Vail’s Big Beer, Belgians & Barleywines Festival turns 15 | VailDaily.com

Vail’s Big Beer, Belgians & Barleywines Festival turns 15

Katie Coakley
Daily Correspondent

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 today and Saturday, the Big Beers Festival is more than just an opportunity to sample hard-to-find and rare beers, all clocking in at more than 7 percent ABV. There's that, of course, but there are also 13 educational seminars and workshops, three Brewmasters' 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, 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, then 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 (sold-out) Commercial Tasting, including a workshop on the Cicerone certification program, a cigar pairing experience and The Yoga of Brewing on Saturday morning.

Stop, Collaborate and Listen

Brewers tend to be social creatures, folks that like to get together to talk about their craft and explore ways to work together. The Big Beers Festival has not only provided an opportunity for the brewers to socialize, but it has also given rise to some of the most eagerly anticipated events and, in some cases, brand new collaborations.

Case in point: At the Welcome Reception, which takes place today at noon, select breweries will be showcasing a beer of their choice. One will be a collaboration beer from Flying Dog Brewery from Maryland and Edwards' own Crazy Mountain Brewing Company.

"The idea for doing this collaboration happened at Big Beers," Lodge explained. "That was one of the reasons that we thought it would be cool to feature it at the Welcome Reception — it was conceived here."

The collaboration, which yielded two versions of a brown ale, is the joint effort of Crazy Mountain's head brewer John Allshouse and Flying Dog's COO Matt Brophy. The two have a long history together — Allshouse and Brophy worked together at Great Divide Brewery in Denver in the late 1990s. The two worked together on the details and spent time at each other's breweries, with Allshouse visiting Maryland to work with Brophy on the brewing of the Roland, an Imperial Brown Ale, and Brophy visiting Edwards in mid-December to create Roland, Jr., an Indian Brown Ale.

"Things came together," Allshouse said. "I'm kinda excited."

The results will be premiered at the Big Beers Festival. As the name suggests, the Roland, Jr. is a smaller version of the same brown ale.

"It's an interesting collaboration," Allshouse said. "That's how we bring the whole thing together. It tied the two breweries together much more closely, rather than just doing one beer and calling it a collaboration."

Other beers that will be featured at the Welcome Reception, along with food pairing from the culinary team at the Vail Cascade Resort & Spa, include Goose Island's Bourbon County Coffee Stout and a special release barleywine from Durango's Ska Brewing.

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 Commercial Tasting, which takes place on Saturday 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, Allagash 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 from Boulder), small (like Eagle-based 7 Hermits Brewing Company) 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 taking place tonight, 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.

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."

If You Go …

A limited number of tickets for Saturday’s Commercial Tasting are still available at http://www.rush49.com as well as a few local liquor stores including Riverwalk Wine & Spirits, Avon Liquors, Beaver Liquors, West Vail Liquor Mart and Alpine Wine & Spirits. There is the opportunity to reserve a seat at some of the seminars, for $10, which goes to the Vail Valley Charitable Fund.

Also available are complimentary bus passes for the ECO Transit bus system, which will allow guests to be dropped off and picked up at the Vail Cascade. These complimentary passes are available at ANB Bank in Avon and at Wine and Wort in Gypsum.

Visit http://www.bigbeersfestival.com to learn more. The Big Beer, Belgians & Barleywine Festival supports the Vail Valley Charitable Fund with a portion of event proceeds.

The beer-centric festivities are not contained within the festival. Many bars and restaurants in Vail, including Mountain Standard, the Vail Ale House, BOL and The Tavern, are hosting specific events around the festival, such as tap takeovers, drink specials and other specials . To learn more about what’s happening in town, join the Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Facebook page or follow @bigbeersfest on Twitter.

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