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“We can’t stop here, this is bat country!” –Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
We arrived at what was allegedly “the best fest in the States,” at about 7 pm on Friday night, with only the vaguest of plans, and very little idea of what we were supposed to do. Our volunteer shift wasn’t until the next afternoon, and technically, Saturday volunteers weren’t supposed to register until noon that day. But who wants to get up early on Saturday morning and drive for three or four hours, especially when your friends are already camped and taking part in the great bottle share that is the first night of BCTC?
So with the assurance that “they’re letting people in until 9 tonight,” we’d thrown some rudimentary camping gear, photography kit, extra water, bottles of beer (obviously), and next to no food in the little yellow Bumblebee, and lit out for Cooperstown, New York.
The Throughway on a late Friday afternoon in August is a study in the kind of desperation known only to denizens of the Great White Northeast. You can practically hear the other drivers thinking,
“Hurry, hurry, gotta get out of town, don’t waste the good weather, school will be starting before you know it!”
RVs, toy-haulers, trucks towing boats, cars and SUVs carrying kayaks and bicycles, and the occasional motorcycle—weaving fast and light through the traffic, almost certainly laughing at the poor suckers driving “cages”—all similarly frantic to escape the city.
After the first few harrowing miles, where the drivers clustered like frightened and hostile sardines, things quieted down and I could relax a bit while barreling along at seventy-five or eighty miles an hour, listening to Avenged Sevenfold on Spotify. Until our data connection went away, as it always does when traveling the I-90. Miles and miles of well-established highway running through one of the most populous states in the Union, and traveled by hundreds of thousands* every day, and there’s almost no cell reception along most of it.
Cooperstown itself lies about an hour’s quick drive past exit 30 down county highways that are—inexplicably—far better maintained than the Interstates. Highways like 28S, which we caught near the Village of Mohawk, an old town that looks like it was built when the frontier wasn’t so far away, and maybe there were still some Mohawk “Indians” around somewhere. Our route wound through farmlands and past small lakes that glistened invitingly in the early evening sun. We passed a hexagonal barn with a foundation and first story built of stone**, a design that, aside from its aesthetic and efficiency qualities, has a fort-like character that seems suited for defense in case of Indian attack.
Though better known as the site of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown was founded by William Cooper, father to the author James Fennimore Cooper, of The Last of the Mohicans fame.
But we weren’t there for that; our journey to the quaint, lakeside town was entirely motivated by beer. Belgium Comes to Cooperstown is an orgy of rare and hard-to-find beer, where all the Duval Moortgat brands—and somewhere in the neighborhood of eighty or ninety other North American and European breweries—converge for a two-day Bacchanal (or maybe Ninkasinal, since it’s beer, and not wine) on the extensive, farm-like grounds of Brewery Ommegang.
“We saved you a spot,” read the text—from the same friend whose earlier messages had got us packing up and on our way. This relieved our worries that all the camping spots would be taken, so we could focus on actually getting in.
About 300 lbs. of dreadlocked male, wearing a black tee-shirt with “Security” printed on it, patrolled (in a golf cart) the fence between the field that served as parking lot, and the sacred ground of the brewery proper. The only viable way in was through the official gatekeepers, who fortunately, were volunteers like ourselves. They checked our names against a list, gave us smiley-face wristbands—sacred badges of membership in the fraternity of BCTC 2015 volunteers—and hideous neon green tee shirts with orange, Nickelodeon-like splashes on front and back. We were in!
BCTC 2015: A giant, Jurassic Park-esque gate featuring a lion rampant; pulsing rock beats and nearly indecipherable lyrics; the unmistakable stale-vegetal smell of weed intermingled with the sweeter strains of cigar smoke; milling crowds sporting a mish-mash of movie tee-shirts, flannel, overalls, Doc Martin boots, and here and there, track suits; exclusive VIP events, late-night movies, fireworks; a sea of tents and free-flowing beer. An overwhelming sensory experience to test the most veteran drinker’s endurance.
Vital stats: General Admission tickets were $110 ($125 if you wanted to camp on Saturday night) and $275 for VIP tickets, making it the most expensive beer festival that I know of. But we didn’t pay for tickets; BCTC is largely run on volunteer labor, and lots of it.
Friday evening was a blur of beer, a little whiskey, and mighty craic. We didn’t have to wander far to find a party. To the right, Andy Walker’s group, with Ben Maeso, head brewer for Prison City Pub & Brewery, ducking in and out. To the left, another UNYHA friend, Logan, and just beyond him, the Stoneyard Brewing crew, blending with reps from Tröegs, and some folks from Frederick, Maryland. The Marylanders’ names have mostly disappeared in a haze of delicious beers, except for Darryl Eisenbarth, who brews for Monocacy Brewing Company, and a chick named Megan. Oz from Stoneyard Brewing was there; for an amusing picture containing him, have a look at Ben’s post.
In addition to various beers, both bottled and on tap from most of the brewery reps, distributors, and some of the homebrewers (such as Adam Odegard), a half-gallon of Fireball made its way around the Stoneyard-and-whoever-they-were-drinking-with group. Man, those guys can drink. Like fish. Or sailors. They raged pretty hard, and hit the rack relatively early. Later, I learned that it was a wake of sorts for Stu, the much-loved Stoneyard regular for whom their Stu’d barrel-aged Imperial Stout was named. The Tröegs bunch were sharing their Harvest Ale, Hop Knife.
