Photos by JulieannaD Photography
Huge wet snowflakes blanketed the pavement almost faster than heated sidewalks of Vail Village could melt them for nearly 3 days. This didn’t stop hundreds of brewery employees and craft beer aficionados from flocking to the Vail Cascade Resort for the 2014 Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival. “It’s like we are in a snow globe!”, photographer Julieanna Jablonski exclaimed as she snapped pictures during our dinner at the Red Mountain Grill the night we arrived in Eagle County.
I warmed a globe of Bourbon County Stout between my hands as we shared dishes of chili shrimp, ribs and ahi tuna salad. It was Julieanna’s first time at the Big Beers Festival, and my second, but you couldn’t tell who was excited more. Earlier in the day we had kicked off the weekend with a stop at Crazy Mountain Brewery. We shared a taster tray of all of their offerings. I was surprised to see such a light colored taster tray in the middle of winter, but over the weekend my expectations of beers and styles would be shattered over and over. I have always enjoyed Lawyers, Guns and Money, and their Bridge Street Holiday spice ale was Julieanna’s favorite.
We decided to stay in Avon rather than Vail for a cheaper hotel rate. We ended up with a great deal at the Westin Riverfront Resort and Spa, and a beautiful room. The first night ended with a relaxing soak in the hot tub, steam swirling up to meet the falling snow while I sipped a can of Eddyline Brewing River Runners Pale Ale. We shared the hot tub with a group of Australians, and while we tried to share our beer, their pallets just were not accustomed to American hops, and this beer definitely has a big pine punch.
Friday came bright and early as we headed back to Vail Cascade Resort for the Cicerone Prep Course sponsored by All About Beer. I may have freaked out just a bit when I arrived and saw that none other than Ray Daniels, founder of the Cicerone Program, would be our instructor for the day. The huge room had wall to wall sprawling tables with industry expert and newbie alike ready to learn more about the craft of brewing. For the next 3 and a half hours we sipped beer, crunched malt, and sniffed hops all to understand more about a beverage we all loved.
The course featured history lessons, off flavor attributes, and more, as well as hands on experiences. The “flavor vs. taste” experiment was an interesting way to learn about how you taste beer, and you can find out more, here. Try it at your next beer tasting.The course is a non- ticketed event offered annually, check it out if you can. I was pleasantly surprised at how much of the course information I already knew, and it gave me more confidence in finishing out my certification soon. The actual Cicerone Certification test is also available during the weekend.
The foyer of the conference hall filled up quickly after the Cicerone prep course for the Welcome Reception. As media members and homebrew judges checked-in, Ommegang, Pretty Little Things Beer & Ale Project, and Cambridge Brewing Company each poured a beer to pair with a small dish. Three Philosophers from Ommegang became a completely different beer when paired with the Triple Chocolate Cake. The beer showed more cherry and other dark fruit flavors with the cake, creating a delightful truffle effect.
As the Welcome Reception ended, the homebrew competition began. I helped steward the competition last year, but decided not to participate this year in order to spend some time outside of the fest. If having your beer judged by some of the best pallets in the beer industry is something you are interested in, start brewing your beer now.
The wind wasn’t very enjoyable, but we walked around Vail Village anyways. Huge snow flakes continued to fall as parents carrying ski’s and pulling along preschools strolled by. Ski school must have just ended. We ended up at Mountain Standard and grabbed a seat at the bar, but still with a view of the floor to ceiling windows. Outside was a fire pit surrounded by benches next to the river, and two snow caked men carving ice into a whimsical wall.
Mountain Standard was hosting a Schmaltz Brewing Company tap take over, and all 8 taps featured the New York made brews. I was excited when I saw their Jewbelation 8th Anniversary ale on tap, and we ordered the full flight. However, the bartender failed to mention that the beer would not be tapped until 8pm, and even still charged us full price for the flight. Luckily, the hickory, bourbon caramelized onion soup made up for it. Clearly they couldn’t call it french onion, as the added ingredients gave it an American twist. The savory soup complimented the sweet vanilla and cinnamon flavors of Reunion Ale ‘13.
It was too cold to walk around anymore, so we headed back to The Fireside Bar at the Cascade. During the festival the bars at the resort stock plenty of craft beer brought in just for the event. You could hear the roar as soon as you walked in the building, as the room was filled with revelers catching up from the last beer fest they met at. Even the lobby had brewery shirt glad guests passing bottles around to share. I felt bad for the families here to enjoy a quiet relaxing weekend, as that atmosphere can’t be found when you put that many brewery people in one room. With several readily available kegs, no less.
I sipped a Trinity wheat and chatted with Chris and Tommy of Telluride Brewing while we waited for the Winter Seasonals seminar hosted by CraftBeer.com. It’s no secret that I think Julia Herz is the bee’s knees, and I never miss a chance to learn from some of the best. She hosted the panel of brewers from Dillon Dam Brewery, Captain Lawrence Brewing Company, Very Nice Brewing Company and Surly Brewing. We tasted 4 very distinct and different beers in a blind setting, meaning we didn’t know the style of beer we were tasting. Truly, styles didn’t matter for these beers. Each one pushed one border or another. Some, like Surly’s Misanthrope, a wine barrel aged Saison, blew guidelines out of the water. Panels like this really give a personality to the beer you are drinking. Scott Vaccaro from Captain Lawrence may have spent more time laughing then he made us laugh, which was quite a bit. Make sure you get on the list for CraftBeer.com’s seminar next year, which you can do for a $10 donation the Vail Valley Charitable Fund
We finished off the night again at the Fireside Bar with some warming comfort foods and a glass of Sam Adams Utopias, but it was a bit quieter as other events were going on around town. The festival hosts not one, but 2 beer pairing dinners on each Thursday and Friday nights. I have never attended one before, as the price tags usually are $100+, but I have heard they are worth every penny. Other businesses get in on the fun too, such a Bol that hosted a brewery vs. brewery bowling tournament. The night ends with a cigar and beer pairing, that usually results in legendary stories year after year. This event is on my must do list for next year.
Soon to come….a sensory seminar featuring Ginger Johnson of Women Enjoying Beer, a barrel aged beer blending seminar, the Grand Tasting, and the best after party I have ever been too.