Like the beverages it celebrates, the Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival in Vail has gotten deeper and more complex as it has aged. Now in its fifteenth year, the festival, taking place this weekend, will welcome more than 1,500 brewers, industry veterans, beer celebrities, regular beer geeks -- and a handful of ski bums.
Founded by Laura Lodge and her brother, Bill, it was designed to educate attendees about the biggest and boldest beer styles, and it has continued to expand (and sell out). This year, there are thirteen seminars and workshops in addition to three brewmasters' dinners, a homebrew competition and a commercial tasting with more than 300 of the kind of beers that will leave you with a bit of headache the next day.
Denver beer writer Patrick Dawson, the author of Vintage Beer, has been attending for the past five or six years as a volunteer, but this year, he'll be a presenter, leading a panel of experts, including Goose Island brewer Jared Jankoski and Casey Brewing & Blending owner Troy Casey, to talk about aging and cellaring.
"The caliber of beer that you can find at this festival is just amazing," Dawson says, ticking off a few of the rarities he's enjoyed there over the years.
The demographics of attendees at the fest have also changed, he adds, from a lot of ski bums and Vail locals who were interested in beer to primarily beer geeks.
One of the biggest draws, though, is the fact that so many owners and head brewers attend the fest, mingling with their starry-eyed fans. After all, the fest is a fantastic (and tax-deductible) way to take a ski vacation in Colorado, Dawson points out.
At his seminar, Dawson will discuss the same things he covers in his book, which is how and why certain beers mature and get better as they age -- and how to recognize which ones, or which styles, will age the best, and for how long.
And he's got a current list going of some of his top Colorado beers for aging.
Avery Brewing Samael's This oak-aged English-style barleywine is "one of the best aging beers in the world. It's epic," he says. "The ridiculously high amount of booziness...transforms into sweet caramel and molasses over time." Dawson recently opened a ten-year-old bottle, and says it could have stayed cellared another ten.
Crooked Stave Origins Brewery owner Chad Yakobson understands that in order to age a beer, the brewer has to add the right grains in the right amount, Dawson explains, so that there is something left after the yeast eats through everything. Origins, a Flanders-style red, "gets fruity, like wine," as it ages, he adds.
Great Divide Hibernation "I love it fresh, but every year I get a second six-pack and put it downstairs. Even one year of aging cuts some of the harsh edge and lets the dried and fresh fruits come out," Dawson says about Great Divide's seasonal winter warmer. Plus, he notes, "it's hard to find many age-able beers in a six-pack anymore. It's nice from a value standpoint."
Elevation Apis IV "I love how quads age. They are spicy up front with clove and pepper along with the alcohol, but as they age, they transform into totally different flavors, with leather and smoke and vanilla," Dawson says. Elevation's Belgian-style quadrupel pulls off this feat particularly well, making for a "really fun sipper."
Casey Brewing & Blending Saison "I feel weird saying this about Troy's Saison because it has only been out for six months or so, but the way it tasting fresh -- and knowing him and his knowledge base and the way he manipulates yeast and barrel aging -- this is going to age well... it will get super fruity as the Brettanomyces slowly progresses," Dawson says.
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