The answer? It's going to be strange.
For starters, what it means to be a brewer seems to be pivoting away from the idea of simply making beer to the notion that breweries may have to evolve into "beverage" companies. Molson Coors signaled this shift in October when it announced that it would change its name from Molson Coors Brewing Company to Molson Coors Beverage Company as part of its focus on adding hard seltzer, non-alcoholic beer, CBD-infused sodas and other drinks to its lineup. A number of craft breweries are doing something similar. As a result, "beverage" has become a catch-word, for better or for worse, in almost any discussion of craft brewing's future.
But that wasn't the only hot topic at Big Beers. There were a couple of subjects that kept cropping up again and again. Before we get to those takeaways, though, here are a few of my favorite Colorado beers from the festival this year (since I write about Colorado breweries, after all). Then, the takeaways:
I've had some of Spice Trade Brewing's beers before (especially those that were made when the brewery was still called Yak & Yeti), but clearly not enough. Sichuan Saison and Thai Tripel were both terrific because of their complex subtleties. The former is made with Chinese five-spice, Sichuan peppercorns and orange peel, but not in an overwhelming way, by any means. The second beer, at 9 percent ABV, melds this sweet Belgian style with a healthy dose of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, and just a hint of ginger and coriander.
The brand-new Knotted Root Brewing in Nederland has been killing it with its New England IPAs, so it could have been too much to ask for a standout pastry stout as well. But the brewery's very first attempt, Precious Birthday Fudge, took the, uh, cake. And speaking of cake, Wiley Root Brewing's Du Hast Cake was absolutely mind-blowing with its rich chocolates and silky smoothness. Brewed in collaboration with California's Bottle Logic Brewing, it was brewed with cacao husks and coconut powder and then aged for fifteen months in a Tennessee bourbon barrel with toasted coconut and Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans.
I just can't say enough about Arvada's New Image Brewing these days. It's recent NEIPAs and stellar series of Denomination of Origin vanilla stouts have certainly pushed the brewery to another level. But the palate-positive flavors in New Image's newest barleywine, Wood Spanish Cedar, show that the brewery isn't slowing down in 2020. The latest in New Image's Wood series used Spanish cedar to truly wake up the senses, blending the heady cedar aromas with the vanilla-like sweetness of the barleywine. The brewery describes the flavors as if you were eating a wooden gingerbread man with grapefruit zest buttons. And finally, Boulder's Gunbarrel Brewing knocked my socks off with its ImPeared Imperial Hefeweizen, a high-ABV hefe that drinks as cleanly and easily as a much lighter beer because of the loads of pears in the brew, along with a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg. This is the kind of unusual and creative beer that festivals like Big Beers were made to showcase.
And now to my Big Beers takeaways:
Bringing up the subject of non-alcoholic beers at a festival like Big Beers — which specializes in beer above 7 or 8 percent ABV — is like exchanging fresh bread recipes at a gluten-free foods convention. But NA beers are hot, especially in Dry January, and they were on the minds of a few people, especially craft brewery sales people who have noticed the demand, along with the fact that NA beers are mostly the purview of the big industrial breweries. So craft brewers may not be doing it now, but many may soon be trying to figure out how to make NA beers — just as they had to figure out how to make hard seltzer last year. The process is a little more difficult than standard brewing, and the target market is harder to define, but there is a real possibility that we will see some craft NA stouts, NA IPAs and other surprising varieties on the shelves and in taprooms by fall.
While some of the bigger Colorado breweries are adding a variety of styles to their lineups in order to have something for everyone, smaller breweries are beginning to realized the importance of specializing in something specific — something that makes them stand out. As we head further into a crowded marketplace — there are now more than 8,000 breweries nationwide, with another 1,000 in planning — differentiation, no matter how small, is going to be more important than ever. What does that look like at a micro level? It could be anything from the Spanish porrons that Atom Brewing uses to serve its beers to the immensely high-ABV bombs that Burns Family Artisan Ales drops. It could be quietly but consistently making a name for yourself in a certain style, as Baere Brewing is doing with its sour and wild ales, or adding food to the brewery, like Platt Park did with Gates Deli. It could be zagging when other zig, a hallmark of Ratio Beerworks, or simply having amazing, welcoming employees, like Woods Boss Brewing. Good service, by the way, really stands out these days. It shouldn't have to, but it does.
As with any business that relies on agricultural products, brewers are often held hostage by the cost and availability of malt and hops. Hops, in particular, can be problem, as brewers are sometimes required to lock themselves in to long-term contracts or risk not being able to obtain the varieties they want. But locking in is expensive and can present problems if a brewery's production declines or if styles and tastes change. As a result, many breweries are exploring the use of hop oils, cryogenic lupulin powder and hop terpenes, all of which are extracts that can add flavor and aroma to beers without using nearly as much raw product. Telluride Brewing is one of the breweries experimenting with terpenes, and its Galloping Juice IPA, made with cashmere terpenes from Oast House Oils, was one of the talking points at the fest. In fact, it took just 36 pounds of hops to create the terpenes featured in Galloping Juice — and the hops profile was extremely powerful, to the point where the brewery could have used even less. Two new Galloping Juice varieties on are their way.
Featured brewmasters Neil Fisher of WeldWerks and Troy Casey of Casey Brewing gave a seminar on the concept of "time" in beer during the festival. In particular, they discussed barrel aging and what it can do to the beers they make from a chemical standpoint. But having fun with time and barrels and aging was high on everyone's list of discussion points over the weekend — as it should be at this particular festival. Some of the themes that came up repeatedly were the uses of blending barrels, the character of barrels that have been used repeatedly to hold different liquids, and how breweries can forge better relationships with distilleries, barrel purveyors and cooperages. So while seltzer is big, barrel-aging isn't going away anytime soon.
Twenty years is a long time for a festival, and it's a credit to the sister-brother team of Laura and Bill Lodge that they have managed to keep the Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival relevant for two decades. That's not any easy task, especially as the craft-beer industry changes — dramatically in many cases. More recently, there has been a changing of the guard as some of the famous legacy breweries around the country cede some power and influence to a new crop of young breweries. Somehow, Big Beers manages to include everyone, though, honoring traditions and celebrating innovation.