Vail Big Beers Belgians & Barleywines Celebrates Sweet Sixteen

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Once again, Vail Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines has pulled off an exceptional festival weekend. Now in its 16th year, this festival is unlike any other in the state or even across the country. From educational seminars to beer and food pairings to the occasional beer “celebrity” sighting, the weekend is packed with fun; and those are just the precursors to the Commercial Tasting. Combine that with beauty of Vail and the close proximity to the ski slopes and you end up with the most endearing festival of all.

The weekend kicked off on Thursday with the Brewer’s Reception, followed by a plethora of beer dinners and pairing events which spilled into Friday. Private bottle shares broke out throughout the hotel, making their way into the hot tubs and fire pits.

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Friday evening featured a Cigar and Beer Pairing, featuring a variety of Stouts, Barleywines and other high ABV brews to warm up with, all paired with cigars hand-rolled in front of you. If that doesn’t make you feel like a high roller, I don’t know what does.


On Saturday morning, half of our team headed to The Yoga of Brewing, led by Rachel Ponce, owner of Bend Yoga & Movement Studio in Chicago, IL. She was joined by her husband Eric Ponce, who works in the Barrel Warehouse for Goose Island. The relaxing start to the day was followed up by complimentary beermosas, fresh fruit and cheese.

The other half of our team headed to the Experimental Brewing: Koelschips Seminar presented by Jason Perkins (Allagash), Jeffrey Stuffings (Jester King), Jason Yester (Trinity) and Chase Healey (Prairie). The panel had a NASA level of brain power on the topic to say the least. Each of the gentlemen walked us through their own process, discussing the difficulties of dealing with local climates and aging their own hops.

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Jester King shared some big news by announcing they’ve been quietly growing their spontaneous program for the past two years, which now accounts for roughly 40% of their cellar space. They’re fully vested in the program and are aiming to have a 3-year stock of beer to blend and package. This was the first time any of their 100% spontaneous beers have ever left the brewery to be shared with the public. What a treat!

The important takeaway from the koelschip seminar was even though these brewers follow the process of Belgian’s lambic producers, they feel that American brewers should not use the word “Lambic” or “Gueuze” to describe their beers, rather American brewers still need to discover a new term for this growing beer style/category.

Next, we attended the Check The Blend: Tasting a Blend of The Cut From Start to Finish Seminar with Troy Casey of Casey Brewing and Blending. Troy poured samples from three different barrels as well as a final blend of all three, which is known as Oak Theory, his Lambic-inspired Sour Beer. Finally, he shared samples of The Cut: Apricot, which showcased the addition of whole apricots to Oak Theory.

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Troy noted the process of Pierre Tilquin of Gueuzerie Tilquin, a lambic blender who sources wort from multiple lambic producers. As you may know, each of the lambic producers have their own distinct flavor, however Tilquin is able to create their own “house flavor” via blending. Troy has taken a similar approach with Casey Brewing and Blending by only introducing a single strain of Brettanomyces from Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen or Boon into each individual barrel instead of pitching a cocktail of all the Brett strains. Through the magic and art of blending, he is able to fine tune specific flavors to pair with fruit additions or dial in his base Saison or Oak Theory.

Our hats go off to the numerous volunteers working the Seminars. With each seminar overflowing with beer geeks, the volunteers did their best to keep the sample glasses full and we truly appreciate their efforts.

Commercial Tasting

Saturday afternoon was highlighted by the main event – The Commercial Tasting. This year saw many out-of-market heavy hitters such as Bell’s, Jackie O’s, Allagash, Wicked Weed and Surly, all of which brought some of their most famed and jaw dropping beers. Darkness vertical anyone?

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Atom Brewing from nearby Erie, CO, made their festival debut and brought along some awesome farmhouse beers, including their Small Batch Barrel (their Atom Farmhouse Ale aged in a gin barrel). Make sure you keep an eye on Atom. You can’t find their beers on tap or in bottles yet, but they’re about to make a big splash.

Goose Island once again brought the big guns. This year they were pouring Bourbon County Rare, a beer 37 years in the making and it was worth every minute of waiting. They were also pouring 2015 Proprietors, which was only sold in the Chicago area. Both beers were tasting wonderful.

Former Future Brewing Company stole the show with their Cat Sabbath. This Double Barrel Imperial Stout clocked in a little over 20% ABV. Due to the ridiculousness of the festival, Sam Adams Utopias was available just footsteps away to do a side-by-side comparison. We’d be lying if we didn’t say there were definitely some parallels between the two beers. They definitely blur the lines between beer and spirit.

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If you somehow got burned out on sampling the cornucopia of American beers, you could always re-ignite the flame for your love of authentic Trappist Ales (Rochefort, Westmalle, etc.). Not too many festivals include these true Belgian beauties, but including them helped us remember and appreciate those Belgian styles we all love and all too often overlook.

Here’s a few more sights from the festival floor.

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After the Commercial Tasting, it was time for a bite to eat, followed by a dip in the hot tub or a bottle share around the fire with friends and to finish off that cigar from earlier in the weekend. Vail Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywine blows our minds each year and continues to be one of the best in the land. See you next year, Vail!


By: Brian McKenzie and Mark Robinson

Photography: Patti Robinson, Mark Robinson and Brian McKenzie

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