I’m currently in Vail, Colorado, where the Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines festival is taking place. It’s not like Portland, let me tell you. At 8,000 feet above sea level, I’m pretty much constantly aware that the air is much thinner than at home, and it’s almost painfully cold and dry.
My primary purpose here is completed, which was to take the Craft Beer Institute’s Certified Cicerone exam. The Cicerone program is an attempt to create a beer-world equivalent to the various sommelier certification programs. The exam focuses on world beer styles, food and beer pairing, and draft systems, with a good measure of beer flaw awareness thrown in to boot.
I’m feeling good about the test—a four-hour process—but won’t have my score and results for a few weeks. I do know that I did quite well on the tasting portion of the exam, which consisted of style identification (“Is this an American Wheat Beer?”), flaw identification (I still haven’t managed to get the wretched, awful smell of the DMS-spiked sample out of my head), and customer acceptance (customer ordered beer X, wants to send it back, do you allow him to return it or not?). I probably missed a few points on fully identifying the flaws (and probable source of those flaws) on one question, but got the basics of every question right.
While I didn’t know anybody here before I arrived, people at the festival are quite friendly and seem ready to chat. My test group of six included a couple of Denver-based Sierra Nevada reps (who must have done a mental fist-pump when one of the sample beers in the tasting portion turned out to be Sierra Nevada Kellerweiss—which by the way appears to be a top-notch Bavarian-style hefeweizen, from my brief encounter), a tattoo artist who “homebrews” on Breckenridge Brewery’s equipment, a local restaurant manager, and a brewer at Durango’s Carver Brewing Company, who was there primarily to pour at Carver’s table this weekend.
The festival kicked off with a reception featuring 21 breweries at lunchtime today, including Carver. They were pouring an intriguing smoked double common beer (think Imperial Anchor Steam with a hint of smoke), which worked much better than it sounds as I type it. Many breweries brought beers brewed or blended specifically for the festival (and many more will be on display tomorrow, when the number of breweries pouring jumps to roughly 90). Highlights included an exceptional Lapsang Souchang tea-infused weizen bock; the smoke of the tea and the banana esters from the yeast were a delicious pairing; Sierra Nevada’s barrel-aged Old Ale (a blend of 25% Russian Imperial Stout and 75% Scotch Ale); Great Divide’s remarkably subtle oaked Hades Belgian Golden Ale, and the barrel-aged Quadrupel from Dutch Trappist brewers La Trappe.
The biggest surprise on the beer front was New Belgium’s contribution (their head brewer is a featured speaker this weekend), which was a Finnish Sahti. Sahti is an unhopped style rarely exported, more often made in the home than in commercial breweries. It’s traditionally brewed with bread yeast, leaving pronounced esters, particularly banana. NB’s take was brewed with their house yeast, and shows a heavily strawberry-ester-driven profile, but I was excited to see them truly stepping out.
One side effect of the high altitude is that alcohol clearly hits you harder than usual. It’s a bit of a cruel joke that tomorrow there will be 90 breweries pouring high-gravity beers to a room full of artificial lightweights (even those driving up from Denver are gaining about 3,000 feet of elevation), but I’ll do my best to pick and choose the most interesting beers to try and do my best to report back here.