Meet Ommegang Brewmaster Phil Leinhart
Around Brewery Ommegang’s farmhouse-style halls, they have a saying: “This is where heaven met earth, and decided to stay a while.” Situated just south of Cooperstown in central New York’s Susquehanna River Valley, the brewing compound is surrounded by bountiful natural beauty on the historic site of an early American hop farm. Known by beer lovers as purveyors of traditional-style beers that pair with food like bread pairs with butter, and known by just about everyone that doesn’t live under a rock as the brewery that makes the Game of Thrones beers, Brewery Ommegang made a name for themselves by bringing both traditional and innovative beers inspired by Belgium’s deep brewing roots to a broad audience in the US. Ahead of the kick off of their Summer Concert Series, we caught up with Brewmaster Phil Leinhart to learn more about his career as a brewmaster, what Ommegang’s all about, and what to expect from their Summer Concert Series.
I’ve worked everywhere from tiny brewpubs to multinational soft drink manufacturers and studied everywhere from Munich, Germany to the Anheuser Busch brewing school.
Tell us about your path to becoming a brewmaster.
Well, I’d been studying chemistry and the environment in college, and about halfway through I realized the chemistry was something I really wanted to go into. My brother got into the brewing industry and got me interested in brewing history and different styles, so when I graduated I got a job as Brewing Manager at Manhattan Brewing Company with my chemistry degree. Since then, I’ve gone after the training, knowledge, and experiences to excel in the industry. I’ve worked everywhere from tiny brewpubs to multinational soft drink manufacturers and studied everywhere from Munich, Germany to the Anheuser Busch brewing school.
What’s your proudest moment as brewmaster at Ommegang?
Winning the top honors for a midsize brewing company at the 2016 World Beer Cup. It’s open to all the breweries in the world, and we won the top, with four medals that year as well. It’s the biggest and most prestigious beer competition in the world, definitely a proud moment for Ommegang.
We always strive for a beer—whether it’s an old traditional style or maybe a newer style—that’s well-balanced and drinkable.
There’s a good deal of history surrounding Ommegang—what’s your favorite historical tidbit about the company?
From the very beginning, Duvel Moortgat—founded in Belgium in 1871 and still family-owned—was one of the founding partners of Brewery Ommegang. When Duvel bought out the other founding partners in 2003, most people didn’t know that Duvel had been involved since the beginning.
How does Ommegang balance a respect for past styles while also making a beer that’s attractive to a modern consumer?
We always strive for a beer—whether it’s an old traditional style or maybe a newer style—that’s well-balanced and drinkable. We’re not in the business of making extreme beers—we always aim for a well-balanced beer that pairs well with different types of food.
We do things for a reason, we make a certain beer for a reason.
How do you go about adding new beers to the Ommegang lineup?
We do things for a reason, we make a certain beer for a reason. It usually starts with an idea from someone at the company, and we have an innovation group that applies a cross-functional approach to developing and executing those ideas. Whether it’s an improvement to an existing recipe or a brand new style, they keep us from shooting from the hip too much by developing the ideas to the point where we’re ready to make a pilot beer.
For us, a pilot beer is a batch or a couple batches of about 20 gallons, which we use to do some small market research in our tap house here. We go at it that way, and if we find a beer that people react positively to, we can do a small production batch for sale in our smaller markets, maybe just NYC or something.
How do you ensure the quality of your beers?
Attention to detail in the process, documentation in the process, and a fully outfitted laboratory. For a smaller brewery, we have a very well-equipped laboratory where we do physical, chemical, and microbiological testing.
What style of beer would you personally love to add to the Ommegang roster?
A Belgian-style lager. We’re talking about doing something along those lines, a lager you could really enjoy on a hot day, a little lower ABV for a light, crisp lager beer. I think that would be a good addition to our stable.
On a hot day, I like a light, refreshing beer like our Saison Rose or Pale Sour.
Speaking of hot days, what’s your favorite beer to reach for on a hot afternoon?
Our Hennepin is a great all-around beer that I’ll reach for in almost any situation. But on a hot day, I like a light, refreshing beer like our Saison Rose or Pale Sour.
Those sound like the perfect brews for enjoying Brewery Ommegang’s Summer Concert Series. Can you share a favorite memory from one of the campouts?
[Big laughs] To be totally honest with you, I can’t really remember a whole lot from them except that there’s a lot of great beer and good music involved.
Ommegang’s Summer Concert Series kicks off with Death Cab for Cutie this June. The event takes place on their upstate New York brewery grounds in a natural amphitheater that they transformed into an awesome concert venue. Limited spots for camping are available to anyone who purchases a ticket, and we highly recommend camping out and getting the full experience.