Name: Valar Morghulis
Numbers: 8% ABV, IBUs Unknown
Brewer: Brewery Ommegang, Cooperstown NY
Back in 2012, when I worked on Guinness, my boss and I received an email from the global CMO of Diageo. Let’s be clear, this guy was very senior – a genuine big player in the global drinks industry – and neither of us had been emailed by him before. (It wasn’t actually FROM him – he had no idea who we were – it was from our boss’s boss with a request to “forward it to your Guinness team”.) The email said simply, in the abbreviated style of a busy man, “Look into?” above an email he had been sent by an American customer.
This email said to the effect of:
“Dear [CMO], You may not know this but there’s a show over here called Game Of Thrones that’s really taking off. It’s all swords and sorcery, but it’s good fun. My wife and I watch it. I was in a bar the other day when a guy asked the bar tender if he could “take the black”. This is a line from the show about joining a force called the Night’s Watch who dress all in black. The bar tender gave him a knowing look and served him a pint of Guinness. I think this show is going to become more popular, and I thought I’d let you know in case you could do something with it.”
And so we had a brief goose chase to see if indeed there was something Guinness could do with Game Of Thrones. We quickly found out the answer was no, HBO already had a beer partnership in the works, with Ommegang of Cooperstown, upstate New York. Their first beer, a Blonde Ale called Iron Throne, would be coming out the following March. Darn.
Although for both of us that was only a semi-darn, as we were (& are) big fans of both Game Of Thrones and Brewery Ommegang. We were actually kinda psyched to see what their partnership would produce.
(And – but of course – the second beer in the series turned out to be a stout called Take The Black.)
Anyway, the Ommegang team have done an excellent job with the concepting, creation and marketing of the three GOT beers to date. And, given that the first beer was as rare as an albino dire wolf while the most recent was on display at my local Manhattan grocery store, I will guess it’s done rather well for them too. (Their website says they made 4,300 barrels of this beer, a fourfold increase on the first in the series.)
The current brew is Valar Morghulis, a Dubbel (right in Ommegang’s wheelhouse) which, for the first time, was created as a result of a fan poll on Facebook to elect both the name and the style. (They go together well, according to Ommegang, as Jaqen H’ghar, the “Faceless Man of Braavos”, gave Ayra Stark a double-sided coin (as opposed to a triple-sided coin?!) which is the image on the bottle label.)
Now, don’t get me wrong. As I said, I’m a big fan of Ommegang and have visited the brewery, which is delightful. I like their story, I like their style, and I think they have a distinct and valuable niche in the industry. However, I’ve had a few issues with their cork-and-cage 750ml bottles, which usually have hints of being infected. (I’ve thought this on five out of six bottles I’ve tried – in this instance I even tried two bottles to be sure.) Could be my nose, could be the integrity of the closure or the bottling process, or because Ommegang heavily use brettanomyces in fermentation. I’ve never had this when drinking Ommegang on draft, only with the bottled product, and massively so on this particular one. It makes it hard for me to discern clean aromas and flavors.
The look of the beer is beautiful. I mean, first up, it’s a killer bottle. This is an area Ommegang has nailed, on the GOT series and on their packaged beer in general. In fact, to my wife’s disgruntlement, I’ve insisted on hanging on to the bottles of the previous GOT beers on a bookshelf. (By the, er, Game Of Thrones books. Don’t judge.) The beer itself pours out a rusty, rich nut-brown, and the head is thick and an orange-ivory hue. The liquid is cloudy. It has a medium-low carbonation.
The aromas are dominated by slightly muddled banana and clove. Other spices mingle in there too, like cardamon and nutmeg. There is a gentle nuttiness in the background: almond specifically. My over-riding impression is that there must be some sort of taint, as I feel it’s too heady and unbalanced to be the brewer’s intent. There is a soft campfire and pine underlying the immediate smell, and some tart fruits such as apple and orange, but the musty tropical fruit really hits my nose and numbs its appreciation of complexity.
In the mouth the beer is fulsome and you get the weight of the 8% ABV. It’s smooth, but has an unexpectedly bitter finish. (Another sign it’s spoilt?) There is some sourness too.
It’s certainly drinkable, and I managed to finish the bottle alongside some Thanksgiving leftovers with no huge complaint. But in no way a knock-out for me. While the bottle, the beer, its story and its intrinsic appeal are a class example of excellent marketing – I’m sure Guinness would have benefited from somehow beating Ommegang to the punch on Game Of Thrones, were that possible – given the chops I know the brewery to have I would expect a better beer.
Nonetheless, I look forward to the recently announced Three-Eyed Raven Dark Saison in the spring for another bite at the cherry. Naturally it will be drunk alongside the opening episode of the fifth season.