I arrive at the Ommegang brewery and look over the sprawling city of tents. Two of them contain Rudy and Ethan, but of course I neglected to coordinate logistics beyond “I’ll show up in the morning,” so they could be in any of them.
No matter. It’s four hours before pouring starts. I have time for a walk.
Belgium Comes to Cooperstown is an annual festival, now in its 10th year. Ommegang, nestled in the rolling farmlands of Cooperstown, transforms itself from brewery to campground, playing host to 67 breweries and a large crowd of enthusiastic beer lovers. The festival itself is from 2:30-7 on Saturday but, Ethan had told me with a grin, the real festival happens at night.
Many, if not most, of the attendees had arrived the day before. The ad hoc town of beer lovers was already awake as I strolled through, looking for any sign of people I knew. Lawn chairs, pop up structures and ladder golf sets stood in front of tents. Music played from any number of speakers as grills were heated up. Sausages, eggs and hash browns were cooked and last night’s bottles were moved aside to make room. Last night’s bottles, of course, soon gave way to this morning’s bottles.
Forget it, Jake. It’s Cooperstown.
“It’s always in the last place you look” is, of course, true: once you find what you’re looking for you stop searching. In this case, though, the Buffalo contingent really was in the last place I could have looked. Nestled up front but off to the side, our spot had everything: shade, proximity to both the festival and port-a-potties, a fire pit. I knew the right people.
I said my initial hellos, was introduced to a few people I hadn’t met before, and then set off to the registration tent. There was a bit of a wait while they found the binder with our names in it, so in the meantime the brewers chatted with each other. I was in between brewers from Stone and Stillwater; I’m not going to pretend that I’m jaded enough where being in a line with them, a line for us, isn’t really freaking cool.
Thus registered, I headed back to camp. There we sat and talked, and soon enough drank. It was nice. Calm. I don’t often get a chance to be a person instead of a parent for any length of time, so two hours of sitting in a camping chair was heavenly. (Of course, I also realized that this meant my wife was pulling double duty, so I’ve tried to let her take it easy as much as possible since.)
I’ve been to beer festivals before, but there wasn’t much to the “festival” portion. There will be music, and it will probably be outside, but besides that it’s been sampling beer from vendors. That’s great: sampling beer is wonderful.
This, though. This was a festival.
There was a Ferris wheel, for one. A cigar tent was set up next to a massage tent, itself next to a tent blasting out a wifi signal that couldn’t stand up to the barrage of Untappd checkins. Probably for the best, considering I had Snapchat on my phone and hours of beer ahead of me. “Is this our Gathering of the Juggalos?” I wondered on Twitter.
Then came the Soup Nazis.
Each year is given a theme: 2013 was “A beer festival about nothing,” an homage to Seinfeld. A couch was set up in one of the two large tents, the iconic image of George Costanza’s attempt at boudoir hanging above. Perhaps BCTC is more Comic-Con than Gathering, seeing as there’s cosplay (and, as far as I know, a distinct lack of bridge dedicated solely to the sale of illegal drugs).
Oh, right: there was beer, too. The program’s list extended for pages: there was no way a person would have the time (or liver capacity) to drink them all. Dogfish Head’s Namaste, a wit, was run through a Randall of mango and papaya. Elsewhere, sour and funk abounded: Allagash’s Golden Brett and Peekskill’s Simple Sour stand out in my mind.
Sixpoint brought two of their Mad Scientist series: #14, The Grätzer, a smoked wheat beer; and #15, BelJam, made with raspberry jalapeno jam. Pepper beers are tricky: too much heat and they’re no fun, but too little and I feel a little let down. I found no spice in BelJam, but both Mad Scientists hit the sweet spot of being inventive and experimental without falling into Diet Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper territory, novelty for novelty’s sake.
As the day went on the crowd got louder and louder. As happens at a festival, glasses are dropped, the tink of the break followed by a surge in volume. They were loud, then they were loud, and finally they were LOUD to the point where I wrote, simply, “DIN” in my notebook.
Eventually my time as festival attendee ended: it was time to be a brewery owner. I set Rudy free and took over pouring the beer we brought. W.Y.H.I.W.Y.G. (What You Hop Is What You Get), the Belgian IPA made for the festival, was obviously the favorite, but Rutherford B. Haze, the wheaty Belgian pale ale showing our loyalty lies more to puns than brevity, also held its own.
