Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival returns to Vail with seminars, tastings | VailDaily.com

Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival returns to Vail with seminars, tastings

If you've ever attended Vail's Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival, you're likely familiar with the Commercial Tasting, where breweries from all over the country break out their limited-edition and one-off monsters for public quaffing. But as mind-blowing as that experience can be, you'd be remiss to ignore the other elements of the festival.

This year, Big Beers will offer more than a dozen dinners, tasting events, workshops and seminars, in addition to the much-lauded Commercial Tasting. Here's a breakdown of two of them designed to bring beer to your brain.

Mad science

Guacamole, fluffernutter and chanterelle mushrooms aren't likely descriptors you would associate with beer, but weirdness abounds in the homebrewing world.

Denny Conn, of Oregon, co-authored the book "Experimental Homebrewing: Mad Science in the Pursuit of Great Beer" with another homebrewer, Drew Beechum. Conn will lead a seminar with the same title from noon to 12:50 p.m. Saturday, where he'll explore the two brewers' very different philosophies.

"I like to keep the beer first and add flavors that will support the beer," said Conn, who started homebrewing in 1998 and recently brewed batch No. 492. "Drew tends to add things that will define the beer, provide the entire flavor for it. Sometimes, you're not even really realizing you're drinking a beer.

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"I always start in my head with an idea of the finished flavor. I put together ingredients that will get me to that point. Drew kind of works the other way. He thinks about the ingredients first and then how they can be combined into a beer."

Normally, Conn and Beechum make their presentations together, but Beechum was called away for a family emergency, so Conn will be flying solo.

"'Experimental Homebrewing' covers both sides of the world of homebrewing," Conn said "He does the wild and wacky recipes, and I do more of the science part of experimental.

"I'm going to present ideas on recipe design, ingredient usage and beer evaluation, all with an eye toward getting the most out of your homebrewing times and making sure the time you're spending is effective in producing better beer."

Three beers will be served during the seminar, and those in attendance will employ objective evaluation techniques to discuss each of the beers. Conn will focus on how to make the best beer possible with the least amount of effort and will also cover a bit of Beechum's philosophy in his absence.

"He likes to come up with a story for a beer, as opposed to just throwing things together," Conn said. "One of his better-know beers is a saison guacamole he came up with by looking around his backyard and going, 'hmm, I have things here that would make guacamole, how would I integrate that into a beer?'

"He makes beers based on things that his dogs do and stuff like that. He likes to have a story behind the beer to explain the flavors he's putting into it, many times which I think are just out of his mind and crazy. We go back and forth on that a lot. He recently made a fluffernutter beer, and I can't understand for the life of me why anyone would want to put something like that in their mouth."

Despite his ribbing, Conn has also made a few off-the-wall beers, including a Scotch ale with chanterelle mushrooms and a Belgian golden strong that uses matsutake mushrooms, both of which he said have been extremely well received. He said novice brewers can get away with changing up the brewing process pretty early on, but it takes a bit more finesse to add something strange like mushrooms to a beer.

"In terms of wild and wacky ingredients, you probably want to be a little bit more experienced so you have the basic process down," he said, "so if you get an unexpected result, you know it's due to the ingredients you used and not something you screwed up in your process."

In the kitchen with Ginger

When Ginger Johnson is cooking, anything she gets her hands on could end up being an ingredient in her next dish, but one of her favorite elements to incorporate is beer.

"Beer is an unexpected ingredient still for the vast majority of people," she said. "The pleasant surprise of it is a really fun thing. I like that beer does have really unique flavors and it's also very challenging to cook with. It isn't just an egg or cheese or wine, for that matter. It does not have one primary or a few primary purposes or flavors to it."

Johnson is the founder of Women Enjoying Beer, an independent company focused on the female consumer and beer, and she'll be leading a seminar at Big Beers starting at 1:15 p.m. Saturday, titled "How to Cook With Beer: Wandering Around Your Kitchen With Ginger."

Beer is very personality-based, Johnson said, and you have to be mindful of its botanic qualities when you cook it down because an overabundance of tannins or hops can make a dish achieve an unwanted result in a hurry.

"When you're cooking, you're going to look for complimentary partners, which includes intensity — you don't want one thing to blow the other out of the water," she said. "Grains have a natural affinity. The grain bill is the largest ingredient in the beer, short of the water, so the grain is probably where you want to start a lot of the time."

Johnson also encourages the cook to bring dinner guests into the kitchen to help with tasting the beer and offering suggestions for the meal — the more palates, the better.

"I've learned that having people help me taste is important so I can get more flavor words and what their impressions are and ideas," she said. "When you're talking about cooking with beer, beyond having them over for the social aspects of the meal, have them over to try and do that mental exercise together.

