Tyrion Approved: Iron Throne Ale
By Aaron Sagers
It is like a shire that exists in a fantasy realm: Lush green hills during the warm months; virginal white, snow-covered trees in the colder ones; a cluster of small, quaint building framed by an giant arched gateway. And most importantly, there is beer flowing all the time.
This is Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, NY, the birthplace of Iron Throne Ale, the first of a series of beers inspired by HBO’s fantasy show “Game of Thrones,” based on George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” books. I recently journeyed from New York City to Cooperstown for an exclusive tasting of the beer at the craft brewery – now on sale to commoners everywhere, in time for the March 31 Season Three premiere – and while the distance is only about 200 miles, the difference is as, ahem, “stark” as between the Thrones city of Westeros and the lands of Winterfell.
“There is something weird up here,” said Simon Thorpe, President and CEO of Ommengang, which is part of the Duvel Moortgat brewing family of Belgium. “We’ve 150 acres of paradise, and even in the winter there is a special character where you can suspend reality and experience a magic.”
Over some Belgian frites and beers at their onsite cafe, Thorpe said the unique character of Ommegang made it a perfect match when the relationship with HBO began. Actually he reveals that, like “True Blood” before it, “Game of Thrones” was already part of the relatively small and tight-knit Ommegang community obsession long before show producers approached them.
“We don’t do water coolers, we do beer coolers,” joked Thorpe, who added that a majority of Ommegang’s ideas happen in the “fertile, creative ground” of bars.
So it happened with Iron Throne Ale. As opposed to “brewed under license” beers where a special label from a TV show or movie is slapped onto a bottle, the partnership between Ommegang and HBO is a collaboration where the beers are meant to tie into the themes and kingdoms of the fantasy series.
Ommegang wanted to focus on broad aspects of the show and have a product rooted in an old European tradition. However, they wanted to avoid the obvious choice, such as a dark beer like porter for their first one. And since a Lannister sits on the throne in the series, brewmaster Phil Leinhart aimed for a blonde ale – based off a staff brewer’s recipe -- with a sharp and delicate flavor to be their inaugural beer for Thronies.
The concept-driven beer is not new to Ommegang, which produces six ales year-round along with seasonal and specialty ales. When creating a new product, many times they have a type of beer in mind to work towards.
Of course, since beer nerds are just as protective of their passions as fantasy nerds, Thorpe said they had to make certain they weren’t compromising a good reputation in the beer world just to join forces with a TV show. And a DVD marathon of the show even took place in Belgium to explain its potential connection with the show. But Thorpe said that show production and brewing haven’t comingled, and HBO has not stepped into to issue demands.
“We have a very flexible contract,” he said. “If we don’t think the beer is good enough, we don’t have to release it.”
The truth in that statement is evident in the fact that while Iron Throne Ale took nine months from start-to-finish to create (in which time 25,000 gallons were produced), the next beer in the series is taking longer and still in development. Meanwhile concepts are already being explored for future ales, based on other books in Martin’s saga.
But one thing that took no time at all was the instant awareness Ommegang received from its HBO partnership. Tapping into the HBO megaphone immediately resulted in a lot of buzz in the beer world, and among pop culture, for the well-regarded but not Budweiser-famous company.
When Iron Throne was announced in December, Allison Capozza, Ommegang’s publicity manager, said the brewery picked up two thousand new followers in four days and received thousands of emails.
Capozza says the reaction was a big “geek out moment” after only being in her position for a few months. But the geeking out seems to be a shared sentiment around Ommegang HQ. There is a sense that the craft brewery appreciated by beer connosieurs is on the cusp of a regal coronation by nerds everywhere.
At the time that I’m writing this, Iron Throne Ale is still a few days from its first public tasting at The Mondo Gallery in Austin, Texas, during South by Southwest; in just a few short weeks, the beer will be in the hands of “Game of Thrones” cast at the Los Angeles premiere of the show’s third season.
Winter is still coming on “Game of Thrones," but things are just heating up for Brewery Ommegang.
THE TASTE OF THE IRON THRONE ALE:
According to the tasting notes, the beer a 6.5% ABV blonde ale with “a robust amount of pils, honey malt, aroma malts and red wheat,” but for non-beer nerds, that doesn’t quite capture what Ommegang brewmaster Phil Leinhart has crafted. The initial taste of the “slightly hazy” golden amber-colored ale is pretty big, followed by just a little lemon spice (and grains of paradise, which is a real thing) and some slight hoppiness. But this isn’t hop overkill by any means; rather there is a crispy and subdued sweet end to the taste. The aroma has a bit of fruitiness to it and, upon reading the “grassy” description, I could pick up on that as well. It is pretty bright, fresh and “Springy.” If none of that means anything to you, or you just plain don’t trust my taste descriptions, you should simply think of Iron Throne as a very accessible beer that is easy to drink and goes down smooth.
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