The late, great HST had press credentials; I had a smiley-face wristband and a photographer. Leveraging the full power of those two things, I wandered about the camp, scamming beer from anyone who was sharing.
Russian River Supplication and Consecration, Pliny the Elder; Still Water Mono; Tuesday Morning; there were more, but these are the ones I can remember. And that’s before the festival officially started.
Ricardo and Peter of Equilibrium Beer—opening this winter in Middletown, NY—gave us some of their citrus-rich IPAs, and a can of Heady Topper, which allowed me to finally compare Pliny the Elder and the vaunted VT brew. Say what you will about freshness, blah, blah, I think Pliny is better.
Other blokes who gave us beer include Four Mile Brewing’s VP, Jaye Beattie; Brian Sweeney, a rep from Left Hand; Harpoon brewer Ethan Elston. The Harpoon guys caught my attention when I overheard them talking about Düsseldorf Altbier. A bunch of “Harpooners” had been to Düsseldorf recently. The lucky buggers. There were some hints about a brew in collaboration with the Bend, Oregon brewery, Deschutes. Thanks to Harpoon’s delicious breakfast stout, that’s all a bit hazy. But for more about Deschutes Brewing, check out last week’s post by Ami Melaine.
The camp on Saturday morning and early afternoon had the particular low-key vibe created by a lot of people nursing hangovers, or at least mild exhaustion. The actual tasting session started at 2:30 pm, ostensibly for VIPs only, with 3 pm being the pouring time for common riff-raff. Not that anyone paid the least attention to that. By 3:45, when our volunteer shift started, both of the huge white tents were full of milling folk. Inexplicably, many local breweries had collected lines, leaving Duvel, AChouffe, Boulevard, Ommegang, and a host of other Belgian and harder-to-get American breweries easily accessible. This suited me just fine, and I got to taste more of these beers than I can easily remember.
“BCTC is controlled chaos,” Andy had said, and he wasn’t wrong. A helpful bloke at the Ommegang taps signed us in, and we went to help at the AChouffe and Maredsous tables. Ben and I were officially go-fers, but there was little fetching and carrying to be done (except when we ran out of bottles, or ice to keep them cool), so we fell to pouring, giving a couple of other volunteers a break. We’d been doing that for a bit when our team leader showed up, a nice lady who had less idea of what was going on than we did.
It was madness, but it worked. Our table had enough visitors to give us something to do, but we didn’t really get slammed, and all had a chance to wander around, just in case there was something better than the expensive Belgians right in front of us. At the He’Brew taps, I asked the girl for a pour, not bothering to find out what they had.
“I know what you want,” she said, taking my small Duvel tulip glass (standard issue to all BCTC volunteers and attendees) and returning it half-full of something rich and heady, with a lot of dark fruit character, and a good amount of funk. Funky Jewbelation, as it turned out, was exactly what I wanted.
“Thanks. You were right. And I’m taking these,” I said, snaking a coaster and a business card.
La Chouffe, N’Ice Chouffe, Mc Chouffe; Maredsous Blonde, Brune, and Tripel; I had my fill, and then some, of quality Belgian beers. Also, fun conversation tidbits.
“…they were bought out by Coors,” a man I was pouring for remarked in reply to a comment about Pilsner Urquell.
“Oh, no, not them too,” I lamented.
“But are Belgians really any better,” he asked, his glass full of sparkling, golden, Duvel-Moortgat product.
“Because they’re Belgian?” the cynic rejoined.
“No, because they actually care about beer,” I replied almost soberly, and poured myself another sample of Mc Chouffe.
The end of the tasting session resembled a chum circle, festival attendees like frenzied sharks, eager to get one last pour and snap up whatever swag they could get. We emptied every bottle we had chilling in ice, and a few more that I fetched. Just to get in on the swag-snatching, I pocketed one of the Saranac bottle openers we’d been using at the table.
Despite the madness, there was very little actual depravity or debauchery. Thousands of drunken revelers running around with fragile glasses, but there was only one serious injury that I know of (and it was a complete accident, no fighting involved). There are plenty of festivals where the narrative could have been quite different, but beer folks are, by and large, a laid-back and friendly lot.
Until the next morning.
“…My eyes had finally opened enough for me to focus on the mirror…and I was stunned at the shock of recognition…there he was, by God—a puffy, drink-ravaged, disease-ridden caricature…like an awful cartoon version of an old snapshot in some once-proud mother’s family photo album. It was the face we’d been looking for—and it was, of course, my own. Horrible, horrible…” – Hunter S. Thompson, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved
*statistics not even slightly verified
**popularized in New England in the latter half of the eighteenth century
Photos by Benjamin Wilson
Cazentre, Don. “What’s the Craic? It’s an Irish Word You Should Know If You Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.” Syracuse.com. March 13, 2015. Accessed August 21, 2015.
H., Eric. “Cooperstown New York History.” Cooperstown New York History. Accessed August 21, 2015.
Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. Modern Library Edition ed. New York, New York: Modern Library, 1996.
Thompson, Hunter S. “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.” In The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time. Vol. 1. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979.
Wilcox, David. “Behind Bars: Prison City Pub & Brewery Opens in Auburn with Decorated Brewer at the Helm.” Auburnpub.com. December 21, 2014. Accessed August 21, 2015.