Thursday, January 14, 2010

Five Lessons Learned from the 2010 Big Beers Festival

This is a few days late and maybe even a few dollars short, but there are a couple of things that I think everyone learned from this year's Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines festival in Vail:

1) Sour beers are not only becoming more common among brewers, they're becoming more palatable to everyone's taste buds. The prime example of this is Odell Brewing's Friek, a blend of "old, young and even younger" barrel-aged sour beer - in the words of master brewer Doug Odell. The effort had the distinctly biting characteristic of tart cherries aged in the older barrels but was smoothed out by last year's harvest raspberries that were blended into the youngest strain. It was crisper and fresher than many of its sour counterparts - though maybe not with as piercing a bite - but I knew that it truly had transcended the genre when the Beer Geekette, who usually winces at sour offerings, said she enjoyed it. Let's hope this is the breakthrough beer that brings sour into mainstream offerings.

2) The roasted, percolated, straight-out-of-the-jungle taste of coffee beers is hitting new heights every day. This had become apparent by some local breweries' efforts, especially those of Pug Ryans and and Backcountry Brewery, at recent local festivals. But San Diego-based Ballast Point Brewing's Victory at Sea Imperial Porter may have ratcheted the competition up a notch. This 10% ABV concoction from took a coffee beer to levels the genre doesn't normally go: a fresh-brewed frontal assault with just a tiny bit of vanilla on the backtaste. It was arguably the strongest yet most pleasing beer at the festival.

3) It's time for Papago Brewing to start distributing outside of the greater Phoenix area. The purveyors of the GABF-famous orange wheat and vanilla coconut porter masterpieces displayed in a special tasting seminar a Irish cream coffee stout that made the perfect pairing for ice cream (which may not be a combo you've always thought of, but trust me when I say that you want to try it). Scottsdale-based Papago is doing with new flavors and styles the same wonderful experimentation that the much more heralded New Glarus Brewing is doing with fruit beers. Yet, they're just one state away, and that bar at the border that stops them from getting through to Colorado needs to drop.

4) Dissension, thy name is cherry imperial stout. The most debated beer of the festival, at least to the Fearless Tasting Crew, was Longmont-based Pumphouse Brewery's 10th Anniversary Cherry Imperial Stout. Some in the bunch thought it was an overload of cherries and chocolate that just made it unpalatable. But I felt it was one of the gutsiest experiments at the show, a bold bombardment of taste buds that was quite heavy and over the top but the closest thing that's ever approximated chocolate-cherry cake in liquid form. And it seemed to be the statement that announced brewmaster Dave Mentus to the world.

5) The traditional definition of a big beer is starting to fade. Barleywines, double IPAs - these were the featured attractions that defined the "big beer" genre for at least half a decade. But while some of them were still turning head - Coronado Brewing's Idiot IPA was one that exuded flowers while keeping its bitterness in check, for example - they were not the stars of the festival. Belgian strong ales, spiced porters, oak-aged offerings, these are starting to take the headlines in many ways now. And this is not a bad thing, even for us hopheads that would gladly attend a DoubleIPAfest if anyone were to throw one. It just showed that the American craft brew revolution of the past five years continues to spread its tentacles in many directions. And that can only mean good things for the daring taste buds of this country.

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There seems to be an array of coffee bean infused or favoured beers popular at the moment, and strangely whilst I don't like coffee I really like the beers!

Sours and lambic styles have grabbed my attention recently too, although I haven't found many (or any possibly) brewed in the UK
Sounds like it was a great fest. I hope to make that one some year. Any chance that Odell's Friek will be bottled for the rest of us to enjoy or was that a fest-only brew?
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