January 5-7 brought the return of the Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival to the snowy mountains of Colorado—the small ski town of Breckenridge taking over hosting honors from Vail for the first time in the long history of this big and boozy event. In its 17th year, Big Beers continues to attract the cream of the crop of the craft beer world for three days every winter. If you think the Great American Beer Festival is the industry event to hit up to see your favorite craft beer celebrities—well, you’re still right—but if you want to see what they look like when they’re laid back, enjoying a winter wonderland of a semi-vacation, sipping and pouring some of the best beers from their portfolios and cellars, then get your shit together and don’t miss this festival next year.

Photographs by Thomas Kolicko

Unlike a lot of profit-driven beer fests that take place throughout the always expanding festival season, Big Beers co-founders, Laura Lodge and her brother Bill Lodge, transcend taboo bad beer event production habits by placing a heavy focus on educational opportunities, for both the brewer and the drinker types, and create an excellent platform where people of all levels of craft beer knowledge and experience can have a real conversation about the current state and future insights of the industry. Seminars this year reflected the subtle shift happening in the industry where more and more breweries are sourcing ingredients on a local level. Maltsters, hop farmers, and brewers from brewery’s of all sizes led informative panels with titles like, “Experimenting with Local Maltsters,” “Discovering Fruit & Fruit Flavors in Brewing,” and “Brewery Terroir”—a 50-minute panel presentation featuring four brewmasters from all over the country who each shared the results of brewing the same recipe, but with ingredients found in their specific ‘hoods. Aside from some confusion on the layout of the maze-like, two-story festival grounds at the slope-side Beaver Run Resort, the festival upheld it’s reputation as a magnet for the upper echelon of the craft beer world—not necessarily in wealth—but in passion.

But at the end of the day, it was all about the beer—and the line-up for this festival was pretty epic. Exceptional beers were poured by big hitters like Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, Lost Abbey and Surly, along with small and up-and-coming craft breweries throughout the states, and even a handful of breweries from overseas, like Belgium’s Brouwerij Verhaeghe—the makers of the iconic Duchesse De Bourgogne. Some breweries only had a few beers that met the festival’s guidelines of all beers being 7% ABV of higher, Belgian in style, and experimental in nature. Trends seen throughout the festival included an interesting connection between the craft beer and the craft cocktail communities with several breweries concocting brews to mimic classic cocktails, like Wicked Weed’s Old Fashioned, Zwei’s White Russian Imperial Stout, and Boulevard Brewing’s Rye on Rye—Sazerac. Peaches and peanut butter continued to dominant the seasonal ingredients game, but plums and rye malts were delightfully at the top of the ingredients list this year.

Beers We Could Have Consumed All Day But Would Probably Be Dead

2009 Fort – Dogfish Head Brewing Company – 15-16% ABV
One of my top five favorite beers from the fest, this aged ale brewed with a heavy hand of raspberry juice left my speechless for a few seconds, along with the fact that Sam Calagione poured it himself. Sam sightings at beer fests are kind of the best.

Krieky Bones Wild Ale with Sour Cherries – Firestone Walker Brewing Co.
I’m a sucker for a flavorful but balanced sour, and Firestone’s Krieky Bones hit the spot this weekend. A Flanders Red-style beer aged in a French Oak foeder for 24 months, completed with sour Montmorency cherries—the Krieky Bones didn’t last long in the glass.

Utopias – Sam Adams/ Boston Beer Company – 29% ABV
This beer raised my level of tipsy up three notches, but it was so worth it. Utopias is a rich, malty, dark, and slightly fruity unicorn of a beer that deserved to be sipped and savored. I saw a brewery rep (that shall remain nameless) slam a full pour of this. Just thinking about that moment makes my liver hurt again.

La Muir Morte – Wicked Weed Brewing – 6.5% ABV
Yep. As you would expect, Wicked Weed had a line right out of the gate, but after reaching the front of the line and getting my hands on this barrel-aged sour fermented with a boatload of whole blackberries, the wait was absolutely worth it.

Surly Darkness Russian Imperial Stout – Surly Brewing Company -12% ABV
This is a big beer, full of chocolate, cherry and coffee notes. This beer dominated my palate for a good two turns around the room, which was just long enough to hit up some of the random tables stocked with bowls of bread chunks and water stations.

Maple Scotch Ale – Sierra Nevada Brewing Company – 7.3% ABV
“But I thought you weren’t a fan of peat!” said someone that clearly doesn’t know me at all after my eyes rolled back in my head following a sip of Sierra Nevada’s exceptional Maple Scotch Ale. Sure, they also brought a Barrel-Aged Narwhal—but my god—the smokey and sugar combination in the Maple Scotch Ale is something I’ll dream about for awhile.