Brewery Ommegang has become one of the more renowned breweries in the Northeast since Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield founded the Belgian-style brewery in 1997. Ommegang resides in Cooperstown, New York, on a former hop farm near the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Phil Leinhart has been brewmaster since January 2007. The New Jersey native previously spent a dozen years with Anheuser-Busch. Since his arrival, Leinhart has helped Brewery Ommegang achieve national distribution while still producing high-quality Belgian-style beers. He recently discussed his background and approach over the phone.
How did you become brewmaster at Brewery Ommegang?
I’ve been in the brewing industry for awhile. I have a brother in a neighboring town, so I was a visitor. I saw the brewery being built…I was with Anheuser-Busch at the time and the opportunity came knocking.
What distinguishes Brewery Ommegang from other breweries?
It’s a beautiful brewery in the country, on a former hop farm. In the late 1800s, early 1900s, this was the epicenter of hop growing in the U.S. The Busches have an estate here. So did the old owners of Schlitz. We brew all Belgian or Belgian inspired ales. We’re owned by a prominent Belgian brewery.
How has Brewery Ommegang changed since Don Feinberg sold the brewery to Brouwerij Duvel Moortgat in 2003?
It’s gotten bigger. Our volume has increased a few hundred percent in the past few years. Last year we graduated from microbrewery to regional brewery, crossed the 15,000 barrel threshold. I knew Don, came out here when they were pouring the foundation.
What was the approach to Ommegang Rouge?
The original one was in collaboration with a brewery called called Bockor, in Belgian. The owner of that brewery is good friends with Michel Moortgat, owner of Moortgat. The idea was to make a traditional Flemish red ale, but more in the Grand Cru vein. It’s all old beer, so it’s more aggressively sour and complex.
How did you become so interested in beer?
I have an older brother who’s also in the brewing industry. He got me into beer when I was a teenager. We were trying different German and British beers. I got my degree in chemistry, and halfway through, brewing was decided what I wanted to do. That was in the mid ‘80s.
Where’d you attend college?
I got my Bachelor’s at Ramapo College in Mahwah, New Jersey. I attended Siebels, Doemens in Germany and Anheuser-Busch.
Do you have a first beer memory?
I’m pretty sure it was Schaefer. I remember my father putting me on the kitchen table. I couldn’t have been too big, maybe 5 or 6. He gave me a taste of Schaefer and I loved it. Schaefer might have still been brewed in Brooklyn at that time.
What was the first beer that you brewed as a home brewer?
I did very little home brewing. I graduated college and did a two-week brewing course at the University of Wisconsin. I got a job at Manhattan Brewery Co. and started working 60-80 hours a week. I’m doing this for a living, so I don’t need to home brew. Maybe when I retire.
Do you have any brewing mentors?
There have been a bunch of people that I’ve learned from. My brother. Mark Witty at Manhattan Brewing Company. He was the original brewer, came over from England. Derrick Hobson, who used to work for Bass. Russ Heissner, who I worked with at Harpoon. Hans Grohmann, who I worked with at the Lion in Pennsylvania, a German brewer. Instructors at Siebel, many people at Anheuser-Busch, and most recently, Hedwig Neven.
Who are some other brewers that you respect?
A lot of them. Here in New York, Ithaca, Captain Lawrence, Brooklyn…Victory, Southampton, Bell’s, New Glarus. To get a decent beer selection in this area, I pretty much have to travel to Albany. Another one that I enjoy is Allagash.
What’s the most recent beer that you brewed?
Adoration, which is our Belgian Noel style beer, and this year, we’re embarking on a whole innovation program, where we’ll come out with 6 very small volume specialty beers. The innovation is me and some of the other brewers. It’s pretty much a team effort. This week, we’re finalizing a Belgian style pale ale, and we’re working on a Belgian style Tripel.
If you could drink one more glass of beer, what would it be?
If it had to be one, it would a Augustiner Helles. It would be closely followed by a Duvel and a Rare Vos.
Why Augustiner Helles?
Because I haven’t had a good Bavarian Helles in awhile.