Traditionally, breweries have situated themselves near sources of abundant, clean water. Brewery Ommegang in Middlefield, N.Y. is no exception. Over the course of a year, the brewery (known for its Belgian-style ales like Ommegang, Hennepin and the recently released seasonal Seduction) will pump more than a million gallons of water from three wells on its 140-acre property in the Catskills, not far from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
But there’s a storm brewing in rural upstate New York.
Middlefield sits atop a formation called the Marcellus Shale, which some geologists believe contains vast reservoirs of natural gas. A company called Cooperstown Holstein Corp. has leased land to the gas industry and is suing to overturn a local ordinance that forbids drilling.
Larry Bennett, Ommegang’s P.R. and creative services manager, says the brewery is worried about a process called “hydrofracking,” commonly used by drillers, which involves pumping a pressurized stream of water and chemicals into the earth to shatter rock sediments and extract the gas. Bennett and other opponents of drilling claim that it will leave behind a toxic residue of benzine, diesel fuel, methane gas and other contaminants in the aquifer.
While the brewery can treat water to remove sediment and adjust the pH, Ommegang doesn’t have the resources to filter out the chemicals, asserts Bennett.
If its water supply were compromised, Bennett said, the brewery would have three options.
One is to truck in water from outside the area. The New York City aquifer, he noted, is exempted from drilling and is only 40 miles away. But hauling in enough water to supply the brewery’s current needs, let alone allow it to keep growing at a rate of more than 20 percent a year, would be difficult and expensive.
Another option would be to relocate elsewhere. And a third would be to call it quits and shutter the brewery, putting more than 80 employees out of work. “Obviously, that’s our last option,” said Bennett.
The case is currently before the New York State Supreme Court. Cooperstown Holstein, the plaintiff, is arguing that only the state, and not individual localities, can regulate drilling. “It’s safe to say whoever loses will appeal,” predicted Bennett. “We expect it to go on six months, nine months, a year.
In the meantime, it’s business as usual at Brewery Ommegang, with the company planning a half-dozen new releases for 2012 to satisfy the fickle palates of its constituency. Just hitting the market in kegs and 750-milliliter bottles is Seduction, a “Belgian-style porter” (6.8 percent alcohol by volume) containing cocoa from the Swiss chocolate company Barry Callebaut and blended with Liefmans Kriek from the Brouwerij Liefmans in Oudenaarde, Belgium. This Belgian sour cherry ale is also blended into Ommegang’s Three Philosophers, but Bennett expected the cherry flavor to be more pronounced in Seduction.
A dessert beer to replace bon bons on Valentine’s Day?
“That’s one of our thoughts,” answered Bennett.