Thursday, December 21, 2017

It's Time to Get Ready for Big Beers

Staring at the calendar, you realize that the big day is now only two weeks away.

That's right: Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival begins on Jan. 4.

While some of you may have visions of sugar plums dancing through your heads, Laura Lodge has visions of rum-barrel-aged sugar plum saisons being poured in neat lines over two floors of Beaver Run Resort in Breckenridge on Jan. 6 at a tasting that caps three days of festivities. And, unlike last year, when she was heading into a new town for the festival for the first time in 17 years, she knows this year what to expect from that town - and is really excited about the opportunities it presents to enhance what is already one of America's greatest beer festivals.

"Last year I spent a good portion of my summer and fall in Breckenridge trying to figure out what businesses wanted to be a part of Big Beers and learning how we would fit in," said Lodge, who runs the festival with her brother, Bill, in addition to running her company that works with hotels and resorts to establish craft-beer programs. "This year I already know who some of the key players are, so I am starting to meet some of the people behind the scenes."

Big Beers is an event worth getting ready for weeks early, even with two major holidays standing before it on the calendar, because it is such a unique gathering of brewers. Some 150 beer makers and international beer distributors will be pouring beers that are 7 percent ABV or above (plus a fewer lighter Belgian styles) and typically foisting onto you some of their rarest offerings aged in barrels right alongside their more common double IPAs and imperial stouts.It all will be done in an intimate setting where the person who came up with the crazy idea for the beer in your hand is the one explaining it to you as it cascades into your glass.

And this regal tasting happens only after a day of seminars that begin before 10 a.m., offering those wanting to dive into the art of brewing, blending and barrel-aging beer a chance to get unusually academic - while sipping on a barleywine around the same time that others are eating Cheerios.

From 2000 through 2016, the Big Beers festival made its home in Vail, an impressively scenic and special town but one without much of a grounding in the craft-beer movement that's swept over Colorado. Lodge moved the event because the former host hotel was in the midst of an extensive renovation, and what she found was a replacement home that added more local touches and more character to the festival.

Now, instead of attendees just having the option to get tickets to the three beer-pairing dinners that occur on the Thursday and Friday nights prior to the big tasting, they can hit up tappings, beer/food pairings and brewery-sponsored concerts around the village. It's become more like a miniature Great American Beer Festival, except for the mind-blowing fact that Big Beers often doesn't sell out of tickets (and still hasn't for this year).

There are changes coming to this year's festival because of things that Lodge learned at the 2017 event, and I will detail some of those as the event gets closer. But the biggest difference as the clock winds down on preparations for Big  Beers 2018 is that the sense of transience that surrounded the event at this time last year has morphed into a sense of permanence and a feeling that now, more than ever, it's really home.

"I think what we're seeing here is a shift based on the community the event is held in," Lodge said recently. "I think we're seeing Breckenridge shine because they have a more developed beer culture."

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