19th annual Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival returns to Breckenridge for third year
Thirsty people are invited to the 19th annual Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines festival happening this weekend in Breckenridge. Roughly 150 breweries from around the world will be pouring more than 450 beers. As the name of the festival implies, to be served the beer has to be higher than 7 percent alcohol by volume like a barleywine, be brewed in a Belgian style or set trends with its experimental nature.
“We’ve had New England-style IPAs, brut IPAs, milkshake IPAs, white IPAs, black IPAs, where else are we going with IPAs?” asked Laura Lodge, festival organizer and co-founder.
The festival, aimed toward industry professionals and amateur enthusiasts, blends both education and relaxation. In fact, education was central to the birth of the festival.
Before craft beer became as popular as it is today, Laura’s brother Bill had a beer distribution portfolio that included microbreweries and imports. The pair found that liquor stores and restaurants were naive when it came to small-batch beer and didn’t understand why they, or their patrons, would want to pay more. The purpose of the festival was like a public trade show that taught both consumers and buyers the intricacies of craft beer.
What originally started as a single six-hour tasting and seminar at Hubcap Brewing in Vail has ballooned into a destination event. Beer festivals are rare in the colder months, and Laura — who has lived in Vail for the past 28 years — wanted to highlight both the ski industry and the breweries doing great work outside of the Front Range. Colorado may be more widely known for the Great American Beer Festival, but the Lodges hope the smaller scale — the main tasting only holds about 1,900 people compared to GABF’s 60,000 — and other aspects paint a different feel for the weekend.
According to brewers, the educational component and the intimate, one-on-one style of the festival set it apart for both guests and breweries.
“What’s neat about it and interesting is that (the high ABV) sounds like a recipe for disaster,” said Dave Thibodeau, president and co-founder of Ska Brewing, “but the bonus is that it tends to be a little more educated crowd as far as beer goes and generally a little more well behaved because they know how to handle their alcohol.
“But there’s certainly exceptions to this every year,” he said, laughing.
Now in its third year in Breckenridge, the festival has a variety of different seminars that are relevant for different levels of beer aficionados. Though seminars aren’t included in Saturday’s grand tasting ticket, the presentations are reasonably priced.
For free, one can attend a workshop on how to become a Cicerone, — the beer equivalent of a sommelier — enjoy an evening of paired beers and cigars or wake up for a rejuvenating morning session of yoga.
The schedule also includes a technical track that has Inland Island Yeast Laboratories along with Avery Brewing Company, Call To Arms Brewing Co. and Crooked Stave discussing the properties of yeasts in high gravity and sour beers. For those wanting a more random selection of panels, The Colorado Farm Brewery, Our Mutual Friend Brewing and Three Barrel Brewing Company will be talking about ancient Scandinavian beers.
New this year is a seminar that describes how water quality affects beer.
“I’ve been wanting to feature water for a long time,” Laura said. “We’ve done hops, we’ve done sours, we’ve done all sorts of different yeast features, but we’ve never focused on water. … It’s so critical. It’s like what, 80 or 90 percent of your beer? So let’s talk about it.”
Additionally, there affiliated tap takeovers and dining events hosted by local breweries and restaurants.
While it’s fun and games for most attendees, the weekend will also be an opportunity for one lucky homebrewer to compete at GABF. Two different sessions will judge a maximum of 300 beers entered from across the globe. The winner, announced on Saturday, will brew their beer at a commercial scale with Aurora’s Dry Dock Brewing, will be entered into GABF’s Pro-Am Competition and have the beer featured at Denver’s Falling Rock Taphouse.
Ska Brewing has been making beer in Durango for 23 years and 2019 marks their first time at the festival since its move to Breckenridge and the first time being named featured brewmaster.
“It really is a big honor,” said Thibodeau. “We’re fortunate in Colorado that not only do we have the Great American Beer Festival but this festival. Because Laura Lodge did a great job early on bringing international brewers and people like Sam from Dogfish Head that garnered a lot of respect for this festival. … It’s just well known as a high-end festival with a lot going on for the pretty serious beer geek.
“It’s always fun to go to even if you’re not a featured brewmaster. So this is humbling and very exciting at the same time.”
