Matt Brynildson, Adam Avery, and Cory King on Big Beers 2019
It’s one of the draws of the annual Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival: Bold-faced names in craft brewing routinely make the trip, pouring their beer and chatting up fans.
Who can blame them? Snow-capped peaks, a ski lift right outside the resort door, a world-class brewery lineup, geeky seminars, organizers who know what they are doing, and educated consumers. All can be found in Breckenridge for three January days.
As one brewer put it, it has the feel of a family reunion (but without kids running around).
We caught up with three of the industry’s leading lights at Saturday’s commercial tasting to ask about the festival’s allure, breweries they were eager to check out, the big industry trends of 2018, and what to expect from their breweries this year. Here’s what we learned:
Matt Brynildson, brewmaster, Firestone Walker
Even one of the country’s most decorated brewers has a few things to learn.
For Brynildson, who has won too many medals to count as the brewmaster of Paso Robles, Calif.-based Firestone Walker, Big Beers offers an opportunity to “come up here and commune with the actual makers of the product” and learn a few things from the cutting-edge seminars.
The very best festivals — Big Beers, Firestone Walker’s Invitational, the Mikkeller Beer Celebration in Copenhagen — draw the brewers themselves, he said.
“I’ve never understood why a festival that promotes 10 percent-plus alcohol beers at 10,000 feet, how that makes sense,” Brynildson said. “But somehow it does.”
Before heading to Breckenridge, the Firestone Walker crew made its first visits to WeldWerks in Greeley, the darling of local beer geeks, and Purpose Brewing in Fort Collins, home to former New Belgium brewmaster Peter Bouckaert. At the fest itself, Brynildson was up for exploration.
“I love to come with an open mind and just taste things, take down some notes,” he said. “There is a lot of learning that is going on here, which is cool.”
Brut IPAs were the first trend of 2018 Brynildson cited, but he was more eager to talk about grape-hybrid beers, wine-grape beers and collaborations between breweries and wineries.
Firestone Walker is helping drive the conversation. Last year, it hosted the Terroir Project, “an experimental crossover between wine and beer” that featured seven breweries.
The brewery is betting on the trend itself with a national release of a grape hybrid beer called Rosalie, in a slim can. With pilsner malt making for the lightest, least-bitter beer possible, it’s 30 percent grape juice sourced in Paso Robles, with a hint of hibiscus, Brynildson said.
Also on the horizon: a bunch of experimentation from Eric Ponce, who formerly ran the barrel program at Goose Island (where Brynildson also worked) before departing for Logsdon Farmhouse Ales in Hood River, Ore. Ponce has been at Firestone Walker for more than a year and has taken the reins of the brewery’s ambitious vintage and barrel-aged programs.
Brynildson said Ponce has come up with “some really cool variants” of Parabola, the Russian oatmeal imperial stout, and some cocktail-infused beers, as well.
“He is just a really creative guy and it has been fun to see him explore some things we haven’t done in the past,” Brynildson said.
Adam Avery, co-founder and CEO, Avery Brewing
The bottles wrapped in gold foil floating in ice promised samples of one bourbon barrel-aged stout with chocolate and raspberries and another with chocolate and peppermint. Both clocked in at north of 14 percent alcohol by volume. How could Avery Brewing not pour at Big Beers?
Avery, a veteran of the festival for all 19 years, called it his favorite event of the year, both for its small size and because “it was born out of a great ideal of pushing flavorful beers without worrying about whether they’re across the pond or from here — and big obviously, and flavor.”
Avery had praise for Ska Brewing’s Moral Panic, one of those aforementioned Brut IPAs (the style was the topic of a festival seminar, too). Avery said he also was eager to check out Side Project and WeldWerks.
Avery’s trend of the year might seem strange coming from a purveyor of big beers. He sees promise in lower-alcohol beers that can be enjoyed post-workout or during outdoor activities. Avery went there last year with the introduction of Go Play IPA, a clean-drinking dry-hopped IPA with a couple of ingredients typically found in sports drinks: sodium and potassium.
“I think there is something there,” Avery said. “Obviously, alcohol, there are some healthy aspects to it. But overall, it’s not that good for you. So I like to see that trend here … Beer is going to put weight on you, but what are you going to do to take it off?”
One of Avery’s major moves this year is to package most of its barrel-aged beers in 16-ounce cans “so we can have less occasional drinking and more of the daily drinker,” Avery said. “We are looking for a smaller package size or something that says, ‘drink me, don’t cellar me.’”
After initially holding off, Avery has jumped on the Hazy IPA bandwagon with the introduction of Hazyish IPA and Double Digit, a 10-percent ramped-up take of the style.
Avery also pointed to plans to release a Brut IPA and several new gold-foiled beers coming.
“So we’ll still have a bunch of crazy shit,” he said, “as we always do.”
Cory King, co-owner/brewer, Side Project
Arguably the longest lines at Big Beers stretched out from the booth of Side Project of St. Louis, which gets rave reviews for its delicate Saisons, sour and Wild Ales, and big barrel-aged Stouts.
As a tiny brewery that doesn’t distribute, Side Project doesn’t take part in a lot of events, King said. It can be choosy. Big Beers is “like a family reunion,” with all the brewers present, he said.
“I grew up as a consumer of beer fests. I was that guy. It’s fun to meet people who have never had our beer, and who hopefully love it. Hopefully.”
We tracked down King near the end of the festival, so he was able to share his thoughts on what he’d tried. A lover of wine before beer, King praised the port-like wine-beer hybrid of Liberati, the Denver brewery and restaurant opened by Alex Liberati and partners last fall.
One of Side Project’s most popular beers of the fest was of like mind — Punchdown Pinot Noir Ale, a wild aged in wine barrels with California pinot noir grapes (9 percent ABV).
King also singled out Denver’s Burns Family Artisan Ales. King knows co-owner/brewer Wayne Burns’ work from Michigan’s Kuhnhenn Brewing, “so there is some flair in there,” he said.
“It won’t be long before you see some demand there,” King predicted.
Most trends in craft brewing don’t have an impact on Side Project, given its narrow specialty and niche, King said. One exception: the rise of the pastry stout.
Those beers are made with extracts, and Side Project is committed to using only natural ingredients like coffee, cinnamon, vanilla and cocoa nibs, King said.
“We’ll never be able to make your blueberry pancake stout, guys, because guess what, that was from a vial that somebody poured in,” he said. “You may love that. But I don’t want to do that. There is nothing wrong with doing that, I just choose not to. I think there needs to be more transparency amongst producers (about how the beers are made). Let’s just be honest. Tell people what you are doing.”