One of Colorado’s most-loved, least-known beer festivals is in trouble this year after losing its longtime home, and will probably need major financial support in order to continue.
The Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival was founded by the brother-and-sister team of Laura and Bill Lodge in Vail in 2001, and although it has changed and grown over the past sixteen years, the event has managed to retain the intimate feel and beer-industry camaraderie that continues to attract major players in the craft brewing scene from around the country.
“It's the only beer festival,” I wrote in January 2015, “where you might find yourself holding the elevator for Firestone Walker head brewer Matt Brynildson, in a lift line with Falling Rock owner Chris Black, in the hot tub with Avery Brewing owner Adam Avery…. You might spend one minute shooting the breeze with New Belgium sour-beer guru Lauren Salazar and the next trying a not-yet-released Cabernet-barrel-aged barleywine from Breckenridge Brewery.”
Focused on beers with higher alcohol content, such as Belgian tripels and quadrupels, barrel-aged stouts and barleywines, the three-day festival includes brewing seminars, elegant pairing dinners, a homebrewing competition, ancillary tappings and a large, ticketed tasting event.
But in January, a California real-estate investment firm called the Laurus Corporation announced that it had purchased the beer festival’s longtime home, the Vail Cascade Resort and Spa, and would spend $35 million to completely redevelop and redesign it — including the demolition of Gore Range Hall, where the large, commercial tasting portion of the Big Beers festival takes place. Although the Cascade was already an upscale spot, the purchase means that the resort will close for a while and reopen as a higher-end, luxury resort with room rates that would be cost-prohibitive for most beer-industry employees and fans.
As a result, Big Beers is looking for a new home. But finding one in Vail — Laura Lodge’s first choice — is proving difficult, which is why she has expanded her search to other mountain ski towns. The two leading candidates right now are Breckenridge and Keystone (though she also considered Beaver Creek and Copper Mountain). Lodge says she is meeting with representatives of both towns this week and hopes to have a plan in place by the end of the month.
“I am not looking for more space — just to maintain what we have and grow organically in different directions,” like expanding the number of seminars, the number of days or the number of related activities, Lodge says. “But the opportunity to maintain what we have in Vail has disappeared.… I can’t find room rates in Vail for less than $500 a night on the south side of the highway.”
If Lodge can’t find a new location in Vail or enough support in Keystone and Breckenridge, though — or new financial sponsors to help with the move — she may have to put an end to the festival’s run. “If we can’t do it well, we will choose not to do it. I’m not going to force it and do it poorly,” she says.
In January, after the festival’s most recent incarnation (January 7-10), Lodge sent out an honest assessment and questionnaire to breweries, industry people and past attendees, asking for their priorities when it comes to the time, feel and location of the festival. “It’s not big beers without the breweries and the home brewers and aficionados and industry people who make it what it is,” Lodge explains. “That’s why the e-mail was so transparent. We do this together.”
The feedback she got was overwhelmingly in support of continuing the festival in the same way and at the same size as in previous years; there were 1,675 participants last year, more than half of whom were industry attendees rather than ticket holders. And while many people would prefer to keep it in Vail, most said, “Wherever you go, we will go,” Lodge says.
To do that, she adds, “we need to find a place that understands what we are doing and wants to be the new home,” as well as a location with reasonable hotel rates and a large event center. But Big Beers will also need more financial support to make that happen, since the festival had “such a wonderful” contract with the Cascade in the past, along with money from the Town of Vail.
Big Beers doesn’t take financial support from the breweries itself, as that could lead to conflicts of interest, but it does rely on other related industries, like beer publications, brewing-industry support companies and suppliers. Lodge is hoping to expand that reach now and to look to other kinds of industries that may feel an allegiance with craft beer, like sporting-goods makers.
She will also need to transition the festival into a not-for-profit organization in order to maintain its financial structure, in which the breweries donate the many special beers that they bring.
“That’s what makes this festival so special: the brewery owners and brewmasters who come, and what they pull out of their cellars,” Lodge says.