A strange thing seems to have happened since Community Beer Works’ inception: I appear to have been infected with a strand of extroversion. Our first trips to the farmer’s market, giving the same general speech to total strangers, would physically exhaust me. Now I look forward to interacting with the public at events, showing off my baby like I’m on Facebook. Familiar faces stopped by, complete strangers came to see what we had to offer, and I loved talking to each one of them.
Earlier in the day the volunteer who checked me in had said that his son had been featured on “an internet… thing.” Internet things being my jam I inquired further and found out that he meant Strip Search, and that he was the father of “Pineapple Maki.” For most people this would be mundane, but I found it exciting. When he and his family stopped by I reminded him that I was a fan of his son and we had a brief but pleasant conversation. I imagine it must still be odd to have complete strangers say that they follow your son on Twitter.
The Ferris wheel
The festival program listed the Ferris wheel as operating from noon until midnight. “Midnight?” I had said. “Who would want to go on a Ferris wheel at 11:30 pm, when everyone involved will be really drunk?”
Then I realized that I would.
I came to BCTC to have an adventure. Mentally I had been running through the Shire with my backpack on all weekend, and while I hadn’t planned exactly what type of excitement I would get up to I knew that this sounded like just the right mix of fun and dumb.
Soon after the festival proper ended I queued up and waited for my turn. And waited. And waited, until I realized that it was still early and I was probably missing out on something good back at camp. Eventually I headed back. It was later and darker, so surely the line would be shorter.
It was, perhaps, slightly longer.
I was determined, however! I would get on this Ferris wheel no matter how long it took. It wasn’t the ride itself that I was interested in anyway: a comically slow line to get on a mundane carnival attraction which would slowly lift me maybe 75 feet in the air sounded like enough fun on its own.
Soon enough I had made line friends. I love the social aspect of lines, where you quickly form a group with the people immediately in front of and behind you. Of the three people I most talked to, only one was actually interested in going on the ride. It was bad enough I was waiting this long, but to stand around for nothing?
One of my new friends disappeared and returned with a bottle of Abbey Ale. She promptly offered me some, and I believe I wound up drinking most or all of it by myself. The line crept along and we talked and drank and watched the sky turn black. They took my picture so I could include it in the article and I thanked them for not running off with my phone.
Eventually the bottle of Abbey Ale was gone and our wait was over. Three quick turns of the wheel and it was done. I got off the ride and looked around. No sign of the others.
Line friends come and line friends go. Such is the nature of things.
The second festival
I could have wandered around, mingling with more strangers, and next year I have plans to see what the crowd at the bonfire is up to, unless of course there’s a replacement for the Ferris wheel. I hadn’t seen the Buffalo contingent in probably an hour and a half, though, so I set off back to camp.
Even with my lengthy detour the post-festival night was eventful. There was a bean bag toss that I did terribly in: I informed Chris Groves that it was because I was too busy with two jobs and a family to fritter away my time on a bean bag toss, but it could also have been that I had had significantly more beer than him. The world will never know.
There was a campfire, and with it s’mores. Then bacon wrapped stuffed hot peppers, then grilled steak pizza. I considered trying to rope enough people in for a game of Werewolf but lacked the cards and daylight.
Soon we even lacked the fire: a security guard arrived to tell us one had gotten out of hand, so ours had to be put out too. It was nearly midnight by then anyway: well past my usual bedtime, but there were still fireworks to see.
A group of us walked to the parking lot to see them. We stood, and talked, and then witnessed the showcase of controlled explosions. I was relaxed, among friends, and perfectly content.
I awoke gradually the next morning, earlier than I might have liked but (as Rudy had mentioned the night before) because my internal clock is trained to do so.
Noticing I was up, Rudy gestured towards two gallon jugs of water and told me to help myself. Right. Water.
I got out of my tent, bleary eyed but really no worse for wear, all things considered. I took a sip of water and set off to find a sink with soap left, ours having been emptied during the night.
The mass of tents that had been so lively the day before were still mostly silent. Gradually I heard voices and the clinking of bottles being picked up. Back at the camp Bob set a pot of coffee on a turkey fryer. It was the most delicious thing I’ve ever smelled.
We packed up the van. Needing a keg left untapped at the festival, I walked into the festival tent. Once packed full of beer and people, it was now a barren stretch of collapsed tabled and garbage cans. There was a lone man sweeping up.
My wife arrived soon afterward. I tossed my sleeping bag and pillow in the back and we drove off.
Farewell, Cooperstown. We’ll always have the Ferris wheel.