Sunday, January 13, 2013

Five Things I Learned at Vail Big Beers 2013

Brenda - a member of the Fearless Tasting Crew - opined this morning that she is worried sometimes about the rising costs of beer festivals. But one day after the Crew had just had another very successful outing at the Vail Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival, she added that this particular event was worth every penny. And she's right.

A "big beer" once was anything that was 7 percent alcohol by volume or greater, and breweries routinely offered high-volume IPAs and similar-tasting imperial stouts to satisfy that definition. Now, flavors of all kind - the most common this year was peach - are added to already gutsy beers, bacteria work their magic in even the smallest breweries and Belgian-style sours seem to be as common as bold dark beers.

A rote list of all the good things that could be found at the festival would take up more time than anyone reading this has to give. But here are a few of the highlights that extreme beer drinkers hopefully will be able to experience even if they didn't make the festival.

1. If there was one beer that generated the most buzz, it was Firestone Walker's Sour Opal, one of the first products of the California brewery's new Barrelworks program. The brewery is bringing in wine barrels and then inoculating the beer in them with brettanomyces, lactobacillus and pediococcus. In the case of Sour Opal, the result of three years of aging was that a charming little saison became a very sweet and tart offering that absorbed enough from the barrel to be far darker than similarly aged lighter beers. And in a show full of great sours, this one stood out.

2. Tiny Three Barrel Brewing of even tinier Del Norte, Colo. has earned its way to being mentioned with some of the biggest craft breweries in America. Its Penitente Hermano, a Belgian sour ale that comes on with a lemon nose and ends with a slightly spicy backbone of coriander, was one of the most original beers on the floor. Owner John Bricker said - and, yes, conversation with the brewers is one of the greatest things about Big Beers - that he wants to start growing distribution outside the San Luis Valley this year. The Denver beer scene will be better for it.

3. It's become an annual ritual that new breweries looking to make a name for themselves among beer geeks roll out products at Big Beers even before they've opened. And the eye-opening new kid on the block this year was Roadhouse Brewing, which is set to start serving beers in about two weeks in Jackson, Wyo. The Belgian-heavy brewery offered up a Siren Song Belgian Strong Ale that hit with an upfront bubble gum flavor and finished with refreshing bitterness, courtesy of a larger-than-usual amount of hops. And its Sacred Creed Saison was a dangerously easy, candied and light-bodied 7.3 percent monster. Add the fact that Jackson also is home to Snake River Brewing and Thai Me Up - winner of Great American Beer Festival gold medals last year for both strong pale ale and imperial IPA - and the resort town suddenly is a must-stop on the Rocky Mountain beer trail.

4. Biggest surprise of the festival? It was either the fact that The Bruery didn't show up or that Backcountry Brewery showed up in such a big way. The Frisco brewery has always been a great ski-town stop with very good takes on more common styles, such as the IPA or its breakfast stout. But no one expected its Tart SaiZyn, a pungent-but-not-quite-sour saison aged in zinfandel barrels until it hit the perfect level of drinkability. Brewer Alan Simons says Backcountry is expanding distribution to get its most popular beers in liquor stores up and down the Front Range this year. Let's hope he throws in a couple of the new experimental batches as well.

5. Experimentation is the name of the game at Vail Big Beers, and unusual flavors - whether it was Great Divide's Peach Grand Cru or Denver Beer's 14 percent Killer Icicle Eisbock - were generally appreciated. But Tenth and Blake, the "craft beer" division of MillerCoors, jumped way past clever to just plain absurd with its Bubblelicious Weisse, a thin-tasting German sour beer that included the same translucent gummy balls full of fruit flavoring that are found commonly at self-serve yogurt bars. It's a truism that if you have to put something on the outside of your beer glass - say, a lime - you're masking a poorly made beer. But if you actually have to put something inside a glass of beer to try to make it more appealing, you ought to just find a way to make better beer.

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