For beer enthusiasts, Christmas comes a few weeks late in Vail.The annual Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines festival, a favorite event among beer connoisseurs, hits the Vail Cascade Thursday through Saturday in the same way the featured product hits the mouth of its attendees - lively and refreshing with a pleasant aftertaste.The festival is now in its 13th year. Those who go, usually return. Locals look forward to the festival every year, but it's a very international event, as well - people center vacations from around the globe around Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines in Vail. You'll find people like John Mallett of Bell's Brewery there, and Bell's doesn't even distribute beer in Colorado."That said a lot for a brewery that has basically no vested interest in the entire state," said Josh Mishell, a former Flying Dog Brewery employee who attends the festival every year. "That's very rare for a beer festival."Mishell has now been to the last eight Big Beers festivals in Vail, and said while he came for the beer drinking, a greater appreciation for beer, partly fostered by this festival, is what keeps him returning."Now that I have an experienced palate the goal is to have as many incredible beers as I can while remembering what I liked about them," he said.This year Mishell is looking forward to chatting with Sam Calagione, owner of Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware, who will be on hand pouring beer and meeting Dogfish fans.Calagione said the Big Beers festival is one of his favorite events of the year."It sells out quick and it rules," he said.
The beers featured at the the Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines festival are big beers indeed. If it's not an experimental or Belgian beer, the criteria for breweries in attendance is they can only serve beer that is greater than 7 percent alcohol by volume. Many are also big on the price tag -- the festival has been known to feature beers that cost nearly $200 a bottle, like Sam Adams' "Utopias.""I've seen it poured there," said Mishell.But other, equally rare beers can be found at the festival, as well."My favorite beer I've had there is the collaboration beer Black Folie, a 50/50 blend between New Belgium's La Folie and Redstone Meadery's Black Raspberry Mead," said Mishell. "I've never seen it offered anywhere else in my life, but sometimes I make bartenders blend it up for me at bars around Denver when they have them both on tap."This year, for something unique, check out the beers offered from the Crooked Stave Artisan Project. Owner Chad Yakobson recently moved the brewery from Fort Collins to Denver and subsequently won the 2012 Great American Beer Festival Medal."I'm sure he'll have some special beer on hand to pour," said Mishell. "His beers are among my favorites."Yakobson's beers were recently reviewed in the New York Times, where they were featured for their use of Brettanomyces, or "wild" yeast."Bitter or mild, light or dark, acidic or barely tart, and frequently barrel-aged, these ales all share winelike nuances that most other craft beers lack," wrote the Times' Daniel Fromson. "Although they comprise only a sliver of the beer market and challenge many drinkers' ideas of what beer should taste like, they have nonetheless captured the imaginations of a growing number of brewers and aficionados. They also show off the sense of artisanship and depth of flavor that increasingly define American craft beer."
John Carlson, the executive director of the Colorado Brewers Guild, said the Big Beers festival is one of the best in the country."The sheer diversity and availability of such exotic beer styles all in one location really gives the consumer a great opportunity," he said. "Plus it's got a nice educational component that Bill Lodge has dreamed up, which encourages people to try different styles and not just stick to one thing."Lodge and his sister, Laura, have put a lot of hard work and dedication into the festival over the years and Mishell said their organization is the main reason why Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines is the best beer fest to which he's ever been."Plus they're some of the nicest folks I know in beer," he said.But just like an unpredictable fermentation can spoil a good beer, Mishell said there's a few things that can spoil your good time at the Big Beers fest - one thing in particular."If you're going, stay very hydrated in the days leading up to the festival and eat a good meal before you go," he said.With plenty of food options at the event, and a food coupon included in your admission purchase, food shouldn't be a problem. But neither should getting to and from the event, as free buses are available from both the town of Vail and the countywide ECO bus system."We have free ECO bus passes available for getting to and from the event Friday and Saturday," said Laura Lodge.