Last summer I visited Ommegang in Cooperstown for my brother-in-law’s bachelor party weekend. The beauty of their location is unforgettable, and I find myself referring to the photo I took above of their outdoor patio in moments when I need to go to a peaceful place in my mind.
Ommegang’s Brewmaster Phil Leinhart has been with the company since 2007. Prior to joining the organization, Phil had spent time at Siebels Institute of Technology in Munich, Germany, and had worked for Anheuser-Busch, Manhattan Brewing, Harpoon Brewery, and Paulaner Brauerij. I had the opportunity to speak with him earlier in the month when he was visiting NYC. We spoke about his history with the brewery, collaborations, the schedule of Game of Thrones beers, and more.
Robert Duffy: At this point, what’s your average day like? How much time do you get to spend brewing, versus doing beer, press, etc?
Phil Leinhart: I have a team and I am not on the floor brewing really. I have a team of great brewers that I direct. I’m more involved in larger projects right now, the bigger picture.
RD: How big is the brewing team?
PL: Right now we’ve got eight full time brewers.
RD: What were the first beers that you consider your beers at Ommegang?
PL: All the beers have to go through me. At Ommegang we have an innovation manager, Mike McManus, and he is responsible for formulating beers on the pilot system and brewing them, whether those recipes come from him or other brewers or from me and then we go through a process of tweaking recipes, test brewing, tasting, test brewing again, tasting …
Every beer doesn’t originate with me. We have several brewers who are good brewers. They have recipes from home brewing or whatever and it’s a way to let them spread their creative wings, so to speak, and because, like I say, I operate on many different levels.
Formulating a beer is a very small thing and that’s the way it works. In fact the Game of Thrones recipe came from one of our brewers, Justin Forsyth, and it’s a not a complex malt brew or anything, but he just did a nice job of balancing the different malts to get that color and that little bit of residual sweetness, with the honey malt.
It’s just a common question with people who aren’t in brewing think everything is about formulating the beer and it’s actually a very small part. I like to say it’s the tip of the iceberg. Definitely the recipe is important, but just as, if not more important, is how you process that recipe.
RD: How did the collaboration with Barrier Brewing for “Barrier Relief” come about?PL: When the hurricane came we were expecting to be hit harder than we were in Cooperstown, especially since it seems like we lose power in the area every time someone sneezes! The worst thing that could happen for us is you’re midstream brewing and then your power goes out. I just said, “We’re not going to stop brewing.” We got a generator and then that night the winds picked up but not nearly what they thought it was going to do.
The next day we just started brewing and then after seeing on the news all the destruction along the coast, Simon Thorpe, our CEO, said it would be a great opportunity to see if any breweries were hit bad and help out in any way we could: give them hops or malt or brew beer for them. After a few calls we found out about Barrier Brewing and how hard they were hit. They were pretty devastated.
Talking between Simon and those guys, we decided to brew a Belgian IPA. They sent me the formula and I just adapted it to our brew house.
RD: Do you try to do a lot of collaborations or do they randomly come about?
PL: We purposefully try to do a lot of collaborations, but it is something I would like to do more of. I have a lot of friends in the brewing industry. I have a drawer of breweries that we could do a collaboration with, but then it’s not just up to me.
RD: Speaking of collaborations, how did Iron Throne, the Game of Thrones beer come about?
PL: HBO approached us. As you may know, HBO’s offices are near Times Square and they often go to BXL, which we’re pretty well represented. They liked our beer and I guess when Game of Thrones came out they just saw our name, our whole history, the symbolism, the griffin on the label and all that, and they just thought “That’d be a really great partner there.”
They called us and it was probably a year and a half in the making with negotiations. At first, there were some misgivings. I had my own personal… I’m like, “Does this mean we’re getting too commercial?” I just had concerns that way, but I think the show is enough of a niche, kind of like us in a way. It’s not mainstream necessarily, although it seems to be getting that way, but it was a really good fit.
It just gives us more of an opportunity to create different beers. It’s not like we’re taking an old beer and re-purposing it and putting a different label on it. We’re actually putting it through the whole innovation process, coming up with a unique formula and test brewing, test brew again and test brew again, and so it just gives us more of a creative outlet.
We’re contracted to make three more, another one this year and then two more next year.
RD: How important is your location in Cooperstown to the vision of the brewery?
PL: A big part of our story is the location. A term used today a lot is “farmhouse brewery,” but we really are, in a literal way, a farmhouse brewery. You’ve been there so you’ve seen we’re in the middle of fields. They’re spreading manure right next door. Especially with the cafe now and the concerts that we are having, we like to talk about the whole Ommegang experience, not just the beer.
RD: Ommegang recently changed all of the packaging. Do you get involved in that?
PL: I weigh in on it, give my opinion of things, but I don’t get too involved. I didn’t drive that project but I definitely put my two cents in. It is interesting how the marketing firm did that whole job, that whole project. They came out and met all of us at the brewery just to get a feel of what we were about before they even started putting ideas together.
I think it’s nice and it gives us a much more cohesive look. It was the marketers talking like we need to have a common thread through all our labels, so somebody can look at our label and say “That’s Ommegang!” That makes a lot of sense to me and we’ve seen quite a large uptick in sales this year. I don’t know whether it’s our re-branding or the Game of Thrones, maybe a little bit of everything.