Editor’s note: This is part of The Know’s series, Staff Favorites. Each week, we offer our opinions on the best that Colorado has to offer for dining, shopping, entertainment, outdoor activities and more. (We’ll also let you in on some hidden gems).
Between Oktoberfest events, pumpkin beers and the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, fall is one of the most thirst-quenching times of the year in Colorado. For those craving an escape from the Front Range during the season, there’s a beer festival on the Western Slope sure to satisfy IPA lovers.
The Southwest Fresh Fest showcases beers made exclusively with fresh hops, also known as wet hops, from Billy Goat Hop Farm in Montrose. On Sept. 23, more than 10 breweries from Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona will convene at the farm to pour their original recipes in hopes of earning drinkers’ votes and being named the best fresh hop beer of 2023.
While most beers are made with hops that have been dried and pelletized, the August harvest offers brewers a once-a-year opportunity to use the crop fresh off the bine. Wet hops lend bright, green and herbaceous flavors to otherwise bitter India pale ales. The owners of Denver’s FlyteCo Brewing, who are also pilots, make an event of the season by flying to the Western Slope and back on brew day to use the freshest hops possible.
Billy Goat co-owner Audrey Gehlhausen said Southwest Fresh Fest aims to connect Coloradans’ favorite bubbly beverage back to the land and agricultural process.
“It’s important that people understand that the craft beer they’re drinking is amazing in its own right because it’s typically a small, independent brewer who’s creating the beer,” Gehlhausen said, “but then take one more step and think about where the malt, hops and yeast in that beer are coming from. Are they coming from a massive, 2,000-acre farm that’s selling to a brokerage? Or is it going to families directly in our community that are doing the back-breaking work to create these ingredients?”
The inaugural Southwest Fresh Fest in 2022 welcomed about 240 people, who enjoyed drinks and dancing against the backdrop of the Cimmaron and San Juan mountain ranges. The casual, DIY spirit of the event leaned more toward a countryside farm party than a traditional beer fest — especially after morning rains turned the dirt into mud — but that’s what made it so memorable. (Be sure to wear appropriate shoes for the occasion.)
This year will feel much like the first, Gehlhausen said, with breweries serving next to other vendors with food and apparel. The Still House String Band and Drew Dvorchak Band will provide the soundtrack for a foot-stomping and sample-raising good time.
One of my favorite aspects of this event is being able to see the inner workings of the hoperation. Gehlhausen leads a tour of the farm and processing area where large machines trim the bines and dry the hop cones. Billy Goat is one of the only hop purveyors that opens its doors and process to the public.
Since Billy Goat won the prestigious Cascade Cup in February – becoming the first grower outside of the Pacific Northwest to do so – this year proved to be its biggest fresh hop season yet. The farm sold 6,700 pounds to 60 breweries in five states, Gehlhausen said.
More than half of the beers expected to be available at Southwest Fresh Fest will feature the award-winning crop, while others utilize Chinook, Nugget and additional varieties grown on the Western Slope.
Southwest Fresh Fest comes to Billy Goat Hop Farm (67181 Trout Road, Montrose) on Sept. 23 from 2 to 6 p.m. Tickets cost $30 and include bottomless samples and access to all the activities, including tours. Designated driver tickets are also available for $15; kids ages 12 and under get in free. Buy them at southwestfreshfest.com.
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