By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – Larry Bennett called his career at Brewery Ommegang, which included helping launch Otsego County’s anti-fracking movement, “serendipity.”
“When my wife and I moved up here in 2001 from Raleigh, N.C., I was working at the West Kortright Center to try and meet people,” he said. “I got talking with someone and told them I’d worked in advertising for 25 years, and they mentioned that Brewery Ommegang was looking for someone to do exactly that!”
On Friday, Sept. 15, Bennett retired as Ommegang’s creative director, a position he held for 15 years. “I’ll miss the people, the business and the free beer,” he said.
When he joined, his first goals were to expand the sales force and diversify the beer line. “We wanted to make different, interesting kinds of beers, and also short runs of more esoteric ones,” he said. “We were riding the wave of the craft industry. We weren’t the point of the spear, but we were certainly on the sharp edge.”
Launching the Witte beer – a lighter wheat beer with orange and coriander – was “hugely important” to bringing in new customers who might have been otherwise scared off by Belgian beers. “I loved being engaged with people, traveling and telling them about our beers,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”
He also revived the “Belgium Comes To Cooperstown” festival, which was held every summer until this year. “Everyone’s doing a beer festival now,” he said. “We are looking at how we can do it differently.”
He was instrumental in solidifying the partnership between HBO and Ommegang to produce their “Game of Thrones” beers, starting in 2013 with the “Iron Throne” ale, which quickly sold out. “Now that the show is over, we might be reviving some of them this fall,” he said. “Maybe in a gift pack.”
But for Bennett, Ommegang wasn’t just about making great beer. Otsego 2000 President Nicole Dillingham “came to see me because she was hoping someone would get involved in the fight against hydro-fracking,” he said. “80-90 percent of our water comes from beneath our own brewery. They wanted to dig wells between here and Cooperstown, so this affects us. It would put us out of business.”
He, with support from Simon Thorpe, Ommegang’s then-president, reached out to other business and rallied them behind the anti-fracking cause, including helping the Town of Middlefield write the moratorium law that eventually was confirmed by the state Court of Appeals.
“At one point I was talking to brewers in Chicago about this, and one of them told me I scared the pants off him! But something needed to be done.”
The fight was successful. “I can count on my fingers the number of angry phone calls I got,” he said. “I can’t even begin to count the number of positive calls.”
But fracking wasn’t the only issue Bennett got involved in. “In the South, many states had 6 percent laws, meaning that only one of our beers could be sold there,” said Bennett. “Wholesalers and retailers knew there was a market, and we did a lot of work with organizations like Pop the Cap in North Carolina.”
As a result, many of the laws were repealed, allowing them to expand their customer base. “We are very popular in the mid-Atlantic states,” he said.
He has hired Mike Falco to take over as creative director. “My goal was to find someone to do my job better,” he said. “And Mike was it.”
And the two of the, worked together on the packaging for his final project, the new line of hard ciders. “We’re looking to come up with things you can drink,” he said. “Apples are natural for Upstate New York, and we brew them with Belgian yeast.”
He plans to travel in his retirement. “I felt like I was part of something that was good for the community,” he said. “Lots of businesses write a mission statement, but we were on a mission – to make the best beer and get it out to people.”