Vail Big Beers and the Various "Main Events" of the Festival

The Vail Big Beers Festival is like an extension of the holiday season. The holidays are always a beautiful time of the year, I look forward to them, I love traveling to see my family, I love the food, the smell of the Christmas tree, I love partying with friends on New Year's Eve, and I love that in my life time seems to slow down a bit. Luckily, when it's all over you still have this festival to look forward to, as it usually takes place within two weeks of the new year. I've attended the festival for three years in a row now, I've proclaimed loudly that it is my favorite festival, and each year I look back and cherish the two-three days I spent in Vail.

Many people call the "Commercial Tasting" the main event of the festival. This is much like other festivals where breweries set up their booths and pour small samples of beer. At this festival all the beer is over 8% and a lot of it is really specialty and hard to get stuff. But for me, this commercial tasting is not the sole reason I attend, nor is it the main event in my mind. Instead there is a diffusion of main events, multiple educational seminars, outstanding beer dinners, a gigantic mountain for skiing, and a good chance to catch up with friends from other places. These are all the "main events" of Vail Big Beers.

In this post I'd like to talk about a few of the educational seminars I went to. I must admit, embarrassingly, that I left my notebook in Vail so I'm working only with memory and a couple other marks that I made here and there on random papers. Tomorrow I will post a whole bunch of lovely pictures from the commercial tasting and other memorable moments, complete with images of beautiful beer and beautiful people, so please do check in again.

Beer and Cheese Taste-Off

The beer and cheese taste-off was led by the Brewer's Association's own Julia Herz. She challenged four brewers to find what they thought was a phenomenal pairing of cheese with one of their beers. The brewers included Nathan Venner of the Altitude Chophouse & Brewery, Shawn Dewitt of Coronado Brewing, Scott Witsoe of Wit's End Brewing, and Geoff Larson of Alaskan Brewing Co. Each brewer was given a few minutes to talk about why these made the decisions they did, and the audience was left with the task of making up their own minds about which was the best. The presentations ranged in style from the dramatic display of affection for goats by Venner, a historical approach from Larson, a balanced and calm Witsoe, to a charismatic, ego-driven and in-your-face Dewitt. Dewitt of Coronado, the reigning champion, was again crowned the winner of the pairing although my favorite by a long shot was from Alaskan Brewing.

See, here's proof, I voted for Alaskan, and so did Daniel who was sitting with me. The Alaskan beer was a vintage Smoked Porter, so some of the bitterness had died out nicely, the smoke was still lingering around, and the beer was taking on some molasses character. The cheese was the Norwegian Gjetost, which reminded me of caramel apples and had a very chewy character. The pairing was beautiful, the flavors all seemed to roll around nicely with each other. The rest of the pairings were also nice but I think Alaskan deserves a big round of applause for that.

Nathan Venner of Altitude, Geoff Larson of Alaskan, winner Shawn Dewitt of Coronado, and Scott Witsoe of Wit's End.

Cicerone Workshop

I was able to sit in on the Cicerone Workshop, which was led by Ray Daniels, founder of the Cicerone program, and Nicole Erny, one of the six master Cicerones. Perhaps my favorite moment was the Off Flavor Tasting panel. We were given six beers, each the same base beer but each had been punctured with an off-flavor from a kit. As we sipped and gagged on our beers Nicole explained where these flavors come from, at what parts of the brewing or serving process they enter the equation, and then we attempted to communicate what we were tasting that was incorrect in the beer.

My palate is very sensitive to Diacetyl, a buttery off-flavor, so I was hesitant to even try that one. The infected beer was some disgusting mixture of Diacetyl and Acetaldehyde that reminded me of toe-jam. I think the one that will stick with me the most is Trans-2-nonenal, which comes from Oxygenation and has a wet-newspaper taste. We've recently had a lot of discussions on aging beer and a number of us enjoy the sherry-like flavors that can come with age. Many brewers and people trained to taste Oxygenation are not big fans of those same flavors because of what it means for the beer. Once the Trans-2-nonenal makes it's way in, the beer is done for.

