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Belgian Beer Winning Hearts And Minds In St. Louis

Ommegang Brewery

Brewery Ommegang in upstate New York is famous for making a kind of dark, malty, Belgian beer, often with high alcohol content.

This style of beer has become increasingly popular among craft-beer makers—including local brands such as Schlafly, Urban Chestnut and Perennial.  

Phil Leinhart is Ommegang’s head brewmaster.  Leinhart is in St. Louis to provide a tasting of specialty beers this Saturday at Urban Chestnut’s second annual Wolpertinger Anniversary festival..

Leinhart spoke with St. Louis Public Radio’s Adam Allington, who asked him to explain the continued growth of craft beer in America.

Leinhart:  Some people are wondering if there’s going to be another shakeout at some point like there was in the '90s.  There’s just such a proliferation of brands that the market just can’t sustain them all, like there is only so much shelf space.

Allington:  There was a shakeout of craft breweries in the 1990’s

Leinhart:  Yeah, you know sales were skyrocketing for a number of years and then it just kind of dipped and moderated.  I think mainly there was just some bad quality beer out there.  I think that was the main reason.

Allington:  It seems like there are just so many kinds of craft beer these days.  I mean you can get everything from a super hoppy IPA to a green tea stout to a strawberry porter.  I’m curious about what kinds of beer you drink.  Do you get around to all these different kinds?

Leinhart:  I mean some of the really far out ones, I’m not the biggest fan of some of them.  I like a well-balanced, drinkable beer.  But some of them just really hit the mark, some of those beers can be really interesting and that’s pretty unique to America—the constant pushing of the boundaries of what is even considered beer…different exotic ingredients, non-traditional ingredients.

So craft beer in general has been increasing I think generally because beer in this country had gotten so standardized.

Allington:  You mention that you worked for Anheuser-Busch for a while, as a brewmaster?

Leinhart:  No, my title there wasn’t "brewmaster," but I worked in brewing. I worked in quality control as a supervisor, a “group manager” as they call them.  I worked in maintenance, that’s where I met Florian Kuplent from Urban Chestnut.  We worked together at the Anheuser-Busch Brewery in Newark, N.J. where I worked in for 12 years. 

I learned a lot there.  Some people might say, 'what do you learn at Anheuser-Busch?' A lot!  Because a lot of expertise is there, a lot of people with a lot of experience, but my heart was really still in the small brewery.

Allington:  So you’ve brought a bottle with you today and this is Ommegang Abbey which is one of the first beers the company ever made.  What can you tell me about this beer?

Leinhart:  Well it’s styled after the Belgian Dubbels, that are produced in some of the historic Trappist breweries, in the abbey breweries, about 8.5 percent alcohol.

Kind of the Ommegang’s twist is that we spice a number of our beers and this beer is spiced with things like cumin, licorice root, star anise.

But our philosophy of spicing is kind of like the Belgian philosophy—a very light hand with the spices so that it blends in with the beer and it doesn’t knock you over the head with the intensity of licorice root or something like that.

Allington:  Wow! That is tasty.

Leinhart:  Yeah, you get some of those dark fruits…beers like this, especially darker beers that are bottle conditioned, they can age gracefully, there are still oxidizing, but in a beer like this those oxidized notes can be port-like or sherry-like and can really make the beer more complex and interesting.  Whereas a pale beer, when it gets oxidized just gets papery and cardboard and stuff like that

Allington:  This Saturday at Urban Chestnut you’ll be tapping a few kegs of real special, rare beer.  For the people who go, what kinds of beer will they have the chance to taste?

Leinhart:  We’ve got Biere D'Hougoumont, which is kind of our take on a French Bière de Garde.

We’ve got “Art of Darkness,” which is like a strong Belgian dark.

We’ll have a Duvel rustica - we’re owned by Duvel Moortgat in Belgium and that’s kind of our take on the famous Duvel beer, but a little more rustic and farmhouse style.

Leinhart is providing samples of specialty beers at Urban Chestnuts 2nd Annual Wolpertinger Festival, on Saturday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are $35.

Follow Adam Allington on Twitter:  @aallington