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Big Beer Fest Delivers Big Thrills
By Marty Jones

Five years ago, Bill Lodge sought a way to hip folks in the Vail, Colo., area to the high-strength beers his company (High Point Brewing Corporation) carried there. His teaching tool? The Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival. Five years later, the fest is a choice little event for folks craving big brews, and it's a bash that continues to tout the joys of strong beer to Colorado’s high-country residents.

This year’s Big event took place on January 7–8 at the Vail Marriott Mountain Resort in Vail. It drew about 400 attendees willing to face the challenge of sampling about 125 beers (all over 7% abv) at 8,000 feet above sea level. Granted, such hefty beer at such an altitude meant beer nuts had to consume with care, but the payoff was as lofty as the festival’s mountain setting.

Things got under way on the afternoon of the 7th with an AHA-sanctioned homebrew judging of strong and Belgian-style beers. Local homebrewer Matt Hardesty took home Best of Show honors in the competition. Later that evening, about 50 judges, brewers and beer fiends gathered at Montauk Seafood Grill for a Brewmasters’ Dinner. The hosts were boundary-pushing cult hero Sam Calagione (Dogfish Head Brewery) and his Colorado counterpart, Adam Avery (Avery Brewing Company).

The extreme-beer dinner featured 14 muscular, genre-bending beers from Dogfish Head and Avery, along with elevated cuisine from Dimitri Souvorin, Montauk’s chef. Souvorin — conducting his first beer dinner — faced the daunting task of pairing his food with high-gravity beers. Dinner patrons faced the equally daunting task of squaring off with the night’s highly alcoholic beers.

The affair started with guest-mingling and appetizers of calamari, crab cakes and smoked salmon crostinis. These choice nibbles were paired with snifters of Avery’s hop hammer, Hog Heaven, and the company’s winter beer, Old Jubilation. There were also servings of Dogfish’s dreamily aromatic 60 Minute IPA and its heartier sibling, 90 Minute IPA.

The sit-down portion of the meal matched expertly prepared food items with a pair of large beers from Avery and Dogfish Head. A bowl of mussels and clams steamed in saffron-infused cream was partnered with Dogfish’s Raison d’Etre and Avery’s Salvation. A toothy Black Angus filet was served alongside Dogfish’s deceptively strong Olde School barley wine and Avery’s Belgian-inspired heavyweight, Reverend.

The meal ended with a gooey chocolate lava cake and assorted cheeses matched with Dogfish’s portlike elixir, World Wide Stout, and Avery’s imposing Czar Imperial Stout. By dinner’s end, guests had enjoyed their fill, with some passing on finishing their beer portions. The over-the-top beer, fine food and fellowship benefited from tasty repartee from Calagione and Avery, who shared gonzo beer info and beer-blessed anecdotes with their smiling fans.

The following afternoon, the fest’s public tasting event got under way in a conference room beneath the Marriott. The crowd included a few fresh-off-the-slopes guests (and brewers) still in their ski bibs and snowboarding britches. A few of Vail’s European visitors added a hint of international flair to the crowd.

Attendees enjoyed their taster portions from a cute mini-snifter. The beer list included high-strength offerings from Avery, Dogfish Head, Stone Brewing, North Coast, Fuller’s, La Chouffe and about 25 other U.S., U.K. and Belgian brewers. Some of the surprises were served by Colorado brewers: Breckenridge Brewery poured a double IPA (part of its new “471” small-batch series) that gave hop-heads a reason to consider Breckenridge’s beers again.

Various vintages of Lee’s Harvest Ale gave sippers a chance to do vertical tastings of the brewery’s strong ales, a heavenly selection that included a version aged in Calvados barrels. During the tasting session, Calagione presented an educational seminar on “Hops and Randalling,” and Adam Avery schooled guests on the details of high-alcohol brewing.

Other pluses of the festival included a Friday night snowfall that delivered fresh powder for those aiming to enjoy a few runs down Vail’s mountains prior to the fest.

Unfortunately, the snowfall kept a few fest-goers at home and led to a turnout smaller than Lodge and his skilled staff expected. But there was nothing undersized about the quality of the fest or its beers. Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines delivered full-sized thrills for those who get their kicks from the outer limits of craft beer. The fest returns next year. For details, visit bigbeersfestival.com.

Marty Jones is a Denver freelance writer and leader of Marty Jones & the Pork Boilin’ Poor Boys, Colorado’s kings of bash-grass and drunky-tonk. Got beer news from the Rocky Mountain region? Contact him via email.


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