Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Big Beers Has Some Big Changes

For 16 years the Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival was synonymous with drinking in Vail. And now, for its 17th edition, it's being almost completely reborn - in a new city, in a new format, in a changing craft beer universe.

That kind of massive change would be enough to ruin some other festivals, or at least leave them caught in an identity crisis. But for Big Beers, whose festivities officially kick off Thursday evening (and whose tasting and seminar tickets are, shockingly, still available), it appears at first glance to be giving what already is one of America's best beer festivals a shot in the arm that allows organizers Laura and Bill Lodge to re-imagine the gathering in a whole new way.

Moving 38 miles down the road, the three-day celebration of the finest envelope-pushing beers in the state and the country lands this year at Beaver Run Resort in Breckenridge. There the main tasting event on Saturday will be split between two ballrooms in order to accommodate all of the breweries clamoring to pour their wares at the event - more than 150 will be in attendance, even as roughly 40 more beer makers had to be put onto a waiting list this year/

But, much like with the Great American Beer Festival, not all of the action will be on the floor of the event anymore. When Laura Lodge went searching for a city to replace Vail because the former host hotel is in the midst of massive renovations, one of the things she found was a willingness on the part of Breckenridge restaurants and bars not just to embrace the beer geeks coming into town but to line up a whole series of special events on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings to give visitors a chance to experience great beers outside of just the grand tasting.

From rare tappings by the likes of Odell and Avery to tap takeovers of luminaries like Melvin and Casey to beer dinners themed around everything from burgers to exotic small plates, Big Beers attendees almost could skip the festival and still have their palates sated. Then again, no one really would want to do that.

The festival, after all, remains a showcase of barrel-aged rarities (such as a Law’s Rum Barrel-Aged Sour Ale with Pluots and Elephant Heart Plums from Black Project), full experimental lines (the Metallurgy Sour Collection of beers aged in stainless steel barrels from Destihl Brewing), beers that have been cellaring for years and are impossible to find outside this event (2009 Fort from Dogfish Head) and a collection of breweries (Jester King, Surly, Troegs) whose beers can't be found elsewhere in Colorado. (See the program here.)

In fact, there's a good chance that this wholly new Big Beers festival will be its best one yet and lay a foundation for even more innovation to come. And Lodge feels very fortunate that she has this opportunity, even if it means having to leave her hometown for the weekend.

"It's been very gratifying to find out that not only is there a great beer culture here but everyone's very enthusiastic," she said. "We didn't lose any enthusiasm."

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