Beer enthusiasts hop to Vail |

Beer enthusiasts hop to Vail

Ted AlvarezVail CO, Colorado
AE Big Beer Fest PU 1-6-07

VAIL – The 7th Big Beers Belgians & Barleywines Festival in the Manor Vail Conference Center got progressivley louder as the afternoon went on, but the crowd maintained a certain decorum, copping an interest in “tasting” rather than drinking beer.All bets were off when the dudes in the beer-bottle costumes showed up.”This is our 9th beer festival in Vail,” said Gary Brown, who drove up with two other beer-bottle-dressed friends from Colorado Springs. “We call ourselves The Beveragers. We just found these costumes and put our own names on it – it’s kind of a tradition now.”

Brown, aka Home Brewer Jones, was joined by Hopped Up Hank, Beer Drinker Bob and one more modest friend from Colorado Springs to enjoy the barley infused festivities.”I’m just here for the beer,” said the costume-less Mark Sterrett. “And with this many breweries, there’s a lot of great ones.”This year’s Big Beers gathering, hosted by Bill and Laura Lodge of High Point Brewing in Gypsum, featured over 125 specialty beers, barleywines, meads and more from all over the world. A $25 ticket ensured all the beer you could taste, but for those with education in mind, two seminars focused on exploring facets of the brewmaking industry. Brian Dunn, founder and brewmaster for Great Divide Brewing in Denver, hosted a beer and cheese pairing class, while Belgians HIldegard and Bas van Ostaden delved into the history of their Brouwerij de Leyerth in West Flanders, Belgium. Proceeds helped benefit the Vail Valley Charitable Fund.The primary action remained in the tasting room, where the sunburned apres crowd, likely following their noses down a hop-scented hallway, quickly began to file in with their cognac-sized tasting glasses. Most still had hats and ski pants on, and a few tromped in with snowy boots.

Though major breweries like Anheuser-Busch and New Belgium were on hand, the majority of brewers were independent microbrewers with boutique ales and beers to dispense. Left Hand Brewery, from Longmont, featured their Snowbound ale, a strong ale spiced with cinnamon, honey, chopped ginger, orange zest, cardamom and cloves, and their Smokejumper Smoked Imperial Porter, which actually tasted like smoke in a glass.”I drink all these gladly – if we don’t like it, we don’t brew it,” said Left Hand president Eric Wallace. “I started drinking in high school in Germany, and when I came back to the States I went through ‘good brewery withdrawal.’ I went back to Europe, but when I came back, there were all kinds of great microbrews here. After all the badmouthing, I figured I was required to do my duty to contribute.”Outside of commercial brewers, homebrewers were on hand to compete in the homebrewers competition. The winner gets a commercial batch made, which will be poured at Colorado-area pubs and brewhouses. Westminster’s Ryan Thomas won this year for his Ragnarok, an English-style barleywine. “I love homebrewing because I can basically do whatever I want,” said homebrewer Chris Panichas. “One day, who knows, maybe I’ll take it to the next level.”Each specialty brew often had a colorful story behind its inspiration and creation. Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons showcased its Gordon beer, an intensely hoppy blend inspired by Gordon Knight, one of Colorado’s first brewpub owners and an aerial firefighter killed in the line of duty.

“He helped pioneer a few breweries in Colorado, and he believed that the more hops you put in a beer, the better it was,” said Oskar Blues brewer Mike Hall. “He was a Vietnam pilot who used to spot fires around Estes Park, and he fell to his death. This beer is a tribute to both his style of beermaking and him as a hero.”Oskar Blues representative Chris Katechis said that they’ve signed a distribution deal with Coors, and Oskar Blues’ Gordon should be available nationwide later in 2007. The festival also serves as an important showcase event for local beverage buyers looking for new products. “This is an important event, because you can scout so many new beers, especially the Belgians and the barleywines, which can be hard to come by,” said Chip Nelson, food & beverage director of the Marriot Hotel in Vail. “I’ve never tried mead before, but it was so light and airy that I’m really loving it.”Boulder’s Redstone Meadery specializes in both sparkling and still meads, which are honey wines often infused with berries and other spices. The Redstone table attracted non-beer drinkers with its sparkling nectars, golden honey wine and the Redstone Reserve, a port-like specialty brew.

“They’re all my children and I have to love them equally,” said Madoko Myers, “countess of the mead” at Redstone. “But the Reserve is fantastic for just sitting by the fire and maybe enjoying some chocolates, or a nice strong cheese like Stilton.”As the evening drew on, noses reddened and guests wore bemused smiles while they flitted back to their favorite tables for second tastings. The air in the convention room was stifling and warm, but not many people seemed to notice, caught up as they were in the communal appreciation for malted hops and barley. A few stepped out into the cold hallway outside the convention hall, gulped fresh air and dove back into the tasting room.”You ready for another round?”Arts & Entertainment writer Ted Alvarez can be reached at 748-2939 or

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