How To Improve The Big Beers, Belgians, & Barleywines Fest


Earlier this month I attended THE Big Beers, Belgians, & Barlywines Fest in Vail, Colorado. I emphasized the ‘THE’ because, in short, it oozes as much (potentially more) awesomesauce than GABF.  Sam Calagione has gone on record saying it’s his favorite fest every year.  And it pretty well proves itself: a tasting of 67 breweries and (Belgian) importers, packed seminars, beer dinners, and a homebrew competition round out a 2.5 day weekend.  It is, as their tagline denotes, the ultimate beer-cation.

But like a wee lad on Christmas morning, getting over-spoiled by sacrificial parents, I wanted more.  And it’s hard to ask for more.  I mean, compared to GABF, the parking is better; the beers were more impressive; the crowd was less rowdy and more sparse; there were educational seminars; no odd industrial yellow lighting or ticket scalping; booths actually had brewery reps (!); skiing was a viable option for pre-fest downtime instead of…nothing much.  Now that I really think about it, I’m going to go ahead and side with Calagione on this one.  Big Beers in Vail is better than GABF.    But it, like GABF, is not without fault.

  1. High cost of entry (unavoidable)
    Look, it’s Vail.  You need to stay in a hotel, and a beer fest with pretty rare and otherwise expensive beers on hand.  It runs a bit expensive, but it’s nothing you shouldn’t expect.
  2. Cramped seminars with moderate confusion on who was allowed in
    A ton of people work really hard to make sure even the lamest of beerfests are pulled off.  And the Big Beers fest is, I am sure, no different; I am positive a lot of hours and meticulous planning was involved on behalf of several qualified organizers to make sure Big Beers was a success.  And it was, by many means.  However, at every seminar I attended, there was a massive crowd outside the door waiting to get in, who seemed to have tickets or were otherwise assured entry, who were forced to stand in the back of the room or not attend at all.  Now, these were really cool seminars.  Steven Pauwels of Boulevard Brewing Co. talked about brewing Belgian Styles; Matt Brynildson, Brewmaster for Firestone Walker Brewing Co. spoke on “Oak Three Ways: Fermented, Aged & Wild”.  You get the idea.  To be told or otherwise purchase entry to such a class, only to be met with a closed door is a pretty huge bummer.I know the festival planning is at the mercy of the hosting hotel and what they have available, but perhaps larger meeting rooms, or a partitioned ballroom, or something larger than the space of a 1-bedroom studio apartment would free up some space so less people would be forced to stand against a wall for an hour-an-a-half.   Furthermore, how about some free seminars?  Give a little something back to the traveler who already spent their wallet on travel, food and lodging.  These don’t have to include beer samples like the others; chatting with a regionally renowned brewmaster is reward enough.
  3. More participation from local brewers
    I’m looking at you, Campfire Brewing and Crazy Mountain Brewing.  You’re the closest two breweries to the fest, and there is virtually minimal craft beer presence in Vail proper.  When GABF rolls around, Left Hand, Great Divide and Avery are all over that s***.  Except for the commercial tasting on Saturday night I barely heard a peep from you guys.  And speaking of the commercial tasting…
  4. Make the commercial tasting longer
    The commercial tasting is the actual beer fest portion of the weekend.  It’s the capstone, the main event, the steak dinner.  And as I stated earlier, it’s a beer-nerd delight, with expensive rarities out the wazoo.  Calling it Beer Nerd Fest would be equally apt.  Sam Adams Utopias; Bells Raspberry One; Surly Furious; Boulevard Love Child 2; Kasteel Donker; Westmalle Tripel, et cetera.  But 2:30 to 6:00pm?  There must be some sort of crazy hotel-related policy, or local Vail law, against having fun.No beer party ends at 6:00pm.  No beer party of this magnitude should end after 3.5 hours.  I was there the whole time, and by the time last call was signaled, I was barely buzzed.

Well, that’s about all my complaints.  They don’t really stack up or tell you how awesome the weekend was. So, pictures!

Steven Paulwels

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