T here are beers and then there are big beers — really big beers. Beers so tasty and extraordinary that you feel that if you sampled one more, you’d be cheating on the one you just sipped. But then you realize that there are 374 more beers to try. So, as in many relationships, you soldier on. For the greater good, of course.
“Big,” in this case, refers to alcohol content: a minimum of 7 percent ABV (alcohol by volume) is required for all craft and specialty beers that are poured during the weekend. That requirement alone sets the bar high for the 14th annual Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival, which returns to Vail on Thursday and continues through Saturday. Continue the focus with Belgian-style beer (often known for its high ABV) and barleywines (one of the strongest beer styles brewed) and you have a recipe for one of the most anticipated — and respected — events of the year.
The Big Beers festival at the Vail Cascade Resort & Spa allows guests to attend educational sessions, rub elbows with some of craft brewing’s biggest rock stars and sample rare, bold and experimental beers from breweries from around the country.
As the craft brewing scene continues to grow in Colorado and across the country, so does the Big Beers festival. The festival has seen more than 20 percent growth in the number of breweries for the 2014 event and, as a result, one of the most noticeable changes in this year’s event is the location of the Commercial Tasting, which will be held in Gore Range Hall at the Vail Cascade Resort & Spa.
“The biggest new piece of the festival is the new venue for the Commercial Tasting,” said event coordinator Laura Lodge. “This is the first time in a while that we’re able to have everyone on the same level, with everyone in one space.”
In previous years, the tasting was split between two levels with a main tasting room, a smaller tasting room downstairs and brewers stationed in the hallway. This new layout promises to be easier for attendees to navigate.
“The Tasting Session was absolutely fantastic,” said Dave Butler, owner and writer at Fermentedly Challenged. “There were so many big beers there and so many brewers in attendance to talk to as well. Some of the best beers I’ve ever tried were at that session.”
The Big Beers festival is also adding an additional Brewer’s Dinner to the 2014 schedule. Expanding the party to Golden Peak, the Village Brewmasters’ Dinner will be held at The Lord Gore Restaurant at Manor Vail Resort. Co-hosted by Gordon Schuck, founder and brewmaster of Funkwerks in Fort Collins, and Jared Jankoski, head brewer of Goose Island Beer Co. in Chicago, this dinner will be built around the Belgian-style beers produced by each brewer.
The Fireside Bar program, which began in 2010, has continued to grow since its inception and, as a result, will be held in the Cascade Lounge. This change will provide additional seating, food options and additional staffing. The attending breweries donate all of the beer that is poured in the Fireside Bar; all beers purchased in the Fireside Bar benefit the Vail Valley Charitable Fund.
The educational component of the weekend sets the Big Beers event apart from other beer festivals and continues to grow each year. With nine different seminars and sensory workshops during the three-day weekend, there are plenty of tastes, techniques and topics to explore.
“I attended four different seminars and was amazed at the quality of the topics and the speakers, too,” Butler said.
Butler attended the 2013 Big Beers festival, and while two of his favorite seminars will not be repeated, the spirit of the seminars, the interactive qualities and side-by-side comparisons will be present in the 2014 topics.
The larger seminars include a session on experimental brewing and two featured brewmasters’ seminars, led by Cam O’Connor from Deschutes Brewing Co. in Bend, Ore., and Scott Vaccaro from Captain Lawrence Brewing Co. in Elmsford, N.Y., which will focus on blending barrel aged beers. Saturday’s seminars will include an additional track this year: a Brewmaster’s Track, a Technical Track and a Sensory Workshop Track.
Wines have sommeliers as experts — beers have cicerones. On Friday morning, the team from All About Beer Magazine will present the Cicerone Workshop from 8:30 a.m. to noon. Open to the public and free of charge, this workshop will touch on subjects such as beer styles, food and beer pairings, even storage and draft equipment, providing an educational buffet for beer lovers. Reservations are not required.
In Vail’s backyard
If you plot the distance that people travel to attend the Big Beers event, whether they’re commercial brewers, home brewers or beer lovers, then you’ll find visitors from around the country and around the globe. The Big Beers event has been growing steadily — nearly 1,200 people attended the 2013 event — but it’s still considered a gem by most attendees.
“Besides all of the wonderful seminars and beers, I also enjoyed getting together at night with several beer enthusiasts at the various watering holes and hotels around the area,” Butler said. “There’s more to this festival than just the festival — it’s the people, too.”
One of a kind experiences such as the Calibration Dinner, which allows celebrity brewers like Adam Avery, president and brewmaster at Avery Brewing in Boulder, and Sam Calagione, founder and president at Dogfish Head Brewing in Milton, Del., to tag team a beer pairing dinner, are what really set the Big Beers festival apart. The fact that it takes place in such a convenient location makes it a not-to-miss event for Vail Valley guests and residents.
“We’re seeing more local attendance,” Lodge said. “It’s cool that we’re getting the word out to the Vail Valley. It has taken a long time.”