Belgium Came To Cooperstown
Since 1999, Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, New York, has been hosting an annual event called Belgium Comes To Cooperstown. I was finally able to go this year (2017) and it did not disappoint. I dragged my sort-of-willing girlfriend along for the journey. Below, I'll tell you about the festival, what we experienced, and why camping isn't so terrible.
Belgium Comes To Cooperstown
Ommegang has been producing award-winning Belgian-style beers since 1997 and has not stopped growing. They are owned by Duvel Moortgat out of Belgium, who obviously takes beer quality very seriously. (They also own Boulevard in St. Louis and Firestone Walker in California.) If you're curious, Ommegang was named for an annual festival in Belgium which has nothing to do with beer but everything Belgian has at least a little to do with beer so it might have something to do with beer. Maybe.
Like many events of its caliber, Belgium Comes To Cooperstown started out small and has only gotten larger due to the popularity of its quality. It is often regarded as a "must-attend" event in the craft beer world. The powers that be select many breweries to attend BCTC, including many local/New England breweries, a few national ones, and a solid-if-sparse representation of ones from Belgium. The event is held in August and tickets typically go on-sale in April. They tend to sell fast so it's definitely better to buy sooner than later.
My girlfriend and I opted for the Saturday-only ticket, which allowed us access to the grounds at noon and everything that ensued. A VIP ticket is available for almost double the regular admission cost and includes a special dinner on Friday night, camping after, and a 2:30 entry to the tasting on Saturday. It didn't seem worth the extra cost to me but people said the dinner was excellent so maybe there's something to it. If you're really on a budget, you can wait until a day or two before the event and search Ommegang's Facebook page for people selling tickets last-minute for discounted prices. This is not guaranteed but it's worth a shot if you've got no other option. There is a Saturday ticket which does not include camping but I feel like that's not worth it unless you live in the area. More on that later.
My Experience At BCTC
The event has a different theme every year. 2017's was Big Top, which basically converted the grounds into a huge circus. But instead of exotic animals, there was a TON of beer. (Maybe more than a ton; I haven't done the calculations. Perhaps a fuckton. I don't know how these things work.) Ommegang's brewery building is large and complete with a cow-colored silo. The rest of the property, with giant tents, a Ferris wheel, and fire-dancers, definitely added to the circus theme. Their hop-growing area was also in full view. You can even camp near it!
After setting up our tent and celebrating with a beer, we walked around to size-up the place and find out where the good things were. Ommegang's website provides a map of the venue but we chose visual familiarization. (Wow! That's really a word!?) Aside from the two massive beer tents, there's an area for food trucks, water stations (with their own H2Ommegang bottles), and many porta-potties. Close to the main building's archway (you'll see) was an outdoor Ommegang shop, selling merchandise and pouring some of their harder-to-find beers. For even rarer beers, visit Ommegang's experimental beer tent during the tasting hours. You can give input on brews that aren't quite good enough yet.
And speaking of beer, the official tasting was 3-7 in the afternoon. I thought this was going to be an unfair amount of time but it actually worked out very well. You can also print out a list of breweries with their beers and locations in case you want to plan the day away. The tasting was actually the low-point of the day for me, because it was like most other brewfests. But there were live music and plenty of space to wander and sober-up for two minutes when we needed a break from the insane amount of beers available to try. This Big Top event featured nearly 400 beers from 100+ breweries so there was definitely something for everyone. My only gripe was that BCTC's website promised 'hard-to-find Belgian import brews' but most of the ones advertised could be readily seen at beer stores all over the U.S. It really didn't matter though, because there was so much good stuff happening. If you're lucky, Puddles Pity Party will play after the tasting to let your body recover in a very fun way. If you didn't click that link, Puddles is a guy dressed as a clown who doesn't speak but wonderfully sings versions of popular songs from all over the past 30 years. He was on one of these American singing shows so you may have seen him. If not, now's a good time to go back and check out that link.
For anyone still conscious and willing, they showed a movie on a big outdoor screen at midnight. This year's feature was Big Top Pee-wee, which told me that not only was their taste good but even the late-night film goes along with the event's theme. Kudos!
Camping is definitely your best option at BCTC. The Cooperstown area doesn't have a lot of hotels and the ones present fill up quickly even though the places jack-up their rates for this weekend because hotel people are jerks. You might find a Bed & Breakfast but if nothing comes up after a quick search, go with camping.
My girlfriend and I are definitely camping novices but we had no problems. The many camping areas were clearly marked and nearby people were very willing to help out. We found a spot (guided by a BCTC veteran who didn't like his other neighbor) and set up shop. The vibe was very cool so I never worried about people stealing our stuff or anything like that. Everyone was there to have fun.
My top BCTC camping tips would be to bring good earplugs and have some kind of cart for your stuff because it's a long walk back to the parking lot. I brought beers to share but there was also a lot of trading happening. If either is your scene, bring along some bottles of good stuff and strike up a few conversations.
The weekend is over and I'm very happy with how it went. I can check BCTC off my list, though I may have added it for several years to come. It was a great experience which I would encourage anyone interested in any of its aspects to attend. Just make sure to save a ticket for me.