Wednesday, January 07, 2015

A Big Beers History

The throngs of people who will flock to the 15th annual Vail Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival this weekend might have a hard time picturing it being anything other than a magnet for some of the boldest beer in the country and most serious beer geeks in Colorado. But festival coordinator Laura Lodge can remember a time when Big Beers wasn't quite so big.

In 2001, Lodge's brother, Bill Lodge owned distributor High Point Brewing Co. and had a portfolio of imported European beers and American craft beer that was one of the finest in the area. But in those days he also had a problem convincing bars and stores and restaurants to buy the beer because, even though they liked what they tasted, they couldn't get customers to pay more for the offerings.

So Bill decided to hold a trade show above the Hubcap Brewery where he would gather 20 to 25 of the different brewers and importers in his portfolio and have them pour their products for the people who could put them on their menus and shelves. And what's more, Bill and Laura decided it would be a good idea to invite the public so that they could, as Laura now says, "sample an ounce of this crazy beer and then decide if they'd pay a little more for it."

What happened next is what you might expect. Nearly 200 people showed up. Their eyes bulged at the assortment of flavors available to them. And they begged the Lodges to do it again. And again.

Today, it is arguably the best beer festival in Colorado, rivaled only by the girth and variety of flavors at the Great American Beer Festival but having a per-pour quality level that is unmatched anywhere.

"Big Beers has never had a marketing budget," Laura (at right) said. "It was built by the brewers. They'd say 'I'll see you in Vail.' And the people who figured it out have come."

There have been changes, mind you. But each one has added onto the appeal of what is now a full four-day weekend of taste exploration.

Just one year later, the Big Beers homebrew contest came to bear. It now draws entries from across the country.

In 2005, Adam Avery talked Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head into coming out, but they insisted they do a beer-pairing dinner together. They offered one of the first double-pairing suppers in beer-dinner lore, with each course coming with high-gravity pearls from both breweries, and this year the now-annual "calibration dinner" sold out in 15 seconds.

Around that time, Lodge added what might be the most unique feature of the festival - an early-morning Saturday seminar (starting at 9:30 a.m. this year) in which brewers come to talk about an experimental genre. Tables are set with white cloths and 8-10 beers are poured into small snifters to remind attendees that it's an educational forum rather than a tailgating-style morning chugfest. But it still is a place where you can enjoy a barrel-aged imperial stout while others are eating breakfast and no one will look down upon you.

In 2013, the festival's main tasting session sold out for the first time, like a long-held secret that finally had to be passed around. Last year the Lodges moved it to a more spacious area on the Vail Cascade property, but this year Laura had to limit the number of vendor tables at 126, creating her first-ever wait list for breweries to get into it.

The reason for the limit is simple: Laura refuses for it to become one of those festivals where lines get 10 people deep and breweries send marketing reps to pour the beer rather than brewers.

This, after all, is not just a festival where you can sip a one-off, taproom-only barrel-aged beer from Great Divide and then turn around and discover the latest experiment from Bell's Brewery. This is a festival where the people who continue to pour and explain your beers are Avery and Calagione - brewing-industry rock stars who settle upon this ski town once a year because they know they can learn as much about the brewing art as the patrons trying to sip up every ounce they can.

"I don't want it to get any bigger," Laura said. "I want to keep it a small, connected opportunity for the people who are there. And I want to make sure we have brewmasters and owners attending ... It is the brewers who have made this event happen."

(The general tasting session once again is sold out. But if you have not gotten tickets for this year, I can't recommend enough that you plan to make this festival in 2016.)

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