Recognizing the burgeoning craft beer market in the D.C. area, along with a public misunderstanding of the role of food with beer, the Brewer's Association — America's premier craft beer trade organization — introduced Savor: An American Craft Beer & Food Experience. During three three-and-one-half hour sessions, D.C. area residents were invited to sample some 96 beers from 48 of our nation's most innovative breweries, each paired with a food most suited to bringing out its best qualities.
After last year's extremely successful, sold-out premier, Savor came back for a second run this past Saturday. With an expanded selection of brewers, beers, foods and educational salons, this event looked to be even grander than last year's spectacle. Drew and I had the pleasure of attending last year, and I think we both had a great time, though we walked away with very different perspectives. Having both attended the sophomore attempt, we decided we'd take advantage of our divergent opinions, and give those of you thinking about attending Savor III a dual perspective on the event.
The most obvious change to Savor this year was a matter of size and scale. Instead of three sessions with 48 brewer's, this year's lineup included a whopping 68 brewers with 136 beers, all packed into the gargantuan Building Museum for a one-time only event for 1,700 lucky ticket holders. Having attended the Saturday afternoon session last year, I think this move makes a lot of sense, as many brewery reps were hung-over exhausted from the previous night's revels, and were less than enthusiastic about being there. That said, it is a shame that fewer tickets were made available
The space itself was a vast improvement — if you have never been, the Building Museum's Great Hall is an awe inspiring space, cavernous in scale and glorious in aspect. Pictures just don't do it justice. While definitely crowded, the space offered plenty of room to stand and collect oneself, and numerous tables at which to eat and drink.
As I said before, the brewers this year seemed far more alert than last year, and to me they represented the highlight of the show. Despite disorganized throngs and lengthy lines (depending on the table), most brewers were more than willing, even eager to talk about their beers. Russian River Brewing Company's Vinnie Cilurzo — one of the superstars of the convention — spent a good 10 minutes regaling me and several lucky patrons about his methods and philosophy, while several dozen people queued behind us to try his rare Pliny the Elder.
One of my major gripes last year was that the food ran out a couple hours in, which is inexcusable when "food" is given second billing. No problem on that front this year, as every table was well stocked and frequently replenished with a selection of tiny sandwiches, fried treats, cheeses, and chocolates. This year also featured an oyster bar, but the line was so long, and my stomach so full of various and sundry beers, that I decided to give it a pass.
Quantity and selection aside, I really didn't find the food or pairings terribly interesting this year -- mostly I just looked to the food to keep me fueled and sober enough to try the next beer. The sheer size of the event overwhelmed my finer culinary sensibilities, and put me in all-out gorge mode. I mean, 136 beers, with only 3.5 hours averages out to one sample every 93 seconds! Considering the lines, and bathroom breaks, and those mesmerizing green tables (soo shiny...), even if I were to steamroll over the beer geeks in my way, it comes down to more like a beer a minute, a task both unlikely and unwise. Even skipping your Magic Hats, Sam Adams, and other easy-to-find beers, the task is herculean, and I admit to a certain level of distraction.
No, this one was definitely for the fanboys, as evinced by the nature of the salons this year. Savor 1 was interspersed with several free, one-hour educational seminars, featuring such topics as "Pairing America's Favorite Dips," "He Said Beer, She Said Wine: A Debate on Food Pairing," and "Beers and the Bay: How to Enhance the Bounty of the Chesapeake Bay with Your Favorite Beers" (I attended the latter, and was a bit underwhelmed). This time the BA upped the ante, charging $20 a ticket for very limited engagements, and turning the focus to their bread and butter: Rare ales. In one salon, Rob Tod of Allagash Brewing Co. poured some obscure Belgian-style ales; in another, Jim Koch of Sam Adams poured the Utopias, one of the strongest, most sought-after beers in the world. I attended "Cult Beers from California," hosted by Tomme Arthur of Lost Abbey Brewing Co and Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing, who brought us four special-edition, bottle-conditioned ales, some of which came from their own personal cellars. The speakers were very engaging, and the beers were outstanding, and the experience was all the more awesome for it's uniqueness, as a couple of the bottles were the last ones in existence.
Even with the hefty $95 ticket price, Savor remains a must-attend event for beer aficionados. For foodies, I think Savor proves a bit of a disappointment. Though I have had a great time at both Savor events, I feel that I would have had as good a time if the focus was just on the beer, as in the BA's Great American Beer Festival.
