It’s only 38 miles from Vail to Breckenridge, but it was a huge leap for the Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival, which moved to Summit County this year after sixteen years in Vail. The change came with complications — finding new sponsors, a new venue and new partners — but after an initial scare that the fest would come to an end, founders Laura and Bill Lodge and their team were able pull it off yet again, a feat that is probably fairly rare in the beer-festival business.
The new location preserved much of what is so wonderful about this fest, which took place January 5-7 at Beaver Run Resort: seminars and collaboration, opportunities to get up close and personal with famed or favorite brewers and brewery owners, and an intimate sense of camaraderie among the 1,750 attendees.
Breck is also a better town for eating, drinking and making merry than Vail. But with that sprawling feel and more venues, there seemed to be slightly less intensity to the festival.
Beaver Run Resort was a great place to serve as the base — and the people who work there were clearly excited to have the festival — but the venue didn’t work as well for the biggest event, the Commercial Tasting. Spread out over two floors and down a couple of hallways, it was somewhat awkward. Still, I heard almost no complaints about any aspect of the event.
Neither did Lodge. "So far, nearly all of my feedback has been enthusiastic about being in Breckenridge and at Beaver Run," she says, adding, "It didn't hurt that we had amazing snow conditions.... I think everyone will be much more dialed in about how to get around between floors at the commercial tasting next year, since that can be confusing.... We don't have the option to be on one floor."
As for the breweries, they clearly brought some of their most prized stuff, rare enormous beers that made attendees stand up and take notice — and take Advil the next day. Here are five of the breweries that impressed me the most — breweries I think we’ll be hearing more about in the coming year.
Alpine Dog Brewing
Alpine Dog Brewing, which has quietly been pushing boundaries for the past year, has really ramped up its game. Not only did it impress with a Bourbon Barrel Aged version of its Dyatlov Pass Incident Russian Imperial Stout, but it provided what may have been the most memorable beer of the fest: 2nd Anniversary Ale, an imperial stout aged in second-use bourbon barrels with Brettanomyces. Chocolatey, oaky and rich, it carried only faint wisps of bourbon, with a slightly more pronounced Brett character.
Broken Compass Brewing
Broken Compass wowed with its newly remodeled Breckenridge taproom, as well as with its beers, which included the 12.5 percent Bourbon-Barrel Aged Imperial FDFH Brown and an Imperial IPA, which was aged six months in Breckenridge rum barrels and then dry-hopped. The brewery, which has won a medal at GABF each of the past two years, is doing so well, in fact, that it's hoping to add a second location in town. Hopefully that will mean more of its famed Coconut Porter.
Grimm Brothers Brewing
Grimm Brothers once again knocked it out of the park with its barrel-aged offerings — something it has been doing for years — which made me wonder why the brewery doesn’t expand this part of its business and package some of these marvelous beers. Standouts from the Big Beers Fest were Bourbon Barrel-Aged 13th Door, a 13.5 percent barleywine, and Barrel Aged Magic Mirror, an imperial version of the brewery’s Snow Drop Kotbusser Ale that was stored on oak.
Our Mutual Friend Brewing
At the last minute before heading up to Breckenridge, OMF decided to bring a few Crowlers of Weirding Way, its newly released saison fermented with twelve different strains of Brettanomyces and dry-hopped with Citra hops. With its gorgeous hazy appearance and heady aromas of citrus and funk, the beer was a lovely, easy-drinking hit. OMF will continue to expand and improve on its sour and wild-ale programs in coming months. The brewery also shone with Barrel-Aged Thanatoid, a Russian Imperial Stout aged in Laws bourbon barrels — a nearly perfect example of the style.
Fresh off its bronze medal in the Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Stout category at the Great American Beer Festival and a move last spring from a tiny taproom on the outskirts of Loveland to a 4,500-square-foot space downtown, Verboten continued to show why it is one of the best under-the-radar breweries in Colorado — though that under-the-radar status may not last much longer. My favorites were the GABF-winning Little Nonsense and Blood Guardian, a 9.5 percent blood-orange imperial IPA.
Here are more photos from the fest: