Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival Recap: How Big We Talkin?

For just shy of two decades, the second weekend in January serves as the unconventional, yet convenient, station in time for the annual Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival, an education focused, three day event now in Breckenridge, Colorado, at Beaver Run Resort. So in this day and age when craft beer drinkers are inundated with a never ending list of events, what sets this particular, and unmistakably popular fest among brewers, apart and, have you even heard of it?

RMFR ventures up to Breck for our first experience at the fest and to further discuss the logistics, the longevity and the wintry intentionality of Big Beers with Laura Lodge, president and executive director of Big Beers Educational Foundation, and Steve Kurowski, marketing director for the Colorado Brewers Guild.

“I think there are a number of pieces that differentiate Big Beers from what people think of a normal beer fest,” says Lodge. “We have tried to shape the festival to be outdoors, in the mountains with all the winter activities available.”

“The mountains are calling and I must go.” -John Muir

Lodge explains that “the time of the year is number one” and chooses to “target the soft spot between New Year’s and MLK” to fall on “an in-between weekend,” a less busy time to ensure discounted lodging for attendees. Her dedication to making the fest affordable is the main factor for moving three years ago, leaving it’s 16 year stint in Vail after the resort Big Beers had been working with changed hands and became unable (or more like unwilling) to offer room rates for less than $500.00 a night.

She admits that during the unexpected transition she did ask herself, “was this the end of Big Beers?” Lodge went forward to do her due diligence scouting nearby mountain towns for ski-in, ski-out accommodations and good snow, with a nice resort that’s “not over the top.” They quickly were able to eliminate Winter Park, Copper and Keystone calling them “amazing but, it didn’t feel like Big Beers.”

“So Breck it is, and I think everyone is super happy,” says Lodge. “To find a place and have a town that is super excited to host our events, it seemed like an amazing fit.”

With the darkness.

A town that could stand up to the number of tap takeovers and industry evenings is clutch, although another attractive element of Big Beers is it’s conservative numbers and interactive nature, a recipe to really appreciate the very specialized pour selections and camaraderie.

“It’s small,” says Lodge. “1,900 people for our biggest event and everything else is less than 125. It’s a more intimate feeling and because we have the brewmasters and owners attending you’re going to run into them. It’s about being part of the whole community.”

Ska knows how to party.

So what specifically makes a beer “big?” Lodge stipulates that all submissions have an ABV of seven-percent or more and are Belgian in style, or experimental, which is subjective and only accounts for a distinct few that receive a case-by-case green light.

“The whole concept was built because my brother had a distribution company and an enormous portfolio but the general public didn’t understand why they would pay more or what this micro brew craft stuff was,” says Lodge. “The premise was to give the public and the buyers the chance to learn why they’re different, why you’d want to carry and why you’d want to sell them. It was a trade show, an open look at why this is different, unique and good and why you’d want it.”

Wax on, wax off.

We concur that Big Beers is second to none as a platform for atypical, standout beers, and an obvious pseudo-conference for professional and home brewers alike, amongst a congregation of beer aficionados that truly enjoy the angel’s cut of thoughtfully concocted creations.

“I think two-thirds of the people are connected somehow,” says Lodge “The level of knowledge among our attendees is super high. The education stuff is our reason for being. It’s been interesting to say, what is big beers?”

Smells like knowledge.

The main tasting event costs $75.00 per person and includes a lengthy session of high gravity beers, non-existent lines and a meal ticket that provides ample sustenance with tender smoked pork, plump bratwursts and sides that enable us to chug right along for the entirety of the festivities. As we sip on some of the most fantastic beers in recent memory: The Farm Sahti, an uncarbonated, Finish collaboration beer brewed with rye malt, no hops and flavored with juniper from The Colorado Farm Brewery and Aaron Stueck from BJ’s Brewhouse; Kessel Run, an imperial stout brewed with dates, dark candi syrup and ancho chilies from Wit’s End Brewing Company; and a Maple Manhattan from the cocktail series “Bona Fide” at Paradox Beer Company, we begin to consider that Big Beers may be the best kept secret on the entire festival circuit.

“It’s definitely taken a while to get their reputation, but it’s the must go to event for brewers,” says Kurowski. “There were so many great beers from all over the world. It’s brings a collection of breweries and beers together that doesn’t happen anywhere else.”

Paradox Beer Co. peeps. (Left to right) Jeff Aragon, founder/brewer; Leah Rohman, brewer.

Lodge says that “in 19 years, a lot has evolved” as Big Beers began with a single tasting and one seminar “so it’s changed substantially since that point,” although she confirms that they still adhere to the same core schedule. Today’s fest welcomes multiple food and cigar pairing events, yoga, in-depth ticketed panels that cater to niche subject matters and a slew of parties on the bustling Main Street in Breck.

“It’s an exciting time for brewers to hit the slopes and when events are put on by people in the industry, it’s appealing to brewers because we know how to make them happy, how to activate them and make it worth their while,” says Kurowski.

Food and craft beer pairings bring all the forks to the yard.
Downward facing dog with a DDH IPA soothes the soul.

Big Beers clearly exists to benefit those already in the know, but we also witness the ample momentum moving things forward via excitable beer drinkers, eager to learn more intricacies of the coveted craft in a comfortable and collaborative setting.

“We really strategize the white table cloth approach and really want to make it nicer, in a venue that inspires responsibility,” says Lodge. “Big Beers can live because of the amazing amount of support and the brewers that have grown this event. If you keep coming, we’ll keep setting it up for you.”

Turn the page. We can hardly wait to celebrate 20 years of Big Beers on January 9-11, 2020.

*All images courtesy of Dustin Hall, The Brewtography Project