“I don’t know how this is going to work,” Laura Lodge, cofounder of the Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival, says matter-of-factly. “We have to do it at least once, right?”
Traditionally held on the first weekend in January in Breckenridge, Big Beers is a three-day event full of brewing seminars and brewmaster dinners culminating with a homebrew competition and the festival’s cornerstone commercial tasting—four hours with some of the best beers on the planet. It’s one of the preeminent beer festivals on the calendar (in years not shadowed by a global pandemic, that is). In 2020, Lodge and company pulled the plug on the ’21 festival for obvious reasons, but there was hope the festival might return in ’22. But, last August, Lodge sent out the email no Big Beers attendee wanted to get: Big Beers ’22 would also be canceled.
“It would have been the end of Big Beers period. Because if we had put the money in and the time in and signed the contracts and purchase the stuff to move forward this year, we would have incurred a debt hole that we wouldn’t have been able to come out of,” Lodge explains, adding she’s “so very, very grateful that we chose to cancel when we did” because it “gives us the option to be able to continue later.”
“We don’t want the festival to fade away,” she says.
With a bit of luck and plenty of work, it won’t. There won’t be a Big Beers in Breckenridge this weekend, but there will be Big Beers-inspired celebrations all month long as Lodge and company promote Craft Your Own Big Beers ‘22—a toast to the breweries that have made Big Beers what it is over the past 20 festivals.
How it works: Throughout January, participating breweries will pour beers falling under the typical Big Beers parameters (Belgian in style or over seven percent alcohol by volume). Those beers are listed in the Big Beers app, run through DigitalPour, which is how drinkers will know where to go. Each brewery takes its own approach, and that’s destined to change throughout the month as kegs get kicked and new brews are added. As of this writing, Avery Brewing has three beers listed: White Rascal and Little Rascal (both Belgian-style wits) and Gorpe Diem, a barrel-aged imperial stout brewed with cacao nibs, raisins, and peanuts. Crystal Springs Brewing is currently pouring three oak-aged brews—Cherry Quad, Patty Criek, and Spring Forward Märzen—but starting January 27, will release three vintages of Black Saddle BA imperial stout. Sanitas Brewing has three: Imperial Stout, Bourbon BA Imperial Stout, and Saison Reposado Deluge, available for $5 each when you show the beertender your Big Beers app.
“All of it became possible at [2021’s Craft Brewer Conference],” Lodge explains. That’s where she approached Lisa Marcus at DigitalPour about the idea. “Because the key to this idea was the app. And if the app wasn’t really doable, then the concept would have to be completely different.”
DigitalPour had worked on the Big Beers app in the past, but not in the capacity required of CYO. So they tweaked the programming while preserving user familiarity for enhanced navigation, but not substitution—and certainly not to give the illusion of a virtual beer festival.
“There’s a reason that we didn’t do programming ourselves for this,” Lodge says. “We didn’t want to say this is an online Big Beers because there’s no way, online, you can create the experience that even comes close to being at Big Beers . . . So we deliberately chose not to do any programming, not to do any online seminars with our brewers, not to try to, in any way, ship people beers, or try to replicate what we do.”
Makes sense: Going to Big Beers means trying some of the rarest beers in the world in one or two ounce pours from only a few remaining bottles.
“You can’t ship that to people,” she says. “And it wouldn’t be Big Beers if we didn’t have that stuff . . . So the idea of doing no programming, and just giving everybody the tools to do it their way, wherever they are, is a way to say we want to celebrate, we want to keep it going.”
That leaves it up to each participating brewery (over 100 have signed up) and each adventurous drinker to craft their own level of involvement. And instead of one weekend, they have all of January.
“We expanded to give everybody an opportunity to really support the breweries and really get into the app and give them more time to schedule their own opportunities, their own celebrations,” Lodge says, adding, “The app will continue to change, and there are new breweries coming on even as recently as yesterday. So we’re not done. We’re not set in stone . . . We’re going to continue to grow and change, and breweries will continue to add beers.”
ON TAP: 2022 Craft Your Own Big Beers Celebration, multiple venues throughout January, visit bigbeersfestival.com/craft-your-own-tasting/ for more.