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Tale of two Ommegangs

Belgian brewery Duvel will once again briefly produce Brewery Ommegang beers at its Breendonk brewery, reports. In this case while Brewery Ommegang is closed for renovations. Duvel previously brewed Ommegang Abbey Ale and other Ommegang beers in 2005 and 2006, when demand outstripped capacity. Ommegang since expanded, and is expanding again. This is the story I wrote for Ale Street News at the end of 2005.

Does in really matter where a beer is brewed?

Anheuser-Busch produces Budweiser at 12 different sites around the country, but hardly anybody ever worries if St. Louis Bud tastes different than Newark Bud.

Some Pilsner Urquell comes from Poland, and Guinness is brewed in scores of countries beyond Ireland. Heck, when Tomme Arthur of Pizza Port Solana Beach near San Diego had to make a large batch of his Cuvee de Tomme for Michael Jackson’s Rare Beer Club he went north to Russian River Brewing Co. to brew.

So why does it seem like a bigger deal that Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, N.Y., contracted to have Ommegang Abbey Ale brewed elsewhere?

No. 1, because a few months ago Ommegang was matched against the venerable Chimay Grande Réserve during a tasting at the Great British Beer Festival. Participants preferred Ommegang by a 7-to-3 margin and 80 percent found Ommegang more “authentically Belgian.”

As one of seven Trappist breweries in the world, Chimay represents the importance of place (akin to what winemakers call terroir) in brewing. To be sold as “Authentic Trappist” a beer must be brewed inside monastery walls. Brewery Ommegang, built as a farmhouse brewery in a pastoral setting, certainly promotes the value of seeking out beer from a good home.

No. 2, when it became apparent that brewery couldn’t brew enough beer to meet demand, Ommegang ventured across the Atlantic to find a brewing partner. Perhaps “partner” isn’t quite the right term. Brouwerij Duvel Moortgat brewed the batches of Abbey Ale that arrived in the U.S. in October, and will continue to brew the beer until Brewery Ommegang adds sufficient capacity.

The Moortgats, best known for Duvel and the Maredsous abbey beers, were among the founding partners in Brewery Ommegang, and in 2003 bought total control of the brewery.

“It’s nice to be able to go to the mother brewery,” said Ommegang brewmaster Randy Thiel. “We wouldn’t do this if we thought the beer would be of lesser quality.

“This is definitely not a cost effective way to have your beer made,” he added. Despite additional shipping costs the brewery did not boost prices to distributors. Moortgat brews Abbey Ale sold in 750ml bottles, while Brewery Ommegang continues to produce Abbey Ale for 12-ounce bottles and draft, as well as all the other Ommegang products.

The logistics came easy. Thiel was already sending Ommegang beers to Duvel’s more advance laboratory for analysis, so brewery director Hedwig Neven and his staff knew the beers intimately. The two breweries have similar water profiles, employ almost the exact same step mashing schedule and conduct fermentation at the same – shocking to many U.S. brewers – high temperatures.

Most of Ommegang ingredients come from Belgium, so sourcing those was easy. Duvel used its own yeast, but in Abbey Ale it flashes the banana-fruity ester character typical of the Ommegang yeast (which originally came from Belgium).

The only advice the Belgians needed was how to use the five spices, including licorice root and anise, that give Abbey Ale its signature flavor. Duvel Moortgat had never brewed with spices before.

“Using spices is not very common in Belgium,” Neven explained. “Strangely enough, whenever you see Belgian style beers produced abroad, spices are used very often.”

The Belgian-brewed version is clearly labeled: “Brewed and bottle exceptionally in Belgium for Brewery Ommegang.” So how does what’s inside stack up?

Thiel began comparing the beers as soon as he could get samples from the lagering tanks in Belgium. He had 12 tasters take a “triangle test.” That’s where a drinker samples three unmarked glasses, two containing one beer and one the other. They must pick out which beer is different. Half successfully picked the odd beer, which is what you’d expect by chance.

“For the standpoint of a brewery that’s perfect,” Thiel said. “Hedonistically, when we asked them which they preferred then they also split 50-50.”

What happens when the beers travel 2,000 miles farther west, to New Mexico?

I conducted three sets of triangle tastings, with participants ranging from professional brewers to brewpub customers “off the street.” Just over half, again about chance, correctly picked out the odd beer, and 57 percent preferred the Cooperstown version (which had more time in the bottle and seemed to have been well handled along the way).

Curiously, some tasters describe the American version as fruitier and some the Belgian version as having more banana or fruit. Again, either of the beers was likely to be described by different participants as “spicier.”

The more experienced tasters noted more dark fruit character, particularly figs, in the Cooperstown beer, but a finer carbonation in the Belgian version.

At first participants focused on “getting it right” by picking out the odd beer, but then conversations quickly became about the subtle differences between the two beers – particularly when those seemed to change as glasses were refilled.

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