Big Beers ... Big Views

Photos from the 2017 Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines festival  by Neill Pieper

Photos from the 2017 Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines festival
by Neill Pieper

Brewers, fans looking forward to Breckenridge festival celebrating strong, heavy-hitting beers

By Steve Graham

Even Colorado’s biggest brewers are apt to be humbled by the surroundings and company at the state’s most prestigious winter beer festival.

“Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines is an incredible gathering of some of the country’s most celebrated craft brewers,” said Alex Kayne of Odell Brewing Co. “Odell is proud to be among such great company. With a backdrop like Breckenridge in January, and a top-notch beer lineup, it really captures the Colorado spirit.”

To be sure, you’re practically living in an ad for Colorado’s high country when you are sharing a hot tub with local brewmasters while sampling an imperial stout, all in the shadow of Breck’s Peak 9. 

Founder Laura Lodge is proud the festival can maintain such intimacy while also drawing international A-listers of the brewing world. 

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“It’s still very small compared to any other beer festival that I know of,” said Lodge, who has organized the festival for each of its 18 years. “We want to plan an event that brewers are really happy to come to.”

Even after expanding and moving from Vail to Breckenridge, the festival is still intentionally small — perhaps frustratingly so for some brewers. There was a waiting list of 40 breweries for last year’s event. 

The result is an experience very different from the Great American Beer Festival or other larger events.

“It’s so tiny but the fact that it is that tiny gives each of the attendees a different kind of opportunity to interact with the brewers,” she said. “This is a chance for them to really find their favorite brewers and ask them all the questions they want to ask.”

The festival, which runs Jan. 4-6, includes seminars, dinners, homebrew contests and a tasting showcase.

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As its alliterative name suggests, Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines focuses on full-flavored and high-octane beers. To be considered for the commercial tasting or homebrew contests, beers must be Belgian, experimental or pack at least 7 percent ABV — or, ideally, some combination of the above.

“The brewers are really digging into their cellars and their specialty supply to show off to other brewers,” Lodge said.

The festival began as a trade show for her brother’s beer distribution business. At the time, craft beer wasn’t a common phrase, and Fat Tire was the most exotic offering at many bars. 

“People had no idea beer could be sold like wine,” said Lodge. She said even high-end restaurants and liquor stores were unfamiliar with specialty beer styles and imported brews.

She decided to open the trade show to the public and focus on those big beers.

All these years later, it has grown to several competitions and 13 seminars, including a yoga session, a cigar pairing and sensory beer-tasting workshops. 

The festival also attracts dozens of affiliate events throughout Breckenridge.

The owners of Dry Dock Brewing in Aurora have been involved since before they owned a brewery. Their sister company, the Brew Hut homebrewing shop, is a longtime sponsor of the homebrew competition. 

Dry Dock co-owner Michelle Reding said she is looking forward to heading up to Breckenridge again this January.

“Big Beers is one of our favorite festivals of the year,” she said. “Personally, it is a festival full of my favorite styles of beer, especially the barrel-aged beers.”

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Lodge said many of the dinners and more intimate events are already sold out, but she maintains wait lists for each event in case there are last-minute cancellations. 

Visit bigbeersfestival.com for tickets and more information.

 

Steve Graham is a Fort Collins writer who enjoys the outdoors and great beers.