Beer Man

Five Breweries to Watch From Vail's Big Beers Fest

The stars came out to shine, as they do every year, at the Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival, which took place earlier this month at the Cascade Resort in Vail. Some were established super giants like Lost Abbey, Avery Brewing and Great Divide. Others were rising stars, like Casey Brewing and Blending, Surly and Elevation Beer Company. And while there was plenty of talk about these beer makers, there was also a lot of buzz about some smaller or newer breweries. Although I didn't know it in January 2015, when I attended last year's event, a number of breweries I encountered at the festival went on to make an impact over the next twelve months. It's impossible to know which ones from the 2016 version will make waves this year, but here are a few that had people talking.

The Black Project/Former Future Brewing

If there was one beer that I heard the most about, it was Mach Limit: Tempranillo, a heavily fruited golden sour that was brewed with Tempranillo wine must from Red Fox Vineyards in Palisade. The fermentation of the must with wild yeast gave Mach Limit an unusual flavor profile that crossed the line between wine and beer. Black Project, which is a side venture of Former Future owners James and Sarah Howat, also made waves in 2015, but their line of spontaneously fermented beers are going to keep getting attention, especially as they have plans to release a new one every month.

Black Shirt Brewing

The single most amazing beer that I tried this year was Black Shirt's Whiskey Barrel-Aged Red Quad, which was brewed in 2013, aged for 21 months in whiskey barrels, and then blended with coffee from Huckleberry Roasters. Smooth, rich and complex, it struck a balance somewhere between a coffee cordial, whiskey toffee and vanilla pudding — though that description probably doesn't do it justice. Black Shirt has recently hinted that it is planning to expand its barrel-aging program this year and to tap a few projects that have been biding their time over the past few years. Keep an eye out.

Mockery Brewing

Another Belgian-style quadruple that stood out was Commitment Phobe from Mockery, a two-year-old brewery located just across the road from Great Divide's huge new Denver facility. Mockery has been getting more attention recently because of its limited bottle releases and its increased consistency. If this quad, aged with dates in red-wine barrels and fermented with Brettanomyces, is any indication, there's a lot more to come. Want to try one? Mockery is releasing a different beer, Wardrobe Malfunction, on Friday. The tart cherry strong ale was aged in Cab Franc barrels from Infinite Monkey Theorem.

Strange Craft

Can you be an old dog if you've only been around for about five years? You can if you're Strange Craft, which kicked off the craft-brewing revolution that has astounded Denver over the past years. But for an old dog, Strange Craft always has a new trick. The brewery was one of three feted at a welcome reception this year, where it poured Super Kriek, a version of its farmhouse ale that re-fermented with a huge amount of cherries in a firkin. Strange normally only makes this 9.5 percent ABV beer once a year, but plans to release another small batch in a couple of weeks following the positive response.

WeldWerks Brewing

Greeley isn't really known as a craft-beer town. But it will be. While Crabtree Brewing has been pushing the envelope in Weld County for years, two new Greeley breweries, Wiley Roots and WeldWorks, are starting to get some positive attention as well. At Big Beers, WeldWorks brought the house downwith its Chocolate Achromatic, a rich imperial stout brewed with chocolate malt, cacao nibs and vanilla beans – and two variations on it: Mexican Achromatic (made with cinnamon sticks and cayenne), and Medianoche, which was aged in bourbon barrels for seven months. This one was outstanding.

Other breweries to keep an eye on in 2016, based on their showing at Big Beers: Horse & Dragon from Fort Collins, Odd 13 from Lafayette, Denver's Baere Brewing, Liquid Mechanics in Lafayette, and Verboten Brewing in Loveland.
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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes