This weekend’s Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival in Vail gives brewers from around the country a chance to show off their craft-brew creativity.
The experimental brewing seminar was one of the first to be added to the festival schedule, said Laura Lodge, coordinator of Big Beers.
“It’s probably the cornerstone of our seminar series, and it was one of the first seminars to be created,” she said. “It’s always a new and exciting topic every year, and it’s the foundation that we built the seminars on.”
The inspiration for this year’s topic, saisons, was born at the Colorado Brewer’s Rendezvous festival in July, sponsored by the Colorado Brewers Guild, Lodge said. Along with her brother and co-conspirator for Big Beers, Bill Lodge, Laura struck up a conversation with Jason Yester, of Trinity Brewing Co.
“Bill and I were talking to Jason and he was talking about all this new, cool stuff that he was doing with saisons, and we thought that would be a really neat idea to do for experimental brewing this year,” Laura Lodge said.
Pushing the envelope
Each year since its inception, David Edgar, owner of a one-person company called Mountain West Brewery Supply and employee of White Labs, a yeast company, has moderated the experimental brewing seminar.
“I’ve been attending every year since 2000, when it was still in the upstairs of a restaurant in the village,” he said. “White Labs together with Laura come up with the idea of hosting a seminar devoted to experimental brewing.”
Edgar said the experimental brewing seminar is exciting because it focuses on a particular aspect of creativity in brewing.
“Craft beer itself is about flavor and giving beer lovers the opportunity to drink a beer like none other they’ve ever had before,” he said. “And in order for craft beer to continue to be exciting and relevant, it’s constantly pushing the envelope in terms of creativity in both brewing process and ingredients.”
Seminars in past years have explored wooden barrel-aged beers and smoked beers, but this year’s topic will reach into the Belgian tradition of saisons, which Edgar said is unique in and of itself.
“The category of Belgian beers is often referred to as a category, but it’s really not because when you want to talk about who has been pushing the envelope in brewing historically, it’s the Belgians,” he said.
Sipping on saisons
Saison, also sometimes referred to as farmhouse ale, is a style of beer that is very broadly defined, Edgar said, citing information from “Farmhouse Ales: Culture And Craftsmanship In The European Tradition,” a book by Phil Markowski.
“It’s the one style of beer that has almost no exact way of brewing it,” Edgar said. “In other words, saisons and farmhouse ales can be low gravity, low in alcohol, or they can be higher gravity or high in alcohol. They can be pale like a pilsner beer or they can be dark. They can be clear as a bell and they can be cloudy, though traditionally they are unfiltered.
“And ingredients-wise, the flavor may be partly derived from the addition of spices, which could include coriander or pepper or other spices — any range of spices, really. Also, alternately, it can have a spicy flavor to it but the brewer doesn’t add any spices at all, and that spiciness comes entirely from the yeast.”
Saisons are a perfect fit for the experimental brewing seminar, Edgar said, because it’s a style of beer that has been steadily increasing in the craft-beer world over the past four or five years.
“It’s traditionally been one of the most challenging styles to brew because if you are using the classic strain or one of the similar yeasts to the classic saison yeast style, it doesn’t ferment as predictably, it doesn’t behave as predictably as typical ale yeast,” he said. “So it can pose quite a challenge for even some of the most seasoned brewers.”
experts on hand
The seminar will consist of a panel of brewers, each with his own take on how a saison should be brewed: Jason Yester from Trinity Brewing Co. in Colorado Springs, Steven Pauwels from Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City and Dann Paquette from Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project and Bryan Greenhagen from Mystic Brewery, both in Massachusetts.
“It won’t be repetitive, even though everyone is talking about the same style of beer, because every brewer has their signature things they do to make their beer taste the way it does to give it that signature flavor,” Edgar said. “No doubt, each one will have different ways of creating the beer and fermenting the beer unique unto themselves.
“For me, it’s always exciting because you get some great brewing minds or a great brain trust of brewers in one room and it’s exciting all the ideas that come out of that, especially for the people in the audience who are home brewers or thinking of trying home brewing. … It inspires great conversation throughout the weekend of more ways and different ways you can brew a particular beer.”