VAIL, CO — As the popularity of beer itself has gown so too has the popularity of beer festivals. Once reserved for summer months in areas of the country where the beer culture was a little stronger, now you can find multiple beer festivals just about anywhere you look in any part of the country on any given weekend. They range from the very big, like the Great American Beer Festival to the relatively small like the annual Garden State Brewers Guild Fest held on the U.S.S. New Jersey each summer in Camden.  For the most part they are raucous events where attendees are given a small glass into which small tastings are poured. There are burgers and pizza slices available for purchase and quite a few people wearing pretzel necklaces.

If you’ve been to a few (like I have) you’ve come to see the relative sameness in all of them. That’s not to say they aren’t fun (they are) you just kind of know what awaits you once the doors open.

That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised when I spent the second weekend of January in Vail, Colorado at the Big Beers, Belgians, and Barleywines Festival. For several years I’ve heard of this winter-time ski resort gathering where beers must be of extraordinary strength and the brewers themselves gather for some r&r along with the regular frivolity.

In advance it was routinely described to me as one of the best festivals in the country. It did not disappoint. Held over the course of three days it was a collection of brewers, beer enthusiasts from around the country, and locals all getting down on thick, chewy beers, or aggressively hopped bombs. While that might sound like other festivals out there it really turned out to be anything but.

First a lot of credit is due to Laura and Bill Lodge, veterans of the industry who had a clear vision for their festival and stuck with it. Now in its 14th year the festival still has an intimate feel – like a comfortable sweater – because it hasn’t become too crowded, only accommodating a few hundred people during just one Saturday afternoon session (that ended at 6pm). It’s so much more than the tasting, however, there were multi-course dinners hosted by the likes of Dogfish Head Craft Ales, Avery Brewing Company, Captain Lawrence Brewing Company, Goose Island Brewing Company, Funkwerks, and more. A beer and yoga class was offered, as were several seminars from noted experts in the field that examined food and beer pairings, brewing with the wild yeast strain brettanomyces, blending barrel aged beers and more.  (Full disclosure, this reporter moderated one panel on the future of malt with brewers from Oskar Blues Brewery, Cambridge Brewing Company, and Bells Brewery.)

It wasn’t packed wall to wall, either. This gave folks a chance to hit the slopes, take advantage of the hot tubs, explore the town, or read by a fireplace. For those who made a weekend of it all, it was truly a vacation and the beer was just a lovely bonus.

How about the beer you ask? Well, when you’re at an elevation of 8,150 feet, those high ABV beers can sneak up real fast so moderation is key, but that can be difficult when the likes of a 1994 Samuel Adams Tripel Bock are unearthed, or Stone Brewing Co.’s 06.06.06 Vertical Epic Ale, 2 & Ale Project’s Our Finest Regards, or the Anejo Tequila Barrel Aged Gubna from Oskar Blues. In short, hydration is important and in a new-to-me twist at each water station there was also a large bowl of bread cubes to sop up some of the beer. It was a nice touch in addition to the full menu being offered by vendors.

For an east coast guy it was a great chance to try the offerings from many of Colorado’s smaller breweries including the 10% ABV Tropical Paradise Imperial IPA from the Wild Woods Brewery, that stopped me in my tracks with its luscious flavors and perfect smack finish. I’ve been dreaming about the beer since that weekend.

I don’t attend many beer festivals anymore. The crowds, the often same familiar beers, the lack of anything other than just wandering a hall with cup in hand. It’s just become a bit too much. But this festival, this excuse to go west and into the Rockies, this perfectly executed weekend is already on my calendar for 2015. It should be on yours as well. See you there January 8 – 10.