Thibodeau got into craft beer almost by accident growing up in Denver. In high school during the mid-’80s he and his business partner Bill Graham discovered the homebrewing notebook of Thibodeau’s father. The two started to mess around with the recipes, realizing they then didn’t need to buy beer, while simultaneously inspiring his father to get back into brewing. Ingredients like malt were bought at grocery stores because homebrew shops weren’t common and the two continued to brew through college to the founding of Ska.
Since craft brewing was still in its infancy, no one style was a particular influence. Thibodeau recalls going to Applejack Wine & Spirits with his father and finding a small wooden crate of Boulder Beer and stumbling upon Pete’s Wicked Ale.
“There was a little tag on the neck that explained why there was sediment in the bottom,” said Thibodeau. ” I went home and drank it … and that was it for me. I don’t know if it was really good or not at the time, but I thought it was fantastic.
“We didn’t have a good palette or anything, we just liked beer. We grew up in the shadow of Coors.”
The one rule of their homebrewing adventure was that ska music had to be played during the process and their previous batch had to be finished before starting a new one.
“Durango is pretty much a cowboy town, other than the college, so we told everyone it was an acronym for sh*t-kicking ales because we knew no one knew what the music was back then.”
To celebrate the journey from then to now, at the festival Ska will be pouring their barrel-aged MonumentAle from their 20th anniversary, whisky sour aged with orange peel and cherries, Bumpier And Grindier imperial coffee milk stout and Cru D’état, an ale made with wild, spontaneous yeast that was aged in large oak barrels called foeders for two years and weighs in at 11.5 percent ABV.
Steve Breezley, the chief operating officer of Ska, will host a Saturday morning seminar on how the glucoamylase enzyme is used in brewing to create high ABV beers along with the Champagne-like brut beers. Tickets are $15 and seating is limited to 60 people.
ACROSS THE POND
Sharing the headlines with Durango’s brewery is Nynäshamns Ångbryggeri, a 21-year-old brewery from the coastal town of Nynäshamns, Sweden, that’s also honored to be featured. For many in the industry this weekend is an opportunity for peers to reconnect and that’s no different here since the two breweries have collaborated on a pair of beers in the past. However, this is the first time Nynäshamns has been to a festival in America.
“We are from a small country in Europe doing our own thing and mostly to our own market,” said spokesperson Marcus Wärme in an email. “So, to be selected as a brewmaster for a U.S. festival like this is really humbling.”
The brewery doesn’t focus on any particular beer style and is influenced by British, Belgian and German beers. Due to a lack of a large brewing culture back when they started, and inspired by author Michael Jackson’s comprehensive beer books, they would travel to other European countries to acquire more diverse brews before brewing their own.
“Trappist breweries like Chimay, the Westvleteren and Westmalle impressed us back then and still do,” said co-founder Lasse Ericsson in an email. “A few breweries in Bamberg inspired many of the lager beers that we produce today. But even real ale from the Sheffield area was something special for us then and has inspired us over the years.”
On Saturday afternoon Ericsson and head brewer Andrew Colley will present a seminar about making simple beers true to their style. Tickets are $15 and seating is limited to 60 people.
DINNER IS SERVED
Both Ska and Nynäshamns will be featured at Friday’s five-course Traditional Brewmasters’ Dinner. Instead of a traditional pairing dinner, — one beer with each course — the executive chef for the Brewers Association, Adam Duyle, and the association’s craft beer program director Julia Herz worked with Quandary Grille to develop a menu where each dish works with a beer from both breweries simultaneously.
For instance, the first course is a seared scallop and crispy potato with a saffron beurre blanc served alongside Ska’s whiskey sour and Nynäshamns’ Valsviken Vinterporter. Meanwhile the fourth course of duck “cassoulet” pasta, Portuguese sausage and candied bacon is paired with Nynäshamns Bötet Barleywine and Ska’s Cru D’état.
Additionally, the festival will feature a Thursday dinner at Beaver Run Resort hosted by Avery Brewing Company and Dogfish Head Brewing as Friday will see a small plates pairing crafted by Aurum Food & Wine, Blackberry Farm Brewery and Verboten Brewing.
Throughout the weekend, there’s always a bite of food to pair with a glass of beer, and vice versa.
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