Jun 2 2009

SAVOR: An American Craft Beer & Food Experience 2009

I missed the SAVOR event last year, and so I jumped at the chance to make it this time around.  The $95 ticket price was steep, but as a beer lover there are few opportunities to try craft beer that does not a have a distribution network on the east coast.  And the chance to meet some of those brewers was a huge bonus, as well, while inching closer and closer to beer heaven two ounces at a time.

I bought my tickets during the presale put on by the AHA, but it slipped my mind for the first 24 hours and two of the salons I wanted to get into had sold out during that time.  One was “Cult Beer from California” Tomme Arthur from Lost Abbey Brewing Co. and Vinnie Cilurzo from Russian River Brewing Co.  That hurt a little because they were two of the breweries that we cannot get here in Virginia, and ones that I was most interested in hearing speak.  

I’m honestly not sure what my expectations were for the SAVOR gig.  I was focused on the beers, but it was obvious from the website that they put a lot of thought into the pairing of craft beer and food.  I appreciate that, but I have to explain in advance that one of the few beer and food tastings that I’ve attended was put on by Garrett Oliver from Brooklyn Brewing.  His pairing of Brooklyn’s Cuvee D’Achouffe, spiced with Spanish thyme, with vichyssoise was amazing, and my taste buds exploded with spicy, herbal notes.  Both the saison and the soup made each other better, and something very different than they would have been alone.  The same sort of thing had happened just before when he paired his Brooklyner Weisse with a baby spinach salad with walnuts, feta, bacon, cherries and a weisse vinaigrette.  It was amazing, but I digress.

A few weeks before SAVOR, I heard about a tasting to happen the night before dubbed the “Lupulin Reunulin” at the RFD in Washington, DC.  In the past, it seemed like these were playful challenges between east coast and west coast brewers, but this one was more of a straight up tasting with a panel of brewing rock stars.  The panel for the evening was Tomme from Lost Abbey, Vinnie from Russian River, Rob Tod from Allagash Brewing Company, Adam Avery from Avery Brewing Company, Sam Calagione from Dogfish Head Craft Brewery and Bill Madden from Vintage 50/Madd Fox. 

I felt the beers and the banter would be well worth coming up a day early, so I did.  That was a great evening, and the highlight of the weekend.  But I’ll review that in my next blog post.

So, I showed up to the Nation Building Museum with a friend 15 minutes before the doors opened, and the line to get in was already a little absurd. 

For some reason, everyone was being let in through one set of doors on F street which I’m sure was a security precaution.  But the line got quickly out of hand and they had to open up the doors on the other side of the building to expedite the entering.  Of course, they broke the lines into two pieces just after me, so I got the worst of both lines.  That was a show, but line moved pretty quickly and we were inside by the time the beers started to pour at 7:30. 

The crowd was a little different from what I’m used to seeing at a beer event.  SAVOR urged people to wear “Business casual to cocktail party attire. Dress to Impress!” That gave the crowd a little bit of a different vibe.  It felt a little more like it as a big cocktail party or the lobby of a broadway show.  But there wasn’t much impressing going on…

Once inside, the National Building Museum is a nice venue, but the number of people there made it feel really claustrophobic very quickly.  There wasn’t always a lot of room between tables, and lines going to each brewer were very organic and, therefore, chaotic.

I would have liked to have hit every table but, at ~70 breweries, trying them all would have been folly as well as a waste of my sobriety and taste buds.  I made a decision before that night that I wasn’t going to try any beer that I had had before, or could easily get where I lived.  The beers I wanted to try were there, but not always easily found.  I had to refer to the program many times to look up the breweries I wanted to check out, and then I had to circle those tables like a shark to find who I was looking for.  This made my trip around the place pretty inefficient, but I muddled through.

The one salon I had a ticket for was the “Craft Beer and Cheese Pairing Taste Off!” 

I sat between a friend and Jeff Bearer from Craft Beer Radio.  It was great to meet him in person, and he was kind and knowledgeable.  The panel included Greg Koch from Stone Brewing, Greg Wallace from Left Hand Brewing Company and 2 wine/food/beer journalists.  