Yup, the food was the disappointment. But let's start with the positive. Once again this was a really fun event. As a beer geek, it was great to attend a beer festival chockablock full of great craft beer and actually get to talk to the brewers and their staff (for the uninitiated, most beer festivals rely heavily on volunteers who may know nothing about the beer their pouring). Add to that the intimate salon sessions (mine with Greg Koch of Stone Brewing and Adam Avery of Avery Brewing, at left) and you may have the best beer festival on the East Coast (there is no beer festival better than the Great American Beer Festival in Colorado). Next year, I’d like to see a few new faces and taste a few new beers, but it’s a minor quibble for such a new event.
Speaking as a foodie, however, Savor is not a beer AND food experience. Well, that’s not quite true. It is an experience: it was a wonderful experience to drink all that craft beer, and it was a miserable experience to choke down what little of the food I bothered with. If the Brewers Association insists on keeping it a beer and food event, then they need to either get a new caterer or invite chefs and restaurateurs. Personally, I’d like to see the latter. Let’s make Savor a true craft beer and food event. Let’s make the food as exciting as the beer. Because right now, it ain’t.
The Craft Beer: The line up of beers was excellent. As with the inaugural event last year, Savor brought some of the best craft breweries and brewers from around the country and our region to little ol’ D.C. I’ve been to a number of beer festivals, and more often than not, the booths are manned by volunteers who signed up for free beer and a T-shirt. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for us beer geeks it is nice to meet the brewers and talk to them about their products.
At this point, I’d like to tell you about all the beers that stood out to me, surprised me. Unfortunately, there were few. Aside from Russian River Brewing’s Pliny the Elder, which I’d never had before, all the beers I really liked at Savor were the beers I really like otherwise: Stone’s Vertical Epic, Avery’s Maharaja and Hog Heaven, Dogfish Head’s Burton Baton, and Foothills’ Hoppyum. And I give credit to many of the breweries for bringing their bigger, pricier beers when they could have brought the cheaper stuff. (As a side note, I will say that the guys from Rock Bottom's Bethesda location surprised me. They didn’t have the best beer at Savor, but they held their own. It’s easy to dismiss Rock Bottom because it’s a chain, but Kevin Reed brought quality beer ... and an Atom Smasher.) Now as great as Savor was this year and last, I’m ready for a few new faces. I understand that Brooklyn Brewing, Stone and Dogfish Head will be fixtures, but let’s rotate a few new breweries in next year. I’m a big, big fan of Foothills Brewing, but I know there are many more great breweries in North Carolina. And the guys from Florida Beer Company are great, but how about Cigar City Brewing in 2010? If the Brewers Association keeps the faces fresh, it’ll keep the event fresh.
The Food: What can I say about the food? How about this: it sucked. It sucked in 2008. It sucked in 2009. After last year’s event, I read several reviews from respected beer critics expecting them to pan the food like I did. Nope. The Washington Post’s Greg Kitsock loved it. Julie Johnson, editor of All About Beer magazine and, at the time, the beer critic for the Raleigh News and Observer applauded it. Even Tammy Tuck and Bruce Falconer, the Washington City Paper’s Lager Heads, enjoyed it (Tammy is also featured prominently on the Savor Web site).
I realize I’m wrong about a lot of things, but this isn’t one of them and I’m not alone. Last year, the brewers made an effort to encourage people to try the food with their beers. This year, most of the brewers rightfully ignored the slop. A few brewers I talked to said they weren’t happy with the food or the menu the Brewers Association provided them. I can see why. The lamb burgers, black bean quesadillas, desserts and other bites cooked up by Federal City Catering was bland at best. I hate it when we use British expressions, but at the risk of sounding pretentious, the food looked like a dog’s breakfast and tasted little better. The gray meat patties of the lamb burger sliders looked disgusting, the mounds of warm blue cheese crumbles appeared as if they’d been humped on and the grainy espresso sambuca parfaits were flat terrible.
This crap didn’t help the beers, it hurt them. The only saving graces were the chocolates and the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, which manned their own island of cheese. If the Brewers Association wants to keep the craft beer and food pairing theme, it should put as much effort into the food as the brewers do their beers. The association should either hire a competent catering service or invite actual chefs and restaurants to the event. Sure, that would jack up the price, but the experience would be worth it. Otherwise, let’s drop the food thing. The brewers deserve better and so do the attendees.