Big Beer Festival is where the Big Boys come play

Quick weekend getaways are some of the best things in life. Sneaking away for a couple days, exploring new places, tasting new food, and most importantly, relaxing. Just getting away from it all. The last 3 times I have left Fort Collins for more than 24 hours have been for events that involve beer, and this past weekend was no exception. This years 2013 Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywine Festival was my first, and wow was I impressed! I had been hearingbigbeerlogo stories for weeks from brewers, brewery staff, and volunteers about festivals past, with this being the 13th year. I was so excited to go. 3 days in beautiful Vail, for beer. I knew it was going to be an experience to remember.

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Odell Brewing Company Lugene and Tiramisu

We rode up on Friday morning and arrived early for the Welcome Reception. It was hosted by Odell Brewing, Alaskan Brewing, and a Belgian brewery that makes a brand known as Buffalo. Each beer was paired with a small appetizer.  Odell’s Lugene, a new chocolate milk stout, was paired with a tiramisu. The lady finger had an orange zing too it, that brought out another layer of flavors for the beer. Some people were even pouring some beer into their dish. This was a great way to kick off the festival, and lead into the home brew competition. I enjoyed the story of the Buffalo Belgian Bitter. the first Buffalo beer was brewed in 1906, when Buffalo Bill visited Belgium with his wild west show. It was the current brewers Great-Grandfather who was the original brewer, and it was cool to see him travel all the way from Europe for the festival.

After the reception everyone filed into the hall to find their tables for the home brew competition.  It seems to be the trend for home brew competition rooms to be outrageously warm and this one was no exception. Nearly 400 entries were judged in 2 rounds. I helped steward the Strong Ale category (BJCP 19) and the Porters and Stouts (12 & 13). We had 12 judges who tackled over 30 beers in each round! The caliber of judges was superb  with professional brewers  and other industry experts from all around the nation. During the competition I was finally able to meet Emily Hutto, who has written a book called Colorado’s Top Brewers and has just recently moved to Fort Collins. It is great to see young women like her also so involved with beer.

I ducked out early from the homebrew competition to make it to the Craftbeer.com

Homebrew Judging

Homebrew Judging

Taste Off Challenge. Hosted by Julia Herz, 4 breweries from around the country showcased a cheese and beer pairing for a chance to win the title of champion. After each brewer got a chance to plead their case, and judges savored every bite, Coronado Brewing came away winner for the 2nd year in a row. They presented an herbed goat cheese, Cypress Grover Purple Haze atop Trader Joe’s Rosemary Raisin Crisps. Paired with Hoppy Daze Belgian IPA the spice and floral notes of the hops danced and the malt became sweeter. It was a hard decision to pick the winner as other competitors Wit’s End Brewing Company, Altitude Chophouse & Brewery and Alaskan Brewing Company really brought their best. A traditional Swedish breakfast cheese that I had never had before was phenomenal. It was brown with a thick chewy texture and a salty taste that was highlighted with Alaskan Brewing Smoked Porter.

That night we headed to the hotel room. 13 of us from Northern Colorado,

Beer and cheese at Craftbeer.com Taste Off

Beer and cheese at Craftbeer.com Taste Off

including several members of the staff at Grimm Brothers Brewhouse, shared 2 condos. After grilling up some burgers we passed around some bottles. A Dark Lord from 3 Floyds, a 10 year old La Folie, several homebrews and a fair amount of whiskey, among other things. My friend Ingrid and I also ventured to the other building in our hotel to attend a bottle share hosted by Gary V of American Craft Beer Radio. To get there, we had to go through a maze of up one elevator and down another flight of stairs to find his room. We also scared a little girl and her father when we forgot that not everyone else in the hotel was wandering drunk carrying an armful of beer bottles and half eaten cheese burgers. And no, we weren’t the only ones who were doing that. When we finally arrived, Dave from Fermentedly Challenged was there, along with Mark from Brewtally Insane and his wife and Gary from American Craft Beer Radio. Here we tried Deschutes Abyss, Venetucci Pumpkin Ale from Bristol Brewing and a few others. I really enjoyed the Bitter Brewer from Surly and the Unita Anniversary Barleywine I brought from 2011.

After consuming a lot of alcohol, staying up late, and waking up early, I was surprisingly energetic and ready to go! Ingrid’s husband Lou made us the best bloody mary’s to go with our breakfast burritos. Lou had an ENTIRE cooler full of the ingredients to make the bloody’s, and hauling it up

Haul of night one. Good work guys and gals

Haul of night one. Good work guys and gals

there was worth it! The rest of the morning in the condo looked like a massacre scene. Bodies laying every where in front of a TV playing a James Bond marathon, no one was talking or moving. Half of the people were asleep. It was boring, but eventually everyone rallied and headed back to Vail Cascade Resort.

We arrived a bit before the seminar I had signed up for, a talk on hops and flavor blending presented by All About Beer Magazine. You could smell the hops even before you entered the room, it was intense! Everyone walking down the hall commented on the amazing aroma. We had 3 beers, each of which were presented with 3 samples of hops for us to smell, touch and compare. Brewers from Lost Abbey, Sierra Nevada and Deschutes were on hand to present their beers and discuss the hops and why they used them in the beer. It was interesting to hear the story of Mosaic hops, which are a nice floral hop that has only recently been available on the market.

Finally, it was time for the Grand Tasting!  When I got the beer list it was love at first sight.  These beers were small batches, not distributed here, rare beers. If it is coveted, it was probably being poured. This is a different kind of festival. You won’t find many people with pretzel necklaces, and there wasn’t a pair of lederhosen in sight. These peoplehopsem were here for business. This isn’t amateur hour. In fact, I am sure if you walked up to a booth and asked for “the lightest beer”, you would probably be laughed at. Those don’t exist here.

The Grand Tasting covered 2 floors, and included “Broncos Alley”. A row of booths that ended in a large screen TV playing the Broncos play off game. It was a packed area all night, but you could move easily through the rest of the fest. It was so small, you kept running into the same people. Included with your ticket was a pretzel or a brat, which after a few samples was a much needed addition. The spicy cheese sauce on the bratwurst hit the spot.

Some of my favorite beers were the Barrel Aged Barley Wine by Coronado Brewing, Interlude by Allagash and Siren Song from Roadhouse Brewing. I ended up sampling mainly barrel aged barley wines. That wasn’t the intention, but apparently that is what I am drawn too. I also tried the Wild Raspberry hopsem2from Bell’s. there was actually no beer for Bell’s Brewery to pour until the fest was more than half over, as the festival staff were unable to locate it. When they finally found it, people swarmed the table, but they still only found a portion.

My only regret is that I didn’t try as many beers as I had wanted.  The list was not only massive, but also impressive with beers you really can’t find anywhere especially in one room. The last two festivals I went to I had to seek out a beer I have never had before, and it was the opposite here. Plus, if I tried more, it would have justified my fall down the stairs and the resulting bruise and twisted ankle at the end of the festival just as everyone was filing out of the convention hall.

Luckily, many more beers and some whiskey were waiting for me at the condo. We lit a fire and cooked up some dinner and just relaxed. Enjoying great beer and good company as snow fell outside our condo window. It was the perfect end to a busy weekend. The big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival is my new favorite event. The combination of education, homebrew, and professional brewing is the perfect beer lovers trifecta.

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