Summit County brewers travel to Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines in Vail | SummitDaily.com

Summit County brewers travel to Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines in Vail

Katie Coakley
Special to the Daily

As craft beer continues to gain popularity around the country, there's no better way to sample new brews than to attend a craft beer festival. There's a plethora of options, from specialized events like the Denver Bacon and Beer Festival to the massive Great American Beer Festival — and more are being created each month. However, one of the most anticipated festivals of the year takes place in Vail: the Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival.

Taking place Thursday, Jan. 8, through Saturday, Jan. 10, the Big Beers Festival is more than just an opportunity to sample hard-to-find and rare beers, all which clock in at more than 7 percent alcohol by volume. There's that, of course, but there are also 13 educational seminars and workshops, three brewmaster's dinners and plenty of time for socializing, both for brewers and attendees alike.

Get Schooled

A big draw to the Big Beers Festival is the various educational tracks in which attendees can take part. This year, there are four tracks with 13 different seminars to choose from: the Brewmaster's Track, a Technical Track, the Sensory Workshop Track and a new Random Track, which provides a home for those topics that don't quite fit in the other tracks.

"This was a good opportunity to bring in some things that didn't really fit into a specific track but are relevant to people that are attending the festival," said Laura Lodge, event coordinator of the Big Beers Belgians & Barleywines Festival. "It's a place to fit in those fun things that we haven't been able to do before. We're excited to show that to the public."

The Random Track will consist of a seminar that discusses how to brew "clones" of popular beers at home, as well as a discussion about vintage beers. Other seminar topics in the various tracks will range from discussion about American sour beers to harvesting yeast from interesting places, non-traditional ingredients and a panel on stouts that are far from traditional.

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Lodge said that participants don't have to stick to one particular track to enjoy the seminars — it's best to create your own track based on what interests you.

"If you're not a home brewer, then creating clones will probably not be of interest," she said. "If you like to cellar your beers, then the session on archiving will be fantastic."

Take note: Most of the seminars are small, intimate presentations with about 30 to 35 seats each. If you're really interested in attending a particular seminar, Lodge recommends reserving a seat or getting there early, as the seminars will fill up quickly and general admission seats are on a first-come, first-served basis.

There are also several workshops that are free of charge to those attending or participating in the Commercial Tasting, including a workshop on the Cicerone certification program, a cigar pairing experience and The Yoga of Brewing on the morning of Saturday, Jan. 10.

All About the Beer

Of course, one of the main reasons to attend a beer festival is the opportunity to sample new, rare and specialty brews. The sold-out Commercial Tasting, which takes place on Saturday, Jan. 10, at 2:30 p.m., is possibly one of the most diverse tastings in the country, with more than 300 beers to sample from breweries like Bell's Brewery from Michigan, Alligash Brewery from Maine, and Firestone Walker and The Lost Abbey from California.

Many of the brewery attendees are from Colorado, representing outfits large (like Avery Brewing Co. from Boulder), small (like Eagle-based 7 Hermits Brewing Co.) and soon-to-open (like Bakers' Brewery in Silverthorne), but Lodge assures attendees that the beers that are going to be poured are not the standard fare. For this festival, brewers bring beers that are special releases, might only be available in the taproom or have been brewed specifically for Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines.

"Don't discount the Colorado beers," she said. "Everyone is bringing something cool."

In addition to the brewers from around the country, Big Beers is also hosting Jef Versele, the seventh-generation owner of Brouwerij Van Steenberge in East Flanders, Belgium.

"This is a very exciting piece for this year," Lodge said. "We're very excited when brewers come over from Europe, especially if they're Belgian."

Versele will be participating in the Traditional Brewmaster's Dinner on Friday night, Jan. 9, speaking about yeast cultures and keg re-fermentation as part of the Brewmaster's Seminar Track. He will also be pouring at the Commercial Tasting on Saturday, Jan, 10.

With a selection this large, it's best to have a game plan to ensure maximum palate satisfaction. The folks at Big Beers suggest that participants sample a beer only once during the first two hours of the event so as to learn about all of the various beers that are offered, from the lighter Belgians to high-octane offerings. It's also a great time to chat with the brewers themselves and hear the stories behind these amazing creations.

Size Matters

The Big Beer Festival is big in many ways: in taste, in programming and in opportunities to rub elbows with some of the best brewers in the industry, but in terms of size, it's not the biggest.

And that's the way it's going to stay.

"This is as big as it's going to get," Lodge said. "We don't have any interest in getting any bigger. We want to continue to keep it exclusive, more of a white tablecloth experience, more of an intimate scale event. We don't want to lose the connection with fabulous brewers."

It's this connection to the brewers that makes the Big Beers Fest stand out from other festivals. Add that to the seminar tracks and the unique beers that are presented and it creates one of the most unique festivals of the year.

"Education is a primary component of what we do and charity is important, but it's also an industry celebration," Lodge said. "Everything comes together in a neat package."

Local offerings

Summit County brewers are packing up some of their biggest beers to truck across the pass to Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines. Here’s what they will be pouring.

Backcountry Brewery (Alan Simons, head brewer)

• Okilly Dokilly Experimental Flanders Red (7.5 percent) — This beer is made with two types of yeast, including Brettanomyces, and is fermented with two strains of bacteria in second-use zinfandel barrels, imparting oak and a bit of wine character. The brewer gives it an 8 out of 10 on the sour scale.

• Tart SaiZin (8 percent) — First made several years ago and soured in a barrel, this second generation brew was created by blending the base with two sour beers to provide tartness and then aged in a zinfandel barrel for 18 months, creating a beer very close to the original. The blending resulted in a sour saison made with three strains of bacteria and three types of yeast.

• Breakfast Stout (4.4 percent) — Milk stout brewed with cold-pressed coffee.

The Bakers’ Brewery (Cory Forster, head brewer)

• Bipolar Porter (9.7 percent) — Collaboration with Shine Restaurant & Gathering Place in Boulder; imperial chocolate toasted pecan porter, like an imperial candy bar, with big chocolate and caramel flavors, made with five pounds of toasted pecans and a pound of toasted white oak wood chips for a hint of a boozy, whisky flavor.

• Belgian Strong Ale (8.5 percent) — Collaboration with Kannah Creek Brewing Co. in Grand Junction; ale made with 40 pounds of fresh Palisade peaches and 20 pounds of prickly pear cactus, spiced with eucalyptus leaves and Jamaica peppers; beer has an earthy, herbal flavor, with a subtle hint of peach cobbler on the finish from the peaches and the allspice flavor of the Jamaica peppers.

Dillon Dam Brewery (Mike Bennett, head brewer)

• Imperial Brown Ale (8 percent) — The heat from the alcohol in this brown ale balances out the sweetness a little more than the average brown ale.

• Belgian Black Rye IPA (8 percent) — Dark rye ale made with Belgian yeast.

• Dam Gogh Belgian (9 percent) — Biere de Garde aged in chardonnay barrels for six months, giving it characteristics of white wine and French oak.

• Double pilsner (8.6 percent) — Light-bodied pilsner with a large amount of traditional Czech Saaz pilsner hops, giving it a spicy, grassy character to balance the heat from the high level of alcohol.