Is Vail Big Beers the best festival in all the land?

Ryan Conklin, Sarah Haughey, PJ Hoberman, Allison Martz, Nikki Minette, and John Mogos all contributed to this story.

The Vail Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival is one of the best weekends a beer lover could ask for. Beer? Check. Mountains? Check. All of your friends in a small mountain town covered in snow with free busses to the bars? Check.


The crowds of Big Beers – © John Mogos

It’s hard to pin down what makes VBBAB… err… Big Beers such a great festival. But other festivals are great too.

Festivus is great because of all the local beer and camaraderie in a time of the year devoid of other festivals. Plus: Dance party.

GABF is amazing for its sheer magnitude and the thousands of people and events that occur tangential to “The Big Show.”

SourFest blows our minds with its small size and ridiculous offerings of rarities.

A hundred other events each bring their own something something to the table. But Big Beers stands out. And here’s why:


Unlike most festivals, Big Beers is just far enough away that you have to stay overnight, but just close enough that you’re not booking a whole flight and all that (unless you’re out of state, sorry). With brewers, media, and many of the attendees staying for a few nights, the small town is overrun with beer people. The commercial tasting at Big Beers is Saturday afternoon. So when you wake up to get coffee and bacon, you see beer people. After the event when you’re devouring some Blue Moose pizza, you see beer people at the next table with grease dripping down their arms just like you. You can’t (or at least I can’t afford to) Uber home. You don’t show up to the festival on your own time. It all happens in this one little ski town. And it’s glorious.

The Beer

The festival requires that all beers exceed 7% ABV. Fourteen years ago when this festival started, hitting that mark was much more rare than it is today. The festival now showcases beer weighing in over 7%, some reaching over 12% ABV. At that heat, the beers tend to require a little more work from the brewer, a little more thought on the recipe, and a little more love overall. That, plus the history of the festival being the place to showcase the big, the weird, and the Belgian style, means brewers are still bringing the craziest beers they can find. Surly Darkness? Four bottles of that made an appearance. Crooked Stave Surette Reserva? Sure, that’s easy to get. Pretty Things Barbapapa Russian Imperial Stout? Never even ran out of that one.

Crooked Stave and Perennial at Big Beers - © John Mogos

Crooked Stave and Perennial at Big Beers – © John Mogos

The brewers pour the beer

And they are passionate about it. Avery’s Adam Avery never left his table, and his dad was by his side. Nor did Dogfish Head’s Sam Calgione. Great Divide’s Brian Dunn served cheese the entire session. Phil Wymore from Perennial manned the jockey box. And the list goes on. Every brewery, local to Vail Valley, up from Denver, or flown in from either coast, waxed poetic about their favorite beers, the stories of the recipes, and the slips along the way, be it 20 years prior or the night before.

Eddyline and their kayak jockey box - © John Mogos

Eddyline and their kayak jockey box – © John Mogos

It’s not just a festival

Beyond the incredible Commercial Tasting, there are seminars, dinners, breakout sessions, classes, a room set up specifically for bottle shares, and more. One can learn about rolling and pairing cigars with beer a few hours after sitting for the Certified Cicerone exam. Small parties and large dinners abound.

Mountains and snow and hot tubs, oh my

Beyond the isolation factor, Big Beers is in Vail. It’s beautiful. It’s snowy. There are fur coats everywhere, bars full of tourists and locals regaling their turns of the day, and hot tubs. Oh the hot tubs. Also, Vail reported 16″ of fresh snow on Saturday morning.

2014 Big Beers Belgians & Barleywines Time Lapse from John Mogos on Vimeo.

If you missed Vail Big Beers, Beligans & Barleywines this year, don’t fret. The event returns for its 15th year the first week of January 2015. Mark your calendar now, and we’ll see you up there.

Is Vail Big Beers the best festival in all the land? It’s certainly up there. And we won’t ever miss it. Nor should you.

Fin - © John Mogos

Fin – © John Mogos

Head over to Flickr for more photos from Big Beers.

About PJ Hoberman

PJ likes beer. A lot. And whiskey. Gin. Wine. Cocktails. Um.. what were we talking about?