The Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival, taking place January 10 to 12 in Breckenridge, is commonly regarded as one of the best, most intimate events among Colorado's vast array of brewery happenings. Part of the reason for that is because so many brewers and brewery owners attend, hanging out in this small ski town alongside ticket holders. Another reason is the quality of the beer. More than 100 breweries from around the world bring their very best creations — most of them above 8 percent ABV.
It's an amazing cornucopia for the beer drinkers who attend. But the brewers know that they are also pouring for other brewers — so it's a great time to flex their muscles, even if just a little bit. Some choose to show off the depth or breadth of their brewery's lineup, or the strength of the beers. Others rely on popular flagships or well-known special offerings. Most want to make sure that their creativity takes center stage.
"I'd be lying a little if I said that wasn't true," acknowledges Wiley Roots Brewing owner/brewmaster Kyle Carbaugh. "As much as this festival is about the attendees and festival-goers, it's also about the brewers. This is one of the only festivals you'll consistently, year after year, find brewers and brewery owners pouring. For that reason alone, there is an increased motive to make sure the beers...have a higher likelihood of standing out."
Among the beers Wiley Roots will pour is Kobo Kai, "a sake-inspired" mixed-culture Brett beer made in collaboration with the Good Bugs beer project. "The central component to this blend is a golden sour aged in neutral oak barrels, with nearly 20 percent of the grist bill...[comprising] rice and fermented with a blend of sake yeast and acid-producing Brettanomyces," Carbaugh wrote in a description for porchdrinking.com.
Here are some other beer descriptions of this year's Big Beers offerings from the porchdrinking website:
Amalgam Brewing Balaton Reduction: "Inspired by Eisbier production methods, we reduced and concentrated a Balaton cherry golden sour beer aged in California Cab Sauvignon barrels by freezing it. We then transferred the concentrated liquid to a freshly dumped bourbon barrel for extended aging.
Liberati Osteria & Oenobeers Oximonstrum: "Made with 35 percent Nebbiolo and Barbera grapes from Piemonte, Italy, Oximonstrum was purposely micro-oxygenated to create a profile similar to aged port.
New Image Brewing My Life's Work: "We took our sour Kombucha ale, Dyad, and aged it in Laws whisky barrels for over a year. We then blended this beer with fresh stock of Dyad and added mangoes.
Westbound & Down Brewing Fruit Squad + Red Wine Grapes: "This beer is blended from five different oak barrels originating from four separate brews. The components range from twelve to nineteen months in age, and two were aged on Syrah and Mourvedre grapes from California’s Central Coast.
Our Mutual Friend Brewing Chêne Cerise and Chêne Peche Sour Ales: The base for these two brightly-colored beers was fermented in French oak foeders for ten months. Next it was refermented on either Balaton cherries or Colorado grown peaches at at four pounds per gallon. It was then bottle conditioned. Because the brewery used only a minimal amount of aged hops in these beers, it was able to show off the colors by putting them in clear bottles — without worrying about the effects of light on the hops.
Our Mutual Friend's Brandon Proff says the brewery makes decisions on what to bring to festivals based on the target audience for each one. For Big Beers, "we are definitely bringing our most creative beers. The audience there is definitely one that seeks out the more esoteric and nuanced beers on the spectrum."
Some of the breweries that attend "are pretty predictable because they don't really make hyper-creative stuff. I do not have a problem with that," Proff adds. "But you'll find that the smaller, more agile breweries tend to really shake things up every year."
The festival, taking place at the Beaver Run Resort, also gives other brewers ideas, and it can sometimes foretell trends or provide a sneak peek of up-and-coming breweries and future award-winning beers. Wiley Roots's Funk Yo Couch, for instance, won a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival in October after having turned heads at Big Beers the previous January. Other beers that have gathered a buzz at Big Beers before going on to future acclaim include WeldWerks Brewing's Medianoche, Verboten Brewing's Little Nonsense, Black Project's Mach Limit, Ska Brewing's Ska Face Barleywine and Our Mutual Friend's Weirding Way — just to name a few.
Creativity is also encouraged by the festival's organizers, who host a wide variety of seminars, lectures and other events over the course of the weekend. This year, presenters (there are still tickets available, by the way) will address yeast health, Brettanomyces, ancient Nordic styles, foraged ingredients, beer and food pairings, and the impact of water on beer, among other topics.
In addition to the beers mentioned above, OMF head brewer Jan Chodkowski has also brewed a few ancient Nordic beer styles, and he will be one of four panelists in a brewing seminar on the topic. The seminar will delve into "the traditional processes and brewing data learned" for sahti (a traditional country beer) in Finland, Norway and Denmark.
"Josh Cody and I went to northern Norway to learn how to make [sahti]. It is a smoked, dark, strong beer brewed on farms for drinking on or around Christmas eve," Chodkowski says.
Here are a few other creative beers on tap for the festival this weekend:
The Colorado Farm Brewery Batch #2: "This is a 100 percent estate-grown beer. All the ingredients for this unique ale are from the Cody Family Farm in the San Luis Valley. All of the grain was grown, malted, roasted and smoked on site. The hops were grown, harvest and kilned on the farm. The yeast was harvested in the old farmhouse where the Codys homesteaded. The water comes from the well on the farm.
Avery Brewing Brett Lager: This beer is a blend of three lagers all aged in oak barrels — a rarity for a lager — with three different strains of Brettanomyces yeast.
Glenwood Canyon Brewing Bourbon Barrel-Aged Eisbock: "Our...2018 Doppelbock aged in Woody Creek Bourbon barrels and then pushed from the barrel and frozen in a stainless-steel tank to eliminate the remaining sugar and water.
Verboten Brewing and Barrel Project Cake or Death Imperial Stout: This beer required two mashes and a boil of six hours. Made with flaked oats, dark Belgian candi syrup and five different kinds of chocolate: Belgian chocolate malt, Cholaca liquid cacao, and cocoa husks from Fiji, Ghana and Honduras. It was then aged to balance the sweet malts, high alcohol and all the dark, rich chocolate.
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