Sunday, July 21, 2013

A Mountain-Sized Good Idea

There is no dearth of opportunities for beer exploration in Colorado, from the state's many festivals to myriad brewery-restaurant pairing dinners. But there is just one Colorado resort that has a dedicated craft beer program - and it's doing a hell of a job with it.

The craft beer program at the Vail Cascade Resort launched quietly in December 2011. But it has ramped its activity this year, and a recent visit with the Beer Geekette showed why it's not just worth a visit when you're up in the mountains but could serve as a model for what other major hotels can do.

Laura Lodge, organizer of the annual Big Beers Belgians & Barleywines festival in Vail, (and pictured with the Beer Geekette above) was approached by Cascade officials about starting the program after they saw the crowds the Great American Beer Festival drew. Her idea was not just to throw a few local beers on tap but to keep things very fresh and interesting.

The beer mix at the resort's Fireside Bar and its restaurant, Atwater on Gore Creek, is 40% Colorado craft, 40% U.S. craft and 20% international - on tap and in bottles. What's more, Laura rotates all five of the taps every six to eight weeks, and she's yet to offer the same Colorado brewery twice. The bottle list is extensive, and the cellar list (pictured below) features some finds; the Cascade got the only case of Breckenridge's excellent Summer Cab Ride sold outside the Denver brewery.

Meanwhile, the programming started originally with "Friday Night Flights," a weekly effort to offer beer pairings with food that has evolved into full-time offerings of flights on the menu. And the resort that serves as home once a year to Big Beers now has something going every month.

Once a quarter, the Cascade goes all out with its "Sip, Savor & Brew" program featuring seminars, food/beer pairings and discussions with two to three breweries asked up for the weekend. During the other months, it has a "Brewmasters Weekend" format great for the beer geeks who want to enjoy food and conversation with brewers and still see the rest of Vail.

This past weekend, it began on Friday with a "Small Plates and Craft Beer Pairings" event in which Atwater's Chef Jay melded four Upslope Brewing beers with his own creations. Sometimes, you were impressed with the food, such as his fancy corn dogs (pictured above) paired artfully with the Boulder brewery's mild but pleasing Craft Lager. And sometimes, guests marveled at the ability to combine hard-to-pair beers, like Upslope's 10% ABV Imperial IPA with a sweet onion popover and grilled peaches smothered in cheddar cheese (pictured below) that offset the sharp hops.

Then, on Saturday, there was a simple "Meet the Brewmaster" event in which Upslope head brewer Alex Violette poured six types of beer for three hours in the late afternoon and offered free samples to anyone around. This was a great event not just because all comers got to try both the standard offerings and only-at-the-brewery specials like the new Session Pale Ale but because it offered a chance to chat with the beer creator (the subject of a future blog). And afterward, Violette (pictured below) hung out for hours at the Fireside Bar, drinking and chatting beer with a group of craft fans.

While there are a good number of beer-specialty restaurants around the state, the idea of taking craft beer into places where Bud products were once the predominant order is both bold and long overdue. And what Lodge is doing at the Vail Cascade is worthy of support and qualifies as a good excuse to get up to the mountains even when the snow isn't four feet deep.


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