One of the best parts about attending Vail’s Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines, aside from the informative seminars and the chance to get elbow to elbow with some of the country’s top brewers, is the opportunity to try some of the very best high-octane beers in the world. After sipping and ruminating on a few dozen, there was a small group that seemed to rise above the rest. Here are my top beer picks from the festival:
Mexican Chocolate Stout, Copper Kettle Brewing Co., Denver
I am a firm believer that there are few beer styles more satisfying to the taste buds than a well-balanced chili brew — just the perfect amount of heat and flavor that doesn’t overpower and send you running to douse the flames with a chaser. Copper Kettle’s Mexican Chocolate Stout, a 2011 gold medal winner at Denver’s Great American Beer Fest, is richly beautiful and reminiscent of a spicy mole sauce liquefied, bottled, fermented and presented to the ecstatic public.
The beer starts with dark roasted malt flavors, bolstered by additions of bittersweet chocolate, a blend of three Mexican chili peppers and cinnamon. The brewery says a 500-year-old Aztec recipe for Mexican hot chocolate inspired this brew, and it lands thick and luxurious on your tongue with just a hint of after burn in the back of your throat. At 7 percent alcohol by volume, this stout stood at the low end of the alcohol scale for Big Beers, which was just fine with me because it meant I could have seconds. And thirds.
Jubileum, Gravity Brewing Co., Louisville
Next door to Copper Kettle, another mysterious wooden tap box housed Jubileum, a Belgian peppercorn ale concocted by Gravity Brewing Co. from Louisville. Little Louisville may be sandwiched between the brewing powerhouses of Boulder and Denver, but it definitely shouldn’t be overlooked, if for no other reason than Gravity’s amazing beers. Jubileum is made with pink and black peppercorns and weighs in at 8.5 percent on the alcohol scale.
At a mere 33 International Bittering Units, the bite from this beer comes almost entirely from the pepper. Peppercorn beers are difficult to make because of their balance: The brewer has to pay close attention to how much pepper is used and when it is added so the drinker has a pleasant, peppery experience, strong enough to taste but not overpowering to the other flavors in the beer. The Jubileum had a really great peppercorn aroma and just enough spice to avoid that feeling of having licked the business end of a pepper grinder.
Backyard Rye BCS, Goose Island, Chicago
Toward the end of the tasting session, a commotion started around Goose Island’s slice of real estate. A frenzy of beer lovers was stacked four or five deep, hands outstretched with tasting glasses, as the beer reps pulled out a handful of bombers from the brewery’s Bourbon County series. I blindly snaked my own glass through the crowd and was rewarded with a few precious ounces of Backyard Rye BCS.
The “backyard” moniker was inspired by the trees in the brewers’ own yards, proffering the dark, spicy and sweet flavors of mulberries, marionberries and boysenberries. The berries were thrown in with the stout and aged in rye whiskey barrels, giving the beer a jammy, slightly sweet flavor supported by a complex malt blend of 2-Row, Munich, Chocolate, Caramel, Roast Barley and Debittered Black. This uber-dark and rich brew clocked in at 12.7 percent alcohol by volume, and I savored every last tasty drop.
Angry Elf, Black Bottle Brewery, Fort Collins
The last-call bell was about to ring when I finally got my hands on this beer, and it turned out to be my favorite of the festival. Black Bottle’s Angry Elf is an American strong ale, 12 percent ABV, brewed with maple, molasses, orange blossom honey, brown sugar and cinnamon. As if juggling that many flavors weren’t enough, the beer is then aged in Scotch barrels and then transferred to fresh American whiskey barrels, with raspberries added to the brew in the final month of its barrel nap.
This incredible little number was created for the brewery’s one-year anniversary, and Black Bottle bubble pusher Sean Theis said the beer was somewhat inspired by the movie “Elf,” where Will Ferrell’s character insists on putting syrup on everything. Very little of this insanely big and ridiculously delicious beer is left at the brewery’s tap room in Fort Collins, and Theis said the brewing team is too ADD to do the same thing twice, so run there — like, now; drop the paper, get in the car and go — and soak up a few pints.