Beer = science + art

Dispatches from Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival

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Nick, from Sierra Nevade Brewing Company.
Michael J. Casey

Beer festivals are a dime a dozen, but there are none like this. Now in its 19th year, Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival is a spectacle. Located in Breckenridge’s Beaver Run Resort — a hotel/convention center situated at the base of Peak 9, where bearded brewers in jeans mingle with snow-pant-clad skiers — Big Beers features a highly curated list from roughly 160 brewers pouring several selections of high octane brews, most beers clocking in north of 7 percent alcohol by volume. Like The Boston Beer Co.’s boundary-shattering Utopias — a barrel-aged ale that defies classification at 28 percent ABV — and Avery Brewing Co.’s latest barrel-aged series release: Sandy Claws, a 14.5-percent stout aged on peppermint and chocolate that tastes as delectable as it sounds.

Stouts abounded at this festival, as did barleywines and wheatwines, including Sierra Nevada Brewing Company’s Barrel-Aged Wheatwine with Lemon — with enticing lemon and a beefy wheat bill playing harmoniously together. And if long lines of eager drinkers are any indication, then barrel-aged beers are here to stay — as are sours, wilds, fruit beers and experimentation galore.

But Big Beers is much more than a beer fest. Spanning three days, brewers and beer geeks filled Beaver Run’s various convention rooms for panels that combined the artistic and scientific sides of the brewing game. While one seminar, hosted by Julia Herz of craftbeer.com, blindfolded participants for a tasting that focused on how all five senses perceive what’s in the glass; another brought together brewers from Sierra Nevada (Chico, California and Mills River, North Carolina), Mad Fritz Brewing Company (St. Helena, California) and Crooked Stave Artisanal Beer Project (Denver) to create beers, identical in style and recipe, but with each brew’s water chemistry altered.

Water quality’s impact on beer has long been debated and marketed, but what ended up surprising the brewers was how little these beers differed on paper despite what alterations they made to the chloride and sulfate contents. However, side-by-side tastings revealed distinct nuances in each beer, primarily carbonation perception. Talking water in beer may not be as sexy as malt or hops, but it is an ingredient that shall not be denied.

The highlight of Big Beers ’19 belonged to the seminar on ancient Nordic styles. With a panel including Aaron Stueck of Boulder’s BJ Brewhouse, who brought his spectacular Finnish-style Sahti beer, the discussion delved into three beers that define Scandinavian culture, highlighting history, tradition and the ever-intoxicating story of locality.

If beer is science plus art, then Big Beers features the honor roll of craft brewers. It’s a delight, one every inquiring drinker must experience at least once.

Special shout-out to Jamie Moulton of Niwot’s The Big Lewbrewski homebrew club for his Belgian pale ale and Belgian dubbel; both placed at this year’s Big Beers’ Homebrew Competition.