After some logistical hiccups and growing pains during its first year in Breckenridge in 2017, the Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival, which took place January 4 through 6 at the Beaver Run Resort, has clearly resettled itself in its new home, and the event — one of the nation's best, most unusual beer fests — felt more comfortable this time around.
That was primarily the result of some small but significant changes made by founders and organizers Laura and Bill Lodge, but also because of the way attendees seemed to have embraced Breckenridge. (The festival had been held in Vail since 2001, but moved to Breck in 2017 to keep costs down.) And it's likely that the three-day celebration, which includes seminars, dinners, a major tasting and other activities, will change more in 2019.
"I felt that overall it was a very smooth event, from the Calibration Dinner all the way through the Commercial Tasting," Laura Lodge says. "The highlight this year was definitely the success of the new Falling Rock pop-up bar/lounge at Beaver Run, which was very well attended and obviously enjoyed.
"Many of our new strategies and adaptations for our new home in Breckenridge were very successful, and we will continue to adapt and refine for next year," she adds.
Here are a few of my takeaways.
1. As Lodge mentions, the pop-up Falling Rock inside the Beaver Run Resort, where the fest takes place, was a fantastic new addition. The little bar, which was sponsored by Denver's Falling Rock Tap House, featured ten canned beers curated by Falling Rock, as well as a series of free tastings. Not only did it provide the perfect place to meet with people or spontaneously run in to other festival-goers, but attendees could take their beers (like Avery Reverend and Weldwerks Juicy Bits) right into the hot tubs with them.
2. The Commercial tasting, which featured nearly 550 different beers (more than ever before) is spread out over two floors and a couple of hallways, so the layout is awkward, at best. But it was much easier to navigate this year because of a new app from Digital Pour that shows every beer and the location of each brewery booth. And although it was crowded, as are most beer festivals, there weren't many lines, and there was plenty of food.
3. Big Beers enjoyed early support from the craft-brewing industry's OG rock stars — like Adam Avery, Tomme Arthur, Sam Calagione and others — and although they still come most years, it seems like the older crowd kept a low profile this year. That gave the festival a bit of different feel. Instead, the new-school stars of New England-style IPAs, spontaneously fermented sours and pastry stouts held court in the seminars and at the fest.
4. Breckenridge and its businesses may have had an "aha" moment this year and perhaps realized that they could turn the Big Beers weekend into a longer event, maybe even getting people into town a day or two before the official event for beer releases, tap takeovers or other related festivities. The number of affiliated events was already higher this year, with bars and restaurants hosting activities at the request of breweries and beer distributors. There was even a comedy show starring Denver's Adam Cayton-Holland. Next year, I think the Lodge siblings will add a few of their own new events, and I think the town will have more of its own.
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5. There are always a few brewery tables that I head to immediately at a beer festival. This year, they included out-of-state stars like Modern Times, Fremont Brewing. Melvin Brewing, Cellarmaker and Destihl, as well as a host of in-state standouts like Black Project, TRVE, Our Mutual Friend, 4 Noses, Verboten, Lost Highway, Casey, Horse & Dragon, Cerebral and Weldwerks. All of them had amazing stuff, as always.
Here are five other beers that knocked my socks off. Paradox Beer Company in Divide brought its very first spontaneously fermented, coolship-produced sour, Divide Ethos, which was outstanding. Wiley Roots Brewing in Greeley canned its GABF gold-medal-winning Galaxy dry-hopped Funk Yo Couch, which had a multi-layered hoppy/sour profile. Fiction Beer Company, from Denver, had a bourbon-barrel-aged version of Feely Effects, its sweet milk stout made with chocolate and green tea. I wouldn't have thought the combination would have worked, since milk stouts often lose their best qualities during barrel aging, but this one managed to balance all of those factors into a burst of flavor. Oskar Blues continues to innovate at its small, original brewery in Lyons, where it created Root Shoot Barleywine using Pilsner malt from Colorado's Root Shoot Malting. It was my favorite barleywine of the fest. And finally, Odd13 is going to score big with its latest New England-style IPA, Intergalactic Juice Hunter, which will debut in cans as a year-round beer later this year.
My biggest regret: that I didn't try Epic Brewing's Chapulin Gose, brewed with dried crickets and worm salt.