"It's not all about this finished product that has to be perfect. They just want to come over and be a part of it, so cooking with beer is a terrific opportunity to bring people together and have people over."

In the 50-minute seminar, Johnson will introduce, in succession, three courses made with three very different beers — Breuery Terreux Oude Tart, New Holland Dragon's Milk and Allagash Nancy — discuss where the recipe ideas came from and expound upon each a bit.

"I'm pretty lively, and I want people to be really energized and get ideas that they can use every day," she said. "I want people who want to use this to realize that it's very pedestrian; it's very easy to do this stuff. It's not some fancy ingredient — it's just plain old beer."

Buy tickets locally

The Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival Commercial Tasting is officially sold out online. You can still find tickets at the following Vail Valley liquor stores:

• Alpine Wine & Spirits, 2109 North Frontage Road W., West Vail.

• West Vail LiquorMart, 2151 North Frontage Road W., West Vail.

• Avon Liquors, 100 W. Beaver Creek Blvd., Avon.

• Beaver Liquors, 110 E. Beaver Creek Blvd., Avon.

• Riverwalk Wine & Spirits, 34295 U.S. Highway 6, Riverwalk at Edwards.

• Wine & Wort Home Brew Shop, 120 Chambers Ave, Unit 2B, Eagle.

Find more details at http://www.bigbeersfestival.com.

Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines schedule

All events take place at the Vail Cascade Resort & Spa, 1300 Westhaven Drive in Vail, and are open to the public, unless otherwise noted. Access to seminars is included with purchase of Commercial Tasting ticket, and seating is first come, first served.

Thursday, Jan. 7

2 p.m. to close Saturday — Happy hour sponsored by Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine, Fireside Bar and Atwater on Gore Creek, $1 off draft beer

6-9 p.m. — Brewers Reception, brewers and importers only

7:30 p.m. — Calibration Dinner, SOLD OUT

Friday, Jan. 8

8:30 a.m. to noon — Cicerone Workshop, led by Ray Daniels, creator of the Cicerone Program

9:30 a.m. to noon — First session: Belgians, Barleywines and Strong Ales Homebrew Competition, participation by prior arrangement only

Noon to 1 p.m. — Welcome Reception, open to guests attending multiple weekend events, volunteers, judges, brewers and brewery representatives

1 p.m. — Second session: Belgians, Barleywines and Strong Ales Homebrew Competition, participation by prior arrangement only

2-4 p.m. — “Pour It On! Women & Beer Big Ideas Marketing Workshop,” with Ginger Johnson, of Women Enjoying Beer, $125 in advance, $140 at the door (if available)

2:30 p.m. — Certified Cicerone Exam, preregistration required at http://www.cicerone.org

4:30-6 p.m. — Small Plates & Craft Beer Pairing, Terra Bistro, SOLD OUT

6-7 p.m. — Seminar: Craftbeer.com Beer and Food Experience, with chef Adam Dulye and Julia Herz

7:30 p.m. — Traditional Brewmasters’ Dinner, SOLD OUT

10 p.m. to midnight — Cigar Pairing Experience, no ticket required

Saturday, Jan. 9

9:30-11:30 a.m. — Experimental Brewing Seminar: “Koelschips”

10-11 a.m. — The Yoga of Brewing, no ticket required

Noon to 12:50 p.m. — First Session Seminars

• Seminar: “How Local Ingredients and a Remote Location Have Pushed Brewing Innovation at Alaskan,” with Geoff Larson, of Alaskan Brewing Co.

• Seminar: “Check The Blend: Tasting a Blend of The Cut from Start to Finish,” with Troy Casey, of Casey Blending & Brewing

• Seminar: “Miracles From Mistakes,” moderated by John Holl, of All About Beer Magazine

• Seminar: “Experimental Homebrewing: Mad Science in the Pursuit of Great Beer,” with author Denny Conn

1:15-2:05 p.m. — Second Session Seminars

• Seminar: “Shades of Darkness,” with Omar Ansari, owner of Surly Brewing Co.

• Seminar: “Sourcing Barrels,” with Noah Steingraeber, of Rocky Mountain Barrel Co.

• Seminar: “How to Cook With Beer: Wandering Around Your Kitchen With Ginger,” with Ginger Johnson, of Women Enjoying Beer

• Seminar: “Build Your Beer IQ: The Science Behind Flavor,” with Dr. Nicole Garneau, of Flavor Lab LLC

2:30-6 p.m. — Commercial Tasting, $70 (includes access to all seminars)

3:30 p.m. — 2016 Homebrew Competition Awards Presentation

6 p.m. to close — Draft Magazine benefit for Vail Valley Charitable Fund, Vail Ale House, no ticket required

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