The 17th annual Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival took place recently in Breckenridge, Colorado. While the location was a first—the previous iterations all occurring in Vail, Colorado—the format was the same: serious beers from some of the most respected national and international brewers.
While Saturday’s commercial tasting is the marquee event of the three-day festival, attendees also had the opportunity to attend the “Calibration Dinner” with Dogfish Head’s Sam Calgione, as well as various food and beer events, yoga, a cigar pairing and technical seminars.
The seminars touched upon a variety of niche subjects within the brewing industry. Jeffrey Stuffings of Jester King Brewery, Chase Healey of American Solera, Phil Markowski of Two Roads Brewing Company and Nile Zacherle of Mad Fritz Brewing Company discussed brewery terroir while Dr. Nicole Garneau of DraughtLab, LLC and curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science tackled “The Science of Contentious Big Beers: Our Love/Hate Relationship with Bitter and Sour.”
Thanks to the home field advantage, Colorado breweries dominated the field at the commercial tasting with luminaries like Avery Brewing Company, Left Hand Brewing Company and New Belgium Brewing Company sharing space with upstarts such as Cerebral Brewing, Baere Brewing Company and Bruz Beers.
But, the distance didn’t prevent Alaskan Brewing Company, Bell’s Brewery, Deschutes Brewery, Brewery Ommegang and other breweries of their ilk from digging deep into their portfolios for impressive big beers.
Internationally, you could sample a gueze from Belgium’s Brouwerij Boon, a tripel from Brouwerij Bosteels, a sour from Brouwerij de Brabandere or a Trappist quad from an authentic Trappist brewery (La Trappe).
The playing field is uniquely level with everyone bringing beers meant to impress the crowd of brewers, industry veterans and other beer professionals. Lines are non-existent (once you get in) and the brewers man the booths. The caliber of beers is unlike any other festival featuring vintage beers, limited releases and one-off experiments.
So what were the “biggest” beers? While not every offering had a clearly defined ABV, there were several that topped 15%. Dogfish Head had two, 2013 World Wide Stout (15-20%) and 2009 Fort (15-16%) and Boston Beer Company brought their Triple Bock ’95 (18%) and the trend-setting Utopias (29%).
Bruz Beers had a 15.2% Biere Brut, while Avery had their 17.1% Uncle Jacob’s Stout. Odd13 Brewing brought a 15% Diego Grande (quad aged in tequila barrels), while Shmaltz Brewing Company had their 16.7% Genesis 20:20 and 16.8% Jewbelation 20. Rounding out the “over 15%” crowd was Belgium’s White Pony with a 15.1% aptly named Strongest Than Ever Barleywine.
Here are a few of the more memorable beers…
Dogfish Head Brewing Company
It was no surprise that Sam Calagione would dig deep into the Dogfish Head cellar for his selections at Big Beers. After a 2013 World Wide Stout and 2014 Theobroma, the most robust offering at the booth was a 2009 Fort. Fort, possibly the world’s strongest fruit beer, is made with cellaring in mind and this seven-year-old brew certainly stood the test of time. Delicate yet powerful, the raspberry juice-infused ale has a Belgian-style base and employs a similar fermentation process as the 120 Minute and World Wide Stout. Fort has a nose like port—lots of dark fruits, and raspberries. It still carries a reddish hue and shows its age around the edges. Warming and boozy, if you have a bottle of this vintage in your stash, it’s time to break it out.
Weldwerks Brewing Company
While Greeley, Colorado’s Weldwerks received recognition in Paste’s 2016 roundup of the best up and coming breweries and also a shout-out as pouring one of the best beers at this year’s Great American Beer Festival, a lot of the attention has focused on their hazy New England-style IPA, Juicy Bits, and its various iterations. But, swing by the brewery during a release of one of two series of ridiculously delicious barrel-aged imperial stouts, and you’ll find lines of even greater length. At Big Beers, the brewery rolled out two versions of Achromatic—Mexican and Peanut Butter Cup—along with a bourbon-barrel aged, coconut-enhanced Medianoche variant that came in at 14.5% ABV. But, not to be forgotten, they also brought a never-before-poured Extra Juicy Bits—a last minute addition to the menu.
Perrin Brewing Company
2016 was a “year of craziness in a good way” according to a Perrin representative at Big Beers. After being acquired by Colorado’s Oskar Blues Brewing Company in 2015, this past year was one of growth for the Comstock Park, Michigan brewery. Though the brewery may have played expansion by the book, all bets are off when if comes to No Rules, a 15% imperial Vietnamese porter aged in oak bourbon barrels that pays homage to damaged Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski. The beer is surprisingly quaffable with no discernable heat on the nose despite its hefty gravity. It’s silky smooth with hints of coconut, vanilla, toffee and coffee. According to some, “it tastes like a Mounds candy bar that’s been dipped over and over again in rich chocolate and soaked in bourbon.”
Solemn Oath Brewery
You could have spent a good portion of the afternoon sampling the impressive selection from Solemn Oath out of Naperville, Illinois. Interrobang Belgian Tripel, Pernicieux Belgian Brown Rye, Man vs. Internet Belgo-Americna Double Red, Ravaged by Vikings American Double IPA and Death By Vikings American Imperial IPA were all tempting. But, at Big Beers you have to be selective or you’re not going to make it very far. I opted instead for Sybil’s Revenge, a 9% ABV bourbon barrel-aged imperial black saison. Sybil’s was the sixth release in Solemn Oath’s The Old Order series that featured various barrel-aged Belgian dark ales and saisons. This release sat in Old Forester barrels for 18 months, and the oak and bourbon permeated the final product. The beer was roasty with hints of vanilla, dark fruits and chocolate with a slight spiciness.
Ninkasi Brewing Company
To celebrate 10 years of brewing, Eugene, Oregon’s Ninkasi thought outside the box but packaged their creation inside a collectable outer box. N10 is a blend of 50% Imperial Stout, 10% Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout, 12.5% Imperial Total Domination IPA, 12.5% Imperial Maiden the Shade IPA and 15% Critical Hit Barleywine. Got that? “N10 is a very special beer, blending together five cornerstone recipes each telling its own story about our brewery,” said founding brewer and co-founder, Jamie Floyd. “This beer is big, flavorful and heavy-hitting.” Definitely one of the more unique beers tasted, you can pick out the different flavor profiles of each style. The nose exhibits hop characteristics of pine and citrus while also displaying hints of the roastiness, coffee and cocoa associated with stouts. It’s bitter upfront before the malt backbone catches up with the hoppiness. An oddity for sure.
Considering the palate-stretching, sobriety-wrecking nature of the beers being offered, the large bowls of bread spread throughout the festival floor were the clear winners.