Editor’s Note: This sponsored column is written by Nick Anderson, beermonger at Arrowine (4508 Lee Highway).
Earlier this year Brewery Ommegang in New York released Iron Throne Ale, the first in a series of beers inspired by Game of Thrones, the hit HBO television show.
Drawing from food mentioned in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series of books that Game of Thrones is based upon, Ommegang is crating beers that they imagine would play well with cuisine like “honeyed chicken,” “roasted onions dipped in gravy,” “beef and bacon pie” and “barley and venison soup” — all of which appear in the books as meals enjoyed by the greater and lesser classes of Westeros.
Iron Throne was a Blonde Ale, with crisp wheat malt notes accentuated by the use of lemon peel and grains of paradise. Not that all that many people got to try it: someone somewhere in the chain of command severely underestimated the popularity of the books and the show, and the production run of Iron Throne was much smaller than its demand. I managed to get three cases for Arrowine, not knowing it was so limited that I probably shouldn’t have been allowed even that many. All three cases sold out in an afternoon.
It seems Ommegang has learned its lesson, as Take The Black Stout is arriving in Virginia at much greater quantities than Iron Throne. I’m hoping that the precedent is now set for future Game of Thrones beers, and we won’t have the same supply issues as we did with the first beer. As for Take The Black Stout itself, I can only go by what I’ve read so far — as of press time the beer will be either on its way or just delivered to Arrowine, and I couldn’t get an advance sample to check it out.
Ommegang itself counts caramel and chocolate malts among the ingredients in Take The Black Stout, with the most interesting being licorice root and star anise. At 7% ABV, is sounds like Ommegang is continuing the theme established with Iron Throne, with the series being flavorful but not so strong as to be unapproachable by the wider audience the Game of Thrones beers will attract.
Chris Morris at New Jersey’s Star-Ledger was lucky enough to try Take The Black Stout last week, and mentions in his review that it reminds him of a beer he had once tried that was aged on cedar wood. That notes seems to indicate that the spices aren’t as overpowering as some might fear; downright mild in comparison to beers like the star anise version of Stone’s Imperial Russian Stout from a couple of years back. We’ll all get the chance to discover it this weekend after its arrival.
The larger issue arising from deals like the Ommegang/HBO venture is that of promotional tie-in beers. While craft beer has grown in the public consciousness, larger companies have seemingly ignored or been ignorant of the opportunities it presents to get their names and products out there to new audiences.
The only projects I can think of to this point that are similar to the Game of Thrones deal are Dogfish Head’s “commission” series for Sony Music (producing Bitches Brew, Hellhound On My Ale, and Faithfull) to honor various anniversary’s within Sony’s catalog; Taster’s Choice — a collaboration between DC Brau, Utah’s Ska Brewing, and legendary band The Pietasters; and Stillwater Artisanal Ales’ Sensory Series, where with each beer Stillwater brewery Brian Strumke features a different artist with an Ale inspired by that artist’s music and conversation with them.
There’s a danger as promotional tie-ins become more common—and believe me, with the success of the Ommegang/HBO deal, they will become more common. The potential is high for ‘gimmicky’ beer releases, with breweries diluting their standards to appease those approaching them for such a deal. I can hear the cries of “sell out!” already, and I don’t even know who’s selling out yet, nor for whom they’d be selling out to.
I think anyone on the brewing side of the industry would say there’s a fine line to be walked with promotional beers; that as long as a brewery is able to retain its creative instincts the possibilities are great for wider exposure to mainstream audiences. I tend to agree, but will continue to live in fear of the day I see “Disney’s IPA” hitting bars and retailers. For now, let’s keep enjoying great beers and stock up while we can — winter is coming, after all. Until next time.