I love beer. I love food. And when given the chance to attend an event that offers both plus the opportunity to chat with and learn from beer industry leaders, I cannot say no. To say I was thrilled to attend the 18th annual Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival held at Beaver Run Resort and Conference Center in Breckenridge, Colorado, over the January 4-6 weekend would be an understatement.
With so much to eat, drink, and learn given four pairing dinners, 13 educational seminars, the commercial tasting, and more than 20 affiliated events around town, the most difficult aspect of Big Beers weekend is choosing how to spend your time. This year, I decided to focus on the Traditional Brewmaster's Dinner, the Experimental Brewing Seminar, and, of course, the Commercial Tasting.
The Traditional Brewmasters' Dinner
Though you'll find a number of carefully planned beer and food experiences at Big Beers, my husband and I were elated to attend the Traditional Brewmasters' Dinner, held on Friday evening in the Imperial Ballroom at Beaver Run Resort.
Hosted by this year's Featured Brewmasters Cory King, the founder and brewmaster of Side Project Brewing, and Jeffrey Stuffings, co-founder of Jester King Brewery, the evening included 10 rare or small-batch beers paired with dishes created by Beaver Run's Executive Chef Phil Dilks and his team.
The five-course meal got off to a strong start with a red snapper crudo with frisée paired with Side Project's Bière du Pays Blend #6 and Jester King's Örter i Mörker.
While both beers played quite nicely with the dish, I was blown away by Örter i Mörker, which Stuffings described as a Scandinavian-inspired farmhouse ale with dill, caraway, pine needles and wood ear mushrooms. Aged in aquavit barrels, the beer had a bit of anise character as well. I found the aroma reminiscent of rye bread and fresh dill, and the flavors refreshing and surprising given the darkness of the beer.
The fourth course was also particularly outstanding: an elk tenderloin with raspberry reduction and fondant potatoes paired with Jester King's Das Wunderkind and Side Project's Fencerow Blend #3. These were two very different beers, and I was quite impressed at Dilks' team's success at pairing them so expertly with a single unifying dish.
While I thoroughly enjoyed both beers, Fencerow Blend #3 was unlike any other I have tasted. King explained that he made the first two batches with wild black raspberries picked by a neighbor in his old hometown. He had to look elsewhere for the fruit for the third iteration, requiring 4,000 pounds of black raspberries to produce it at quantities large enough to satisfy demand.
Almost more of a black raspberry wine than a beer, Fencerow Blend #3 contained 10 pounds per gallon of black raspberries to start and was later batch-blended to taste. The result was fruit-forward yet still tongue-pleasingly tart.
The Experimental Brewing Seminar
Having become a fan of New England-style IPAs since profiling WeldWerks Brewing last year, I decided to start my Saturday sitting in on this year's experimental brewing seminar. Titled New England IPAs: The Bitterness Challenge, the seminar featured Neil Fisher of WeldWerks, Ross Koenigs of New Belgium Brewing Co., Lee Cleghorn of Outer Range Brewing Co., and Sean Buchan of Cerebral Brewing.
While I readily admit that some of the content sailed completely over my head (What's a humulinone again?), I did learn more about the difficulties brewers have had using standard IBU calculations and methods of testing IBUs to effectively quantify the bitterness characteristics of "juicy" IPAs that are brewed with more hops but are less bitter than traditional IPA styles.
The brewers presented several different New England-style IPAs, each brewed with varying hop schedules and dry hop rates and then analyzed in the lab at New Belgium so that their bitterness measurements could be calculated. Tasting these beers in conjunction with bitterness data helped me gain a better understanding of the effects of dry hopping on bitterness in this type of IPA. And who wouldn't want the opportunity to drink Juicy Bits at 9:30 a.m.?
The Commercial Tasting
Held Saturday afternoon, the Commercial Tasting is the centerpiece of Big Beers, featuring nearly 550 different commercially produced specialty beers from top breweries around the world. Most are poured by brewery representatives, if not the brewers and owners themselves.
This year, event sponsor DigitalPour created an app that combined printed program content with the Commercial Tasting event map. Though I still found myself using my printed program to learn more about the beers I was sampling and to jot down tasting notes, the app definitely made navigating the two floors and hallways packed with great tasting opportunities much easier.
For a number of reasons -- not the least of which are Breckenridge's altitude of 9,600 feet and a need to take notes that I can decipher when the event is over -- I tend to seek out the lower ABV beers at the festival early on and leave the big beers for later in the afternoon.
That said, one of the first beers I ended up sampling was Atom Brewing Company's Why is the Carpet Still Wet Todd? This sour farmhouse imperial stout at 10.5 percent ABV was flavorful and balanced. Matured in neutral wine barrels for a year and then aged on cranberries, orange zest, and vanilla beans, it tasted like concentrated Christmas.
Sour beers were plentiful, and the next one that made a big impression was Caution Brewing Company's Mazu Sour Belgian Golden. Brewed with copious amounts of orange peel, coriander, and cardamom before mixed fermentation with Saccharomyces and aging in red wine barrels with Brettanomyces for more than 10 months, this beer was bright and citrusy with a tart yet sweet finish.
One of the most surprising beers for me was Green Bench Brewing Company's Les Grisettes. Brewed with European pilsner, spelt, oats, rye, and malted buckwheat, this 100 percent Brettanomyces fermented beer was light and almost as bubbly as champagne. The aroma and flavor reminded me of a refreshing mineral water, and I could certainly drink a lot of it.
Other standouts at the commercial tasting included:
Green Bench Brewing Company's The Obscure, a rum-barrel aged English-style barleywine that I wanted to pour over pancakes.
Jester King Brewery's Atrial Rubicite, a barrel-aged raspberry sour refermented for dryness. It has quickly become my favorite raspberry beer.
Paradox Beer Company's Rosé is Bae, also known as Skully #56, an American wild sour combining Sangiovese grapes with the brewery's barrel-aged wild sour golden. It poured a beautiful pink and had a lovely aroma.
Spice Trade Brewing's Sichuan Saison, a French-style saison infused with a house blend of Chinese five spice, Sichuan peppercorns, and orange peel. I'm a big fan of Sichuan dishes like Mapo Tofu, and this beer gave me the same tingling, mouth-numbing sensation.
Verboten Brewing and Barrel Project's A Little Thing Called Destiny, a white chocolate wheat wine aged for 10 months in bourbon barrels with Ghana chocolate husks, cacao nibs, caramel, and vanilla. This beer had just the right amount of bourbon heat to mellow the sweetness of the chocolate.
Big Beers will return to Breckenridge January 10-12, 2019. I plan to be there, and encourage anyone who missed this year's -- whether brewer or beer lover -- to find a way to get there, too.
Angela Rose is a contributor to BreweryWeek and CompanyWeek. Reach her at email@example.com.