American followers have taken up the lead in innovation and creativity. Many German brewers still stick to the Reinheitsgebot, the law of beer purity dating to 1516 that said beer could only be made of barley, hops, and water (they hadn’t yet figured out that the yeast from the air made the beer alcoholic), even though it’s no longer officially on the books.
While American brewers add crazy spices and other ingredients to these classic styles, some of Europe’s most traditional breweries have maintained recipes from the 1500s. This doesn’t mean they’re not quality beers; just the opposite. I have given a stellar review here to a delicious German recipe unchanged for 500 years. What it does mean is that in the pursuit of something new, with inspiration from their predecessors, American brewers are consistently expanding the definition of beer. In some instances, American brews surpass their European cousins. One brewery comes very close to this title: Brewery Ommegang of Cooperstown, NY.
Since 1997, Ommegang’s mission is the production of excellent beers in a Belgian style. Founder Don Feinberg even built the brewery building to resemble a Belgian farmhouse. The chosen location has some historical significance as well. Cooperstown is smack dab in what used to be American hop country. With the changing agrarian economy, the farms moved inland to the Midwest, but in the 1700s the grounds of Ommegang grew hops for use by the small brewers of colonial America.
Today, in a town known more for the Baseball Hall of Fame, Ommegang brews up excellent beers in the Belgium style: pale ales, saisons, abbey ales, quadruple trappist ales, and today’s beer, an amber ale named Rare Vos. Ommegang got so good at what they do that in 2003, a mere six years after opening, they were acquired by Belgian giant Duvel. The beers are still made today in New York, except for rare occasions when demand outstrips supply and overflow brewing takes place in Belgium. It can be seen as a mark of quality that a small start-up brewery in upstate New York was considered worthy enough to join the family of one of Belgium’s most known brands.
Besides Rare Vos, Ommegang puts out a tremendous lineup of beers. In fact, it’s a shame I haven’t gotten around to reviewing one of their beers sooner. Ommegang is currently in 43 states, so chances are it’s at a liquor store near you. I would recommend Hennepin, a saison style ale; the BPA, a pale ale; Three Philosophers, a quad style with a subtle cherry flavor; or Ommegang’s flagship Abbey Ale, similar to a Belgian dubbel. I’ve chosen the Rare Vos because it’s all around the most balanced beer they make, approachable by anyone. The name means “sly fox” and is named after a famous café just outside of Brussels (the capital of Belgium, and the EU, in case you slept through geography). It is clear there is a sly fox at work here, since a beer with nearly a 7% ABV is sneakily smooth and refreshing.
The pour is one of a thick head of fine bubbles. This large head fades to a bit of lacing and a more reasonable half-inch of head. The beer is a beautiful cloudy amber color. This is a really attractive looking brew. From the first whiff, you get an aroma true to a Belgian-inspired beer. This is common; most American brewers who model themselves after Belgian brewers will use the similar strains to ones used in Europe. I’d venture the yeast here is sourced from abroad. It gives the beer a dry, almost nutty, smell, indicative of a true Belgian beer. Next in the nose are some spices. This beer is brewed with orange peel and grains of paradise (a pepper) so it’s got a peppery citrus kick.
Upon first sip, the taste is dry, bubbly, and refreshing. It’s clear why Ommegang bills this as their most quaffable beer. To say it’s extremely balanced while also being a spiced ale at 6.5% ABV shows the craftsmanship the brewers at Ommegang possess. The finish is one of a slight hop and yeast bitterness with a creamy note to it. You definitely could have a few of these. Best part is they’re priced pretty well: a 4-pack costs about $8. Rare Vos is a great introduction to Belgian-style ale. The yeast is a defining characteristic and you’ll recognize it again and again as you try more beers in this style. Grade: A-
Brewery: Ommegang Rare Vos
Style: Belgian-style Amber Ale
Murphy’s Irish Stout, Murphy’s Brewery (Cork, Ireland). Along with O’Hara’s and Beamish, Murphy’s is the most common Guinness alternative. A similar dry Irish stout, but to be honest I find the Murphy’s a tad sub-par to Guinness. (I like O’Hara’s the best!) Grade: B+
Stella Artois, Stella Artois Brewery (Leuven, Belgium). In my quest to try more beer in cans, I picked up this Euro Pale Lager to see if it kept a bit better out of direct light. It’s not bad, a step above an American macro-lager and a bit better than Heineken, a common competitor. However, there are cheaper options out there in the lager market that are as good or better. Grade: B-
Image courtesy of the author