If You Go

What: Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines

When: Jan. 9-11; Commercial Tasting, 2:30-6 p.m. Jan. 11

Where: Vail Cascade Resort and Spa, Vail

Tickets: $60 for the Commercial Tasting and seminar

Info: bigbeersfestival.com

Breweries traditionally release a special-edition Barleywine, typically their strongest and most ingredient-intensive brew, toward the end of the year as a special treat for customers and to help fortify holiday celebrations.

The upcoming Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines festival, set for Jan. 9-11 in Vail, is one of the best places anywhere to sample a wide variety of excellent Barleywines and other big beers. More than 200 specialty beers from around the world, all clocking in at about 10 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) and above, are on offer during the festival's Commercial Tasting event.

And if you'd like to get a taste for the Barleywine style closer to home, try these local examples:

Old Ruffian, from Great Divide, epitomizes an American-style Barleywine — a big, intense beer with a massive hop impact balanced by candy-sweet malts and rich caramel undertones.

Old Ruffian is redolent with grapefruit and pine-layered atop rich caramel and dark fruit, with a flavor profile to match. Aged for a year before its annual winter release, this big beer is like a reformed rabble-rouser who's only slightly mellowed with age.

Avery's Hog Heaven also epitomizes an American-style Barleywine and swings even harder for the fences with its big, resinous dry-hop nose and unapologetic hop wallop.

Left Hand Brewing Co. produces a more malt-based English-style Barleywine named Widdershins.
Left Hand Brewing Co. produces a more malt-based English-style Barleywine named Widdershins. (Left Hand Brewing Co./ Courtesy photo)

This year-round brew could easily pass for an Imperial IPA if it weren't for the caramel and candy-like malt backbone that keeps the hops in check and lets layers of citrus and resinous pine shine through without becoming muddied.

Boulder Beer's Killer Penguin, a limited seasonal release that clocks in right at 10 percent ABV, takes its inspiration more from hoppy red ales than from IPAs. The beer pours a clear copper with pear and a floral hop aroma atop underlying dark fruit and caramel. The sip isn't quite as sweet, with a floral, hop-forward introduction that gives way to an earthy richness with a satisfying depth of character and a bit of a bite on the finish.

Left Hand Brewing Co. runs counter to the notion of a hop-centric Barleywine with Widdershins, a more malt-based English-style Barleywine that's released every two years and available in 22-ounce bottles throughout Left Hand's distribution area.

This oak-aged, 10.7 percent brew pours a bright, translucent copper with a big nose of dried apricots dancing atop a bed of earthy, herbal Noble hops. The sip starts sweet, with rich caramel and fruity esters giving way to a pleasantly bitter, slightly spicy hop flavor with a tinge of woody oak, and finishes with a distinct smoked character from malts that have been perfumed by smoldering peat.

The smoky finish might not be to everyone's liking, but for folks who enjoy smoked foods and smoky beers like rauchbier, it's an inventive twist on a classic style.

'Crafting A Nation'

Oskar Blues will host a screening of "Crafting A Nation" at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Tasty Weasel, the on-site taproom in Oskar Blues' Longmont brewery. All ticket sales, $10 each, from this special benefit screening will go directly to the brewery's charitable nonprofit CAN'D Aid Foundation to help with flood-relief efforts.

The feature-length documentary covers the craft-beer revolution from coast-to-coast, with particular attention paid to how business owners and brewers are helping to revitalize both American brewing and the American economy with their entrepreneurial efforts.

Stick around after the screening to enjoy another pint and a Q-&-A session with Oskar Blues founder Dale Katechis, head brewer Tim Matthews, the makers of "Crafting a Nation" and other folks from the brewing industry.

Visit craftinganation.com for ticket information and to view a preview of the film.

Contact Tom Wilmes at boulderbeerguy@gmail.com