The Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival has found a permanent home on my must-attend list for beer festivals each year. While I enjoy The Great American Beer Festival, I’d purposefully ruin my four year streak of GABF attendance if I was forced to pick between it and Big Beers. The high altitude, high ABV fest has fallen smack dab in the goldilocks range of what I want out of a beer festival experience. A good beer fest is more than good beer, and Big Beers has long had that game cornered.
The year 2020 marked the 20th anniversary of the Big Beers Fest! All the nuances of this event that I have grown to love were amplified in celebration of 20 exciting and educational years of beer festing. Extra events and a reunion of the past 20 years of featured brewmasters tied the festival weekend up in the fanciest of bows. The commercial tasting also happened to fall on my birthday this year. It was a monumentally serendipitous experience!
Alright, folks. This was my third year in attendance, and I knew exactly what I wanted out of it. I rolled through the schedule of events and local beer haunts like a five course dinner of my favorite dishes, salivating and savoring each anticipated bite. A few new stops or events were sprinkled in for added excitement, and they were all winners. The beer gods smiled down upon me that weekend!
No drive from Utah to Colorado via I-70 is complete without a pit stop for tacos at Slope & Hatch in Glenwood Springs. Jamie Burnham of Kiitos Brewing turned me onto this hot spot while we were driving to The Great American Beer Festival 2019. I raved about it in my GABF 2019 blog post, and yes, it deserves another mention. I’m pretty sure the heater was broken that frigid January afternoon, but no one seemed to mind all that much. Cold air is not enough to keep people from their tacos, myself included. I’m a creature of habit. Beef barbacoa tacos and a Lone Tree Mexican Lager are exactly what I got last time, and I enjoyed it exactly as much (very!).
The drive after Glenwood Springs got a little sketchy. There were plenty of snow plows carving out pathways as the mountain pass got hammered with powder, but my confidence drifted with the snow. I’d feel better at the bottom with a beer in hand. Soon enough, I was at Outer Range Brewing Company, tending to my white knuckles with a nice crispiboi. Leave it to me to order a pilsner at a hazy brewery. The rest of the night was a back and forth between Après Handcrafted Libations and Kenosha Steakhouse. Note to self: If there’s a kick the keg event the Thursday before a beer fest weekend, don’t bother. It’s all old, and not worth your money.
Friday morning always begins with the Big Beers Homebrew Competition. It’s what drew me to the festival three years ago, and it’s one of the reasons I keep coming back. More faces are familiar every year. Many of the organizers and judges have been part of the festival for years – some since its inaugural fest in 2000. I love hearing the stories associated with past years in between judging flights. Most stories begin with how the weather was that particular season, or if it was when the fest was held in Vail. There’s always an air of fondness about it. I love stealing their sense of reminiscence, and think I’ve even got some of my own by now.
In the past, I’ve attended the CraftBeer.com Beer & Food Seminar a few hours after the homebrew competition judging. Julia Herz and Chef Adam Dulye always put on an awesome, interactive presentation. I decided not to attend this year for a couple of reasons. The title for this year’s seminar was “Craftbeer.com Palate Battle: Hops vs Heat”. Listen, I am a damn baby when it comes to handling spicy food. Actually, there are probably a lot of babies out there that can handle more heat than I can. Just so you understand, Cholula is kinda spicy to me. I know, I’ve just lost your respect, but at least I’m honest. I didn’t want to blow my palate out right before the most star-studded event of the past 20 years!
For some background information, two brewmasters are selected each year to be featured at the Traditional Brewmasters’ Dinner, which is held the Thursday night before the festival. It’s a beer and food pairing dream I’ve yet to experience (Big Beers 2021!?), but it’s essential to the context of the Big Beers 20 Year Reunion. At 8:30pm on Friday 01/10/2020, a limited number of attendees entered the Imperial Ballroom of the Beaver Run Resort to participate in a miniature beer festival where every booth was manned or womaned by the brewmasters of the past 15 years at the Big Beers Festival. The sold out Big Beers 20 Year Reunion event placed me in a room with more beer industry gods than my feeble and unworthy state of being could handle. I hardly snapped more than a couple photos because I was too busy staring in any one direction and wondering how I could be so lucky to be in the presence of all of these inventive contributors and pioneers of the industry. My words are getting mushy now. Just take a look at this list and tell me you wouldn’t be starstruck, too. I double IPA dare you.
I slept amongst the clouds on Friday night, dreaming of the stars and higher-ups I bashfully rubbed elbows with. It was a blissful preface to what became an intensely delightful Saturday. There was sunshine in my step and a notepad in my pocket. Who could stop me? What hangover dare touch my mood? The seminars and extravagant festival to follow were on the very anniversary of my birth. There wasn’t a better place on earth to celebrate!
A series of three seminars kicked off at 9am and ended at about 1:30pm. There are always many to choose from, and I’m never completely satisfied with my selection because it means I can’t attend them all! (Different tracks of education run simultaneously after the initial Experimental Brewing Seminar.) Stay tuned in the coming weeks for some juicy seminar details!
By the time I made it into the fest, I had already worked some new wrinkles into the corners of my mouth. Smiling was my default facial expression, and giddiness was my new identity. Now it was time to put my hard earned tolerance to work! Sample after sample, I tested and talked my way through flavors and process and subtleties. I swiped a few good swag items early on and let frequent waterings and deep conversation be my sobering guide. It’s a delicately sequenced dance that involves preparation, smart choices, and the best bad choices. Those that have the moves get to groove all night. Those that don’t get stuck in a chair by the exit with their head over a waste basket. (That poor soul.) I’ve always been impressed by the way people handle themselves at this festival. There will always be a handful that can’t hack it, but this lot has always seemed capable.
The end of the Big Beers Fest cannot be the end of the night for me. I need an adequate wind down of pilsners and a final dose of grub. I made one last stop at Kenosha for a juicy burger, and then ended up at the recently opened Whiskey Star Smokehouse across the street. Lack of deliberation and a spurt of spontaneity had me blurting out “Cold Snacks” for my order. I watched as a heavily frosted glass was filled with the faucet shaft assembly deep in my beer. These normally cringe-worthy offenses rolled off my snobby back as if my education didn’t matter (it didn’t). What I wanted was something cold and easy drinking. I wanted Montucky Cold Snacks. Little icebergs danced in my straight sided pint glass as I gleefully chomped at them between slurps. My mouth wrinkles creased again as I listened to the bar banter. It was the perfect nightcap.
Like reading a good book for the third time, I found something new about Big Beers to be enamoured about, and it cemented my opinions on how much I needed to tell people what they were missing. And yet, part of me wants to selfishly hold the tasty details of this festival close to my chest for fear that the masses of uneducated seltzer sluts will swoop in and change it for the worse. But then I remember this good thing has been going strong for 20 years, and roots like that don’t change course so easily. Like a good lager, stay the course. 🙂
Stay Strong, Big Beers!
Cheers To 20 Years!