Since opening in 1997, Ommegang Brewery of Milford, New York has seen their Belgian-style ales received with praise from beer merchants and consumers alike, with their reach increasing rapidly to now include 45 of the 50 U.S. states. Already offering six full-time styles and a steadily rotating menu of featured seasonals and limited brews, Ommegang announced yesterday that it will be increasing its product varieties in an unexpected way. The micro-brewery has partnered with cable giant HBO to produce a run of beers inspired by Game of Thrones, the network’s addictive fantasy series that that has also secured the broad appeal of critics and viewers
Beginning with the release of the Iron Throne Blonde Ale in March, Ommegang will deliver four new beers over the next couple years, using the partnership to create a product that digs into the narrative of the show and delivers a beer with flavor and personality inspired by the mythical world of the show. We had an opportunity to speak with Larry Bennett, head of PR and Creative Services for Ommegang, about the formation of this partnership with HBO and the creative processes involved in bringing new beers to the world that not only live up to the breweries expectations, but also stand up to a story as sprawling and complex as Game of Thrones.
How was the partnership between Ommegang and HBO initiated and how did you first tackle this project?
Larry Bennett: HBO approached us in the spring with the idea. We initially had a couple of meetings with them, just outlining the premise and what directions we might go with it. Once both sides had agreed that this was a good idea, one that we could all benefit from, our brewmaster [Phil Leinhart] and our guy in charge of new beer development met with them and discussed what the beer could be like, what it could taste like, and what was coming up on the show that could tie in. Really, it was a creative collaboration on that end, and then our team took their ideas and started working on the beer.
The first beer released will be the Iron Throne Blonde Ale in March, coinciding the the March 31 premiere of season three. For fans of Game of Thrones, the initial connection would be to Joffrey Baratheon, who currently sits on the iron throne, and his very blonde family, the Lannisters. What can you tell us about the inspiration behind this beer?
Bennett: Yes, the Lannisters were part of it. From our point of view of having to brew a Game of Thrones beer… well, it’s a very dark and stormy series, and we discussed if we should start with a dark beer to compliment that aspect. But, we decided against that in favor of starting with something a little more tap-friendly, a little more customer friendly, and work our way into it. So, we came up with the blonde ale, but, of course, at 6.5 percent, our blonde is still a relatively strong beer. With the future offerings, we may end up going stronger and darker, with lots of different characteristics.
Will beer enthusiasts who aren’t necessarily fans of the show have something to be excited about with these new products?
Bennett: Definitely. We don’t currently make a beer like this, so a blonde ale is a new product for us. The Iron Throne Blonde Ale has a lot of unique flavor and aroma and character to it, so it will stand apart from our other products. We make a wheat beer, our Belgian white, and we have Rare Vos which is an amber, so we were in a place where we could actually make a different beer, and that was part of the fun for us. We have to make sure there is lots of quality and character to the beer, because we don’t make wimpy beers, really. Some have less alcohol than others, but they all have lots of body and flavor. Some of that comes from our brewing process, and some comes from our Belgian yeast.
In Ommegang’s initial statement about the Game of Thrones beer, you talked about not wanting to fall into typical pitfalls of product placement, and how it can seem contrived. What specifically were you trying to avoid with this project and how did you approach these concerns?
Bennett: It was asking questions like why would Game of Thrones hook up with a brewery. Would they want to team with a West Coast brewery known for these big, monstrously hoppy IPAs? Would that make sense? Probably not. They hooked up with us who has a long European history through our parent companies, who make beers that are descendants of hundreds of years of brewing tradition on the continent. Even though the show takes place in a mythical land and mythical time, we recognize that it gives of a European feel, a medieval and feudal feel. So, that connection allowed this to make sense, for them and for us. If we made a beer for, say, Sea World, I don’t think that would make much sense. We’d have to put in some serious work to figure that one out.
Talk about what went into the packaging of the beer. It will be on draft, so I imagine you also have some cool Game of Thrones tap handles in the works?
Bennett: Well, the tap handles aren’t finished yet. For the bottles, it’s the 750 ml bottle with the Game of Thrones label and logo. It won’t come in smaller bottles, so you can pick up either a single bottle or a case on the rack. For the tap handles, we’re looking at something with a sword-like element, and are currently figuring out if we can get a design that we like produced for a reasonable amount of money. It will definitely relate back to the show.
Did HBO lend a hand in the packaging?
Bennett: Yes. The artwork and logo is obviously theirs, and we created the rest of it, like the background and organization of the label.
One of the more obvious directions you could have gone would have been a barley wine or a mead, something speaking directly to the medieval European aspect of Game of Thrones. Did you guys toy with these types of ideas and was it a purposeful move to not initially produce the most literal style?
Bennett: Yes, in the beginning we did raise the possibility of doing a mead. We’ve never done one before, but we certainly could. We considered barley wine as well, but we decided to go back to something a little more recognizable and accessible to people for the first offering. Down the road, we can do anything we want. I’m a big fan of meads and we’ve never made one. I think it would be great. That said, I get one vote and the brewmaster gets 99.
Well, you have another beer that will be debuting in the fall, and then two more with subsequent seasons of the show. Can you tell us or tease us any information on what we can look forward to?
Bennett: We’re in the process of working on it right now. In doing this sort of thing, you have to start with a concept of what the beer means, what’s the relevance to the story, and what’s the relevance in terms of our consumer’s interests. And, we’re still figuring these elements out, so we haven’t begun thinking in terms of what kind of beer will come out of it or what it might be called. It takes us a while to figure it all out.
Paste: I actually have a couple ideas here. One is Belgian White Walker Ale. I also have Winterfell Warmer. Feel free to steal those if you’d like.
Bennett: We’ll collaborate [Laughs]. But, yeah, when we got into this, we weren’t sure exactly of what to expect, but so far it has been working nicely. The first response yesterday seemed pretty good. One of our main questions was how much of our core audience crosses over to the Game of Thrones audience. And, you know, there is no way of knowing. But, looking online, the people reacting had a strong knowledge of our beer and about Game of Thrones, so it appears that we have at least a decent amount of mutual fans. But, there is no way to be certain.
Paste: And, the other benefit might be all of the Game of Thrones fans who aren’t as familiar with Ommegang. They tend to be a pretty devoted audience and it seems likely that they will seek out the beer and find out more about your brewery because of it.
Bennett: Absolutely. We’d love to have this result in an expanded customer base.