It would be easy to say that the lasting image for me of the Big Beers Belgians and Barleywines Festival this year was Firestone Walker head brewer Matt Brynildson carrying four four-packs of WeldWerks Brewing cans through the Beaver Run Resort in Breckenridge, where the annual three-day event took place. There would be symbolism there: a big, well-known and well-respected brewery taking cues from a young upstart that makes some of the most polarizing beers around, like hazy IPAs and sweet pastry stouts.
It would be honest to point out how many of the beers at the commercial tasting were loaded with those pastry stout flavors (not to mention creamy lactose): coconut and vanilla, maple and peanut butter, raspberries and chocolate. All of that bursting flavor delights plenty of tastebuds — but it also alienates a host of people who would prefer that breweries stick to the traditions and influences of historic flavors and styles.
It would be easy and honest. But it wouldn't be fair. While those things did happen, they only serve to highlight the divisive parts of the ever-growing, ever-changing craft-beer industry. In truth, that world is much more nuanced, and although there are plenty of high-profile fractures amid beer drinkers, beer makers and beer sellers, there is still a lot of glue, as well. The Big Beers Festival, which brings together some of the best of the best from around Colorado, the country and the world, is the perfect place to find all of this close up. Now in its nineteenth year, the fest is as much an industry party as it is a showcase for the public.
Here are five takeaways from this year's festival:
The craft-beer world has never been this divided, but....
Anger is festering. In talking with brewers and brewery owners, it appears that the divisions between brewing and beer philosophies is widening, not to mention the chasms between big breweries and smaller ones. Some are frustrated at the direction they feel the industry is headed: toward sweeter, more accessible beer styles that appeal to masses — and to the bottom line. Others don't like the constant demand from consumers for new flavors and styles, a demand that some breweries are only too happy to meet.
...it remains one of the most collaborative in the world
Despite the divisions, brewers remain, for the most part, charmingly cooperative, collaborative, creative and comical. The people who work in the industry constantly recommend each other's products to consumers, they support one another, and they are always looking to help. Some breweries share tables and equipment at the festival, just as they do during the course of everyday business. Others reach out across state lines or even into other countries to forge bonds with kindred souls. One of the highlights of this year's fest was a pairing dinner showcasing beers from Ska Brewing in Durango and Nynäshamns Ångbryggeri in Sweden. The owners and employees of these two breweries have been friends for a while and have hosted one another several times — and they all hung out together for Big Beers, sharing stories and ideas and beers.
Breweries are adding everything to beer, and they’re getting really good at it
As I mentioned above, brewers are adding a lot of flavors, ingredients, herbs and adjuncts to their beers these days, especially the high-alcohol beers that are this festival's specialty. And although lots of people don't like that development, the breweries that do it well are doing it really, really well. Comrade Brewing, Cerebral Brewing, Cannonball Creek, Copper Kettle, Ratio, Liquid Mechanics and Westbound & Down: these beer makers are doing things with chocolate, coconut and vanilla that would make lifelong bakers and confectioners weep with jealousy. WeldWerks, Great Divide and Verboten are also wielding flavor like weapons.
These folks aren’t in it for the money
The sister-and-brother team of Laura and Bill Lodge — and their army of volunteers — have been organizing the Big Beers festival for nineteen years. They've dedicated significant portions of their lives to it, donated countless hours and endured personal tragedy. They don't do it for money. They do it for love. And that's why attendees sing the festival's praises year after year after year. Likewise, the breweries that attend don't do what they do for the money. Yes, they are businesses, and, yes, craft brewing is worth a lot of money now, but it's very evident in the crazy lengths to which some brewers go to find or use an ingredient, to try a new process or remake a complicated beer that there are other motivations driving them.
Here are six breweries to watch this year based on Big Beers
And finally, there are always a few breweries that get some buzz at Big Beers. Sometimes they are relatively obscure or new. Sometimes they are longtime breweries that are doing something different. Either way, they attracted attention. These are six that stood out for me.
The longest lines I saw at the commercial tasting this year were for Amalgam Brewing, a tiny, specialized blendery that produced sours and barrel-aged beers out of a Denver warehouse it shares with Westbound & Down. Amalgam was founded by Philip Joyce and Eric Schmidt, and they are producing some amazing stuff, including their Balaton Reduction and a barrel-aged vanilla and coconut stout called All Becomes Void.
Westbound & Down Brewing
Speaking of Westbound & Down, this brewery was founded in Idaho Springs and has plans to open a second location later this year in Denver. Head brewer Jake Gardner is also brewing and blending terrific beers. Two of the standouts here were Barrel Aged Absence Imperial Stout and Fruit Squad, a rotating series of fruit beers that are each blended from five different oak barrels originating from four separate brews.
Jeff and Christina Porn, who own Erie's garage-based Atom Brewing, served one of the most deliciously unusual beers I've ever had. Just Coconuts is a mixed-culture sour stout that was open-fermented and aged in used wine barrels for two years, and then again with nearly forty pounds of toasted coconut for two more months. Atom is a tiny brewery, but it continues to gain attention, and this year, it was selected by the organizers of the prestigious Denver Rare Beer Tasting (which supports Pints for Prostates and takes place during GABF week each year) to brew a special beer that is served at the fest and then highlighted as part of a members-only rare beer club. An imperial stout, it was made with 100 percent Colorado ingredients, including malt from Root Shoot Malting, Troubadour Malting and Colorado Malting Company, and hops from Colorado Hop Company. It will age for five months in barrels.
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Colorado Farm Brewery
And speaking of Colorado Malting Company, the Cody family, which owns this specialty maltster, also decided to start their own farmhouse brewery last year to feature some of the ingredients from the San Luis Valley land they've owned for four generations. It's a very cool story, and the Codys brought some very cool beers, including Farm Sahti, a hopless rye-forward beer that was bittered with juniper and fermented with bread yeast. Batch #2 Saison, meanwhile, was made up entirely of ingredients produced at the farm; that includes the grain, which was grown, malted, roasted and smoked on site, and the hops, which were grown, harvested and kilned there. The water came from the Cody well, and the yeast was cultured in the farmhouse.
It doesn't seem fair that a brewery that just opened a few months ago should be producing such mature beer, but that's the case with Timnath Beerwerks, which is located in the tiny town of Timnath, just east of I-25, near Fort Collins. Its Raspberry Wheat Lager weighed in at a deceiving 7.1 percent ABV and was bursting with luscious raspberry flavor. Its double NEIPA stood out from the crowd with a balanced blast of tropical flavor.
Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project
Older than the above five breweries combined, Crooked Stave certainly needs no introduction in Colorado, where it helped pioneer fruit blends and barrel-aged wild and sour ales. But Crooked Stave could be in for a second act. Although its sour program is still the soul of the lineup, Crooked Stave began brewing non-sour "clean" beers two years ago, including a pilsner, a NEIPA and a coffee Baltic porter that are among the state's best. It also began canning a mixed-culture Sour Rosé that has gained critical acclaim. And now Crooked Stave, which is about to open a new location in Fort Collins, has ventured into imperial and barrel-aged stouts, including Private Reserve Barrel #146, an imperial rye stout aged in Heaven Hill Bourbon barrels for 27 months. There are very few breweries that can do so many styles so well. Crooked Stave is about to join that exclusive club.