Front row (l to r): Brewmaster Phil Leinhart, president & CEO Simon Thorpe, innovation manager Mike McManus; Back row: Todd Romanelli, cafe staff, and Steve Hamilton, event staff, Brewery Ommegang, Duvel Moortgat USA
If you haven’t noticed, we’re in the new Golden Age of Television. If you’re skeptical about that claim, just turn on AMC, HBO, F/X, Showtime and even PBS on any given night—well, mostly Sunday night. And that shining epoch of televisual entertainment has inspired a growing number of adult beverage brands tied to many of the most celebrated programs leading this new wave. “Breaking Bad” drove the show’s home city brewery, Albuquerque’s Marble Brewery, to produce Walt’s White Lie and Heisenberg’s Dark. “Downton Abbey” now has its own line of wines.
But it’s undeniable that the most buzzed about—and therefore HIT-worthy—of TV-themed beverage alcohol crossovers has to be the line of “Game of Thrones” beers, first launched early this year by Brewery Ommegang.
The 16-year-old Belgian-inspired craft brewery in Cooperstown, N.Y.—owned for the past decade by Breendonk, Belgium-based Duvel Moortgat—has so far launched two “GoT”-themed beers—fully licensed by HBO—since the spring. The first, which debuted with the third season of the hit series, was Iron Throne Blonde Ale—blonde like the Lannister family, of which the fiendish King Joffrey and his scheming mother, Queen Regent Cersei, are a part. The brewery followed that up in the fall with Take the Black Stout, inspired by the Night’s Watch, who man the 700-foot-high wall that separates Westeros from the wildlings in the North. When the Westerosi swear an oath to become brothers of the Night’s Watch, it’s called “taking the black,” reflecting the color of their cloaks.
The beers are part of a seven-year exclusive deal the brewery struck with HBO to produce a couple of new ‘Thrones’-themed offerings a year.
So how did a small brewery in a very rural part of Upstate New York land such a high-profile gig brewing an entire series of beers for HBO’s most-watched drama series? Well, it seems, even the show runners of a successful epic TV series aren’t immune to beer geekery.
“The two producers, they’re beer geeks,” Ommegang/Duvel Moortgat USA president and CEO Simon Thorpe tells Beverage World in the brewery’s Belgium-themed on-site café. “They’re real enthusiasts and they knew about the brewery. And they were thinking, ‘Well, what if we might put a beer together for Game of Thrones? We want to go to Ommegang.’”
A licensing rep at HBO approached Duvel Moortgat USA marketing director Bill Wetmore late last year about possibly linking up with the brewery.
“They had a short list; we were on the short list,” Wetmore remembers.
Wetmore says he’d been a fan of the show before the HBO team reached out, which only added to his enthusiasm at the prospect of teaming up with the premium cable network.
“I certainly recognized that [‘Game of Thrones’] is incredibly well made with high, premium production values, fantastic acting and fantastic script writing,” Wetmore says. “And HBO certainly is a brand partner of top quality. In that regard, I thought it was a great fit for us. We’re both super-premium brands, we both have audiences who are sophisticated and appreciate quality, craftsmanship and things that are well-executed.”
Initially, however, Thorpe wasn’t quite as sold on the idea as Wetmore was.
“Bill said to me at the time, ‘It’s really exciting, we’ve got this really interesting project with HBO, ‘Game of Thrones,’ and I said, ‘No, I don’t want to. It’s just way too commercial for us. We’re a high-end brewery, we just don’t do that sort of stuff,’” Thorpe recalls.
But Wetmore wasn’t ready to give up that easily. He persisted for about six weeks. “We were out late one night and it happened to come on the TV and Bill said, ‘We’ve just got to do this. It’s going to be fantastic. Trust me, it’ll be great,’” recalls Thorpe. “Sure enough, it turned out to be one of the best things we’ve ever done because a lot of people who enjoy our beer also love ‘Game of Thrones.’”
And, never underestimate the power of Twitter.
“HBO’s social media program has introduced the beer to so many other people,” Thorpe reveals. “We couldn’t dream of this transforming the way it did.”
The number of media impressions the partnership has garnered so far is closing in on 200 million, Wetmore reports. From the announcement of the partnership to the release of the second beer, the deal generated about 110 media/social media impressions. The next wave of attention came when Ommegang, with the help of a few folks donning Night’s Watch cloaks, unveiled the name and artwork for it’s next offering in the line, Fire and Blood Red Ale, at October’s Great American Beer Festival in Denver. The upcoming release was inspired by House Targaryen, from which the “Mother of Dragons” herself, Danaerys Targaryen, descends. The label incorporates Dany’s three dragons: Drogon, Rhaegal and Visarion. The beer, which won’t even see the light of day until the first quarter of 2014 to coincide with the debut of season 4 of “Game of Thrones,” already has resulted in an additional 70 million impressions, according to Wetmore.
And that’s certainly a lot when you consider the limited volume for the line. The company produced about 1,800 barrels of Iron Throne Blonde. It ramped production up a bit for Take the Black Stout, brewing about 2,400 barrels. It plans to produce about 3,600 of Fire & Blood. That’s out of a total 54,000 barrels produced at Brewery Ommegang—about 66,000 when you include Duvel Moortgat’s Belgian imports like the flagship brand Duvel, Maredsous, La Chouffe, Liefmans and De Koninck. That doesn’t count the 185,000 or so barrels coming into Duvel Moortgat’s portfolio as a result of the acquisition of Kansas City-based Boulevard Brewing Co., which the company announced in October.
“When you’re a small brewery and you’re trying to make ends meet with little to no money, you wonder where you’re going to get the money to pay for your next fermenter,” Thorpe says. “To get to that kind of scale of awareness is totally beyond our dreams.”
If a similar licensing opportunity were to present itself would the once-skeptical Thorpe agree to it?
“In a heart beat,” he says. “The power of the megaphone that HBO has is huge. And if as a small brewery you can combine properties like that, that fit well with what you stand for, then it makes sense because we could never afford in our wildest dreams to be able to buy that kind of media.”