Swilling the suds in Vail | VailDaily.com

Swilling the suds in Vail

HL beer fest 1 KA 1-8-11

VAIL, Colorado – It’s a wall-to-wall, humming mass of humanity clutching tasting glasses and sampling frothy brews. Above the din, beer enthusiasts shout questions to brewmasters and friends compare notes on their favorite barleywines and IPAs. It’s lovely, alcohol-infused chaos.

The Commercial Tasting event of the 11th annual Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival invaded the Vail Cascade Resort on Saturday night, and brewers big and small from all over the country brought out the best of the best big beers and a few specialty brews from their secret stashes.

Almost 100 breweries were represented at the tasting, ranging from the big guys – Boston Beer Co., Stone, New Belguim – to the small –Gore Range, Pagosa, Strange Brew – pouring a grand total of nearly 500 different high-octane beers.

For some breweries, the tasting was a relatively new experience. Crazy Mountain Brewing Co., from Edwards, took the opportunity to celebrate its one-year anniversary.

“It was a big deal for us,” said Kevin Selvy, of Crazy Mountain. “It was our one-year anniversary. We introduced ourselves at this festival last year.”

Others welcomed the annual festival like an old friend.

” I think we’ve done it all 11 years,” said Josh Breckel, of Left Hand Brewing Co. in Longmont.

Each brewery mused over its beer collection and chose a few favorites or brewed something entirely new to bring to the festival and dole out to the salivating crowd. Crazy Mountain brewed an anniversary beer, named Lawyers, Guns and Money, to celebrate its first year in the biz.

“Our one-year anniversary beer we’ve been aging for the last eight weeks, just getting it ready for this festival,” Selvy said. “That was the first time we’ve poured that. Looking back at where we were a year ago is kind of trippy.”

David Boone, with Bristol Brewing Co. in Colorado Springs, ponied up a trio of hopped wonders: a barleywine, a sour and a saison. A product of Bristol’s daughter brewery, Black Fox, the La Noche de Diablo is a special breed: a black saison.

“The Diablo is brewed with cinnamon, cayenne pepper and red chilies and then ages on chocolate and cherries, so you get a spice and then the sweet of the chocolate,” Boone said. “But then after a second or third sip, your jaws will get the spice from the cayenne pepper.”

It’s quite the interesting combination.

“There were some older gentlemen who wanted a darker beer,” Boone said. “I let this guy try it and 10 or 15 minutes later he brought his buddies over to try it. … This beer is phenomenal.”

Indeed.

Breckel and the crew at Left Hand brought along a twist on one of their favorites, their Milk Stout.

“It had been inoculated by brettanomyces, a wild yeast that sours the beer. We only made 5 gallons of it so it was really special,” Breckel said. “Playing with wild yeast is a lot of fun. It can be dangerous for a brewery to play with. It’s like crabgrass; once it gets into something, it’s really hard to get rid of.”

Left Hand also brought along its Wake Up Dead imperial stout.

“It’s a barrel-aged imperial stout that spends about 11 months in brandy barrels,” Breckel said. “It’s one that’s unique – to put beer on wood and especially to have it on there that long. Lots of people use bourbon or whiskey barrels; using a different type of barrel makes it special.”

Though the craft beer market can be competitive, you would never know it by the enthusiastic way the brewers complimented one another’s beer.

“Three Barrels had a sour that was really delicious,” Breckel said. “It’s a tiny little town, and the guy’s been making beer for three years. For someone so small to come into a room like that and stand out amongst some really big names in the industry is pretty neat.”

“It’s really good to see so many great beers and unique beers that are out there,” Boone said. “It’s great to see the breweries that you don’t see all the time.”

Boone also said the festival was a good opportunity to meet the people who love the beer. At the end of the day, beer is special, and these guys know it.

“When I worked for a brewery out in San Francisco, I met my fiancee over a beer when she was touring our tasting room,” Selvy said. “She ordered a barleywine, and I poured it for her. The guys out at Anchor always save some 2007 barleywine for us because they know that’s what we met over.”