Brewery Ommegang got a fortuitous call two years ago from Home Box Office. The licensing guys at the pay-TV network had been enjoying the brewery’s Belgian-style ales at a bar in Manhattan, and they were looking for a craft brewer to concoct some Game of Thrones beers. Would Ommegang be interested in such cross-branding adventure?
Ommegang certainly was. People at the brewery in Cooperstown, N.Y., didn’t just watch the medieval fantasy series—three employees raised their hands at a meeting to confess to reading George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels on which the TV drama is based. “We had this little Game of Thrones book club,” says Bill Whetmore, director of marketing at Ommegang.
So it was that Ommegang and HBO embarked on an alliance, which expands to a third beer with Monday’s release of Game of Thrones Fire and Ice. Ommegang has made the event into a national release day due to the popularity of the beers associated with the show. It turns out people who enjoy a good sword-and-dragon television series overlap with people who like craft beers.
Perhaps this doesn’t need an explanation, but Whetmore has one ready: “A lot of the imagery and themes that we’ve portrayed in our beers tie back to that European medieval. The origin of the word Ommegang comes from around 1500 in the Belgium area. The show is a fantasy show, but it does have kind of that medieval European look and feel, the whole knights-and-kingdoms battling spirit.”
Of course, Game of Thrones has also been known for its copious helpings of violence and sex, which may or may not have a craft beer connection. “I won’t touch that,” Whetmore laughs.
The brewery agreed to make two beers a year, releasing its first in March 2013, and the collaboration started off conservatively. Ommegang didn’t want to go overboard in taste, or flavor, or alcohol content—after all, plenty of Budweiser drinkers probably watch premium cable-TV, too.
The first offering, Iron Throne, was an inoffensive golden ale. “It was a tie-in with the Lannister clan, which is seemingly sweet, especially the queen, and beautiful, but with a very sinister underside,” says Phil Leinhart, Ommegang’s brewmaster. “So we took cues from that [in] formulating the beer. We used honey malt. It has a residual sweetness to it. But then we amped up the bitterness and used a little bit of lemon peel to give a little bit of bite on the backside.” The result: Ommegang sold 6,000 cases of 750-milliliter bottles, and the brewers hurriedly produced 4,000 more before the show’s third season ended.
For its next trick, Ommegang produced a stout last October called Take the Black, a reference to an order of celibate warriors who man a wall protecting the kingdom from unconquered people in the far north. “It’s a dark place, forbidding, so we immediately thought an imperial stout, with a Belgian yeast strain,” Leinhart says. This time, however, Ommegang was prepared for the demand and brewed three times as much, selling out again.
Now the brewery is unveiling Fire and Blood, inspired by Daenerys Targaryen and her three dragons. As you might expect, it has a bit of heat. “It’s kind of a Belgian-style red ale,” says Leinhart. “We use some anchor chilies in this as kind of a nod to the fire-breathing dragon.” Ommegang is turning out 36,000 cases for national release and suggests pairing this ale with spicy food.
Ommegang has another reason to make a big deal out of the release: The brewery says sales of cross-branded beers have boosted its total by as much as 45 percent.
The partnership between dark cable-TV drama and craft beer has even spawned imitators. Dock Street Brewery in Philadelphia just introduced a Walking Dead-themed stout made with wheat, oats, flaked barley, organic cranberries—and, in proper zombie fashion, roasted goat brain. “The pre-sparge brain addition provides this beer with intriguing, subtle smoke notes,” the brewery claims.