Is It Last Call for Ommegang’s 'Game of Thrones' Brews?
Ommegang teamed up with HBO in 2013, releasing its 6.5% ABV Iron Throne Blonde Ale in 750ml bottles with the House Stark sigil and the titular royal seat of Westeros on its black and gold label.
For eight years, Game of Thrones has been a cash cow not just for HBO, but also for the tourism industry in the show’s filming locations, T-shirt sales, and in the case of Ommegang—the craft beer community.
Counting the new “For the Throne” golden ale, the upstate New York brewery has released 14 unique beers inspired by the hit show and, like its fans, is staring at the end of a long journey, albeit a much less violent and nudity-filled one.
Ommegang, named for an ongoing Brussels festival that began in 1549, teamed up with HBO in 2013, releasing its 6.5% ABV Iron Throne Blonde Ale in 750ml bottles with the House Stark sigil and the titular royal seat of Westeros on its black and gold label. The partnership stemmed from the network’s desire to find a European-style brewery that reflected the show’s daring and prestige while capturing its medieval tone.
“This was before Game of Thrones was the cultural phenomenon that it is today,” says Ommegang President Doug Campbell. “HBO wanted to do a licensed beer but they didn’t want it to feel corporate-y because it was still this small, hipster kind of property. They wanted somebody who was small, high-end and had a brand image that had a little mysticism, and we were all three of those. Being fans of the show, it was an easy decision for the brewery to make.”
The beer was an immediate hit, selling out 14,000 cases, double the original production estimate. Continuing with new brews was a no brainer, so the company returned that fall with Take The Black Stout and the Fire and Blood Red Ale the following spring. Ever since, Ommegang has released a new iteration of the one-off beers timed to the season premieres, then another during the holidays, with some special editions in between. All told, Ommegang’s Thrones line has brought in over $1 million a year, according to industry publication Good Beer Hunting.
Much like the show’s writers room, the Ommegang brewers gather around a table in their “innovation” room before every season to discuss plot lines. The general guideline is to keep the beer’s theme vague enough to account for any huge plot twists, hence names like Valar Morghulis Dubbel, Three-Eyed Raven Dark Saison, Valar Dohaeris Belgian-Style Tripel, Bend The Knee Belgian Golden, and Winter Is Here Double White.
“We don’t get any advance notice about the script. Sometimes we’ll have a little cat-and-mouse game with HBO in that we’ll say, ‘What about this?’ and they’ll say, ‘Well, maybe [you] don’t want to talk about that person.’ It would look pretty stupid to launch a beer for a character that just got killed off,” Campbell says. “Frankly, we’re all fans of the show and don’t really want spoilers—I would like to enjoy it and along with the rest of America.”
He adds that HBO doesn’t micromanage Ommegang’s flavors. “They’ve never once asked us for a sample. They give us that leeway.”
That freedom extended to 2018 during the gap between seasons seven and eight. With no plot to peg its new releases to, Ommegang instead brewed four beers for its Royal Reserve collection: Hand of the Queen Barleywine, Queen of the Seven Kingdoms Sour and Blonde Ale Blend, Mother of Dragons Smoked Porter and Kriek Ale Blend, and King in the North Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout. “We didn’t have to figure out where the plot was going next,” Campbell says. “We got to do cosplay and imagine that if we were the court brewers for each of these kings or queens, what would we brew for them that would keep them from chopping our heads off? We had a lot of fun with it.”
While they’re not in danger of beheadings, the Ommegang crew does feel the pressure of meeting high standards from both the show’s notoriously finicky fans and diehard craft beer aficionados. They can’t risk disappointing either, especially not if they want to keep everyone coming back for new, non-Thrones beers after the series ends.
“Somebody asked me the other day, ‘Have you ever had a real sort of blowback from either one of those communities?’ And we really haven’t, to be honest,” Campbell says. “There is genuine overlap between the two groups, fundamentally born from an innate sense of geekiness, which I mean very endearingly. Real Game of Thrones fans, the ones that were reading the books before there ever was a show, are motivated by the same thing that our craft beer fans are. They want something that is pure and going to stand the test of time. As long as we don’t try anything gimmicky or something that would disrespect our craft or the show, we’re in a great place.”
So far, Campbell says no Thrones beer has been called a “dud.” Fans treat the bottles as collector’s items—empties sell for around $20 apiece on eBay—and creator George R.R. Martin is an admirer. “To hear that the man whose mind spawned this whole universe thinks highly of your product is pretty humbling,” he says.
It’s support like that built the company’s confidence to the point where it can try new things like its current offering, the For the Throne Strong Golden Ale, which is fermented with Pinot Grigio and Viognier grape juices and “bottle finished” with a Champagne yeast. “We’re exposing a lot of people to what we can do as a brewery, many more people than we would on our own, so let’s make sure we give them something where we’ve challenged ourselves,” says Campbell. “That’s the perfect example.”
While that sounds like the perfect brew to end on a high note, Campbell isn’t so sure that Ommegang’s days with HBO and the world of Game of Thrones is entirely finished, especially with at least one spinoff show in the works. This fall, the brewery will also have a three-beer “best of” collection, as voted on by the fans, to once again see release in time for holiday shopping. “It’s been a great partnership and if there’s an opportunity to keep working with HBO, we would certainly do it,” he says.
“We don’t know anything else about what comes next with any more than anybody else. I will say we’re still doing some work with them and they’re holding us in suspense right now. We are considering different things. That’s as far as I can go at the moment.”