Alaskan Brewing Co. uses Alder wood for smoking their beer.

Smoked Beer Seminar

On Friday night I respectfully declined a bottle-share invite from Sean Buchan (you might know him as Beertographer...or the man behind the spoof twitter account Focus on the Water) so that I could wake up nice and early for the morning seminar. Boy was I glad I could wake up in time for this one!

The seminar was led by Geoff Larson of Alaskan, Ro Guenzel of Lefthand, and Ray Daniels who, in addition to starting the Cicerone program also wrote the book Smoked Beers with Geoff Larson. The seminar ranged from the history of smoked beers, to how specific breweries in Bamburg create their smoked malts and smoked beers, to the processes involved in the making of these beers at Lefthand and Alaskan. One of my biggest takeaways came from Larson who talked about how historically all beers may have had smokey qualities to them because before the modern era, malts were roasted and beers were brewed over fires. In fact, smoke was everywhere because fire is what you needed to stay warm, to cook food, and walk safely in the dark. Consequently, breweries went to great pains to minimize smoke in a beer, and now some breweries attempt to bring it back in. 

We had the opportunity to try eight different smoked beers, including a number of vintage Alaskan Smoked Porters, a number of Lefthand beers, and a number of German beers. We also got to taste a few different types of smoked malts and different ingredients that went into the beers we sampled. Overall this was a fantastic and informative presentation and not only am I more interested in smoked beers now, but I believe I'm also now more fascinated by smoke itself.

The Art of Blending Hops

The final seminar I'd like to talk about was led by Daniel Bradford of All About Beer Magazine, with panelists: Nick Ison brewer and cellarman at Sierra Nevada, Cam O'Connor brewmaster at Deschutes, and Tomme Arthur the brewmaster at Port Brewing and Lost Abbey. These three guys make up some of the biggest and most popular breweries on the West Coast. Also, it's interesting to note that the hop seminar included only brewers from the West Coast. Tomme Arthur was so bold to say that he doesn't enjoy IPAs with caramel malt balance, that the absence of caramel malt allows the complexity of the hops to shine through without interference. We sampled one beer from each of the represented breweries and all three were a similar golden yellow, none were orange or red at all. I have similar feelings about IPAs and was glad to hear this.

Each brewer poured a beer, and for each beer we were given three handfuls of hops that went into it. We were encouraged to handle the hops and smell them. We then made notes on how each were different and then we looked for these notes in the aroma and flavor of the beer itself. In some cases I found myself lying to myself about what I was smelling, but at other moments I was certainly able to discern the difference between hops.

I think my favorite hop of the day was Mosaic, which was found in the Deschutes Hop Trip. Mosaic is a new hop with some tangerine and spice notes to it. It was quite a bit earthier in my opinion than all the other hops we sampled. My least favorite hop of all time is normally Citra hop (or maybe Summit) because it has an aroma of cat piss (yep, it's true, that's a common descriptor!) In its actual hop form I smelled more tropical fruits than anything else. Citra was used, for aroma purposes only, in the Sierra Nevada Torpedo, which we drank during the seminar. The brewers explained that Citra is normally so overpowering that if it was used in equal amounts, pound-for-pound, as the other hops it would be over the top. In Torpedo, out of 200lbs of hops, only 14lbs are Citra. As it turns out, Torpedo is excellent and only the mango-like character of the hop comes through. Tomme Arthur commented that Torpedo is the most Citra-forward beer that is actually still good.

So, all these amazing seminars and we have yet to even get to the commercial tasting, the so-called main event of Vail Big Beers. I'm looking forward to sharing those photos tomorrow, with a couple anecdotal stories of drinking elsewhere in Vail.

I'd also like to give a big thank you to Laura Lodge and all other organizers behind Vail Big Beers. You already know how much I love this festival and I must say that, once again, it was wonderful.

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BeerEric Steen