For those who have never been, Ommegang’s annual “Festival about Nothing,” Belgium Comes to Cooperstown, is one of those key beer events that you really must undertake at least once in a lifetime. It’s not about the beer, which was excellent, or the Brewery, which is happily situated in the bucolic Catskill Mountains, or even the cool beer peeps you’ll meet while there, of which there were plenty.
No, going to this “Woodstock of Beer” festival is so much greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, it is the camping out under the stars in the middle of nowhere with beer and barbecue that really makes this outing a must for any beer lover. While I don’t know if BCTC is one of a kind, it certainly is unique.
As it was my first time there—not to mention my first time camping—my perspective is one of a newly deflowered virgin… and perhaps I’m basking in the glow, but here are my main takeaways from the three-day festival, which ran August 3-5.
Pick the right campmate or go it alone, and pack appropriately.
Your tent is probably the only privacy you’ll get all weekend, and while you may spend almost no time in it, you’ll be in close quarters with someone who is drinking. A lot.
And when it comes to packing, there are people who bring in couches and entire campsites, complete with cookstoves. However, you have to haul it in and out. The experienced peeps have dollies and wagons. Also, the weather is variable; last year temperatures were nearing 100 and this year it was low-50s at night. That’s really hot and really cold if you aren’t prepared. Preparation should include bug spray, sunscreen, and plenty of water (Ommegang had some, but finding it wasn’t easy and plumbing was nonexistent).
The real beer scene is not in the brewery or at the revered tasting. The real beer scene is at the individual brew tents. Many breweries are in attendance, and they all have beer (I visited Empire, Sixpoint, Brooklyn Brewery, and Slyfox, among others). You can (and probably will) start drinking Saturday morning at dawn and could still be drinking until early morning on Sunday. That’s when the festival is at its best.
You also want to time your shower (everyone said to get in line early, which wasn’t bad, but I had my best shower around 3 p.m. on Saturday when no one was in line and water pressure was consistent). And speaking of water… for some reason this year (as opposed to 2012, apparently), there were almost no sink stations. The portapotty situation by 1 AM Sunday made me think the R-train is one of the cleanest places on Earth. I could have bartered my hand sanitizer for Westvleteren 12 at that point. You can save yourself scary dreams and God knows what else by bringing baby wipes and cleanser.
Your flashlight is your friend.
Someone gave me the head’s up to bring a flashlight. My lovely campmate brought an extra for me, as well. However, I took a nasty spill when I cut between tents (they’re everywhere, so it’s almost impossible not to cut between them). I hadn’t even been drinking (much) at that point, but it never occurred to me to monitor my path to the john. I tripped over a tent rope and down I went. In other words, it gets really really dark.
The entertainment is a mixed bag.
The VIP dinner was probably better than I will assess here, but considering it was an upsell, I won’t do it again if I return to BCTC. The food was meh and the beer was readily available throughout the festival (i.e. nothing rare or exceptional – a line up of Ommegang standards and La Chouffe). But the band? The band was so loud I thought my eardrums would start bleeding! I don’t know who thought it was a good idea to play at that decibel, but the worst part was it precluded any table conversation. I met some nice people at the dinner—at least I think so—but we were literally screaming in each other’s ears to be understood.
Weirdly, the mainstage bands were way quieter. Perhaps it was the same sound system that was dispersed over an open space (the VIP dinner was under a tent). I could hear the music at the venue, but it really didn’t reach the campsite. More fun was the late-night bonfire and midnight fireworks. My campmate took to the Ferris Wheel, which had a really long wait but entitled her to bragging rights over all of us who didn’t make it on. And I don’t know if there was a movie Saturday night (per the program). After the Friday night “movie” turned out to be old Seinfeld episodes, I lost all interest in media.
And speaking of Seinfeld, the festival is apparently directly tied to the show. I never watched it (although I got some of the references because anyone of drinking age would have been aware of the culture zeitgeist the show held in the mid-90s), so I missed the “inside jokes” and thought the “Festivus” angle was lame (even I know that Festivus is a Christmas-type alternative holiday).
If you don’t have Verizon, you might as well leave your cell at home.
Verizon was king at the festival. The AT&T peeps were a mixed group of mopiness, with a bit of sour grapes thrown in to the mix (my favorite quote was “I guess that’s what you get for an extra $20/month!” I didn’t have the heart to tell the guy that I pay $40 for my smart phone as part of a family plan). However, I could get up to 4G at certain places on the grounds. That said, even my service was sketchy. The charging tent was a cool addition, and the guys working the tent probably didn’t get enough tips to justify all they did to keep us charged up.
Making new friends was the best part of BCTC
I already mentioned that the best way to drink beer was wandering from tent to tent. Well, I found my new peeps at Olde Burnside Brewing Company from East Hartford, CT. Not only did they share their beer… they shared their coffee! Coffee was one of the more difficult items to find (next year, I’ll use my super growler to bring coffee). After I was generously presented with a cup of coffee, I was offered a Saison Dupont for my second hand. Then I was offered breakfast (I passed), lunch (I missed the Jambalaya so they whipped me up a lobster roll instead) and dinner (slow-roasted pork shoulder… AMAZING!). It was meeting people like Jason, Jaime, Tim, Jack and the rest of the Olde Burnside posse that really makes me want to go to BCTC for years to come.
The beer was pretty good, too.
I’m not going to break down the beers I drank. I haven’t even completely updated my Untapp’d check-ins. That’s how much great beer there was. However, I did find a couple beers that were worth the effort of getting to Ommegang (more on that below). My major score of the day was Lava. I didn’t even know it was going to be there, and I’ve been wanting to try this beer since Draft Magazine awarded it with the Best Beer of 2012. However, My absolute favorite was the Stone Reason Be Damned, an 8% ABV Belgian-style abbey ale, aged in red wine barrels. I really hope I can track some down in bottles to enjoy again soon.
Trust your GPS.
Cooperstown is in the middle of nowhere. As in “nowhere near a major highway.” One of the car mates said this was his fourth year and every year he had arrived via a different route. We went two different ways per the GPS, and on the return trip we ended up smack dab in the middle of the Catskill Park. It was gloriously beautiful, and probably didn’t add any time to the trip home. Other than being unable to find coffee en route, it was well worth the detour. Especially for folks who generally have concrete and skyscrapers as part of our daily view.
You can see the photo album (and “like” The Bitch’s Facebook page) here.