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Vail’s Big Beers Festival: Day 1

***Update – recap of Day 2 can be found here.***

The day started with a nice tall cup of coffee. I headed to Vail with my wife and Isaac Grindeland for the famous Big Beers Fest. This is a great fest because not only do you get to taste beer from around the world, but both national and international brewers that lead the industry are giving talks. The majority of the activity, and the majority of the beer drinking is happening tomorrow (I wrote the majority of this yesterday, on Friday), but today Isaac is judging homebrews in the Imperial Stout category. He’s taking it really slow, I’d imagine that’s one tough category to get through. This is the Big Beers Fest afterall, every beer that I will get to try will be over 5%, but looking at the list of beers available, it looks like most of the beers I am selecting will be at least 8% and many are over 10%. Should be exciting! One of my favorite things is trying to enjoy beer, drink lots of it, and take notes at the same time.

I got here just in time to try a few beers during the meet and greet. I tasted a Breckenridge Barrel Aged ESB, which had way too much oak flavor to me, but a lot of people were enjoying it. I met a handful of guys from the Brew Brothers of Pikes Peak, which was really nice. I’ve been thinking about joining their group. Here are a few photos of the homebrew judging, using the BJCP guidelines.

Axe Brew from Brew Brothers
Dino Brew checking out color and clarity
Hard at work deciding some homebrewer’s fate

I don’t have much to say about this event because I’m not an official judge and wasn’t participating in the judging. But every now and then you’d see a bottle gushing and everyone would laugh. It was much more jovial in the room than these images suggest. I was surprised to find about ten women judges in a room of about a hundred people. I know that beer is generally a male-dominated field of interest, but it was surprising to see it in action. Many of the people that I see working behind the scenes are women.

Next up was the inspirational talk with Sam Calagione. Sam talked to us about many of the things we could see on the Brew Masters television show, but with a more detail on his experiences.

He started by talking about how Dogfish Head started up and then led us through four different beers they make, which we drank as he talked, and told us about how Dogfish Head came to experiment with these beers. We tasted the Pangaea, which has ingredients from every continent; the Chichca Beer made from chewing and spitting corn; Chateau Jiahu, which was my favorite and is based off an ancient style with Chrysanthemum flower, hawthorne flowers, and sake yeast; lastly we had Bitches Brew which is a blended stout and was featured on Brewmasters. My favorite parts of the talk were 1) when Sam said the Reinheitsgebot German Purity Beer Law is the same as modern art censorship and 2) his visits to Italy and his collaboration with Italian Brewers. He’s opening a collaborative brewpub with the brewmasters of Italian breweries Birrificio Le Baladin and Birra del Borgo as well as the California wine-country Russian River Brewing. They will have three firkins, one of which will rotate regularly and the other two are a Chestnut ESB and a Thyme Pale. The system they will use is 3.5 barrels, which I believe is about the size of Trinity Brewing’s system in Colorado Springs, which is small. Sam’s talk reminded me much of the way artists will give talks about their work and their process on how they determine what they are doing. He seems to have a very process-based way of doing business, which I appreciate fully.

So far the Big Beers Fest has proven to be exciting in a way that moves beyond your normal beer fests. I’m excited about tomorrow. Please check back for more information.

Written By

Eric teaches art, loves being outdoors, and organizes beer events around the country. He founded Focus on the Beer and Beers Made By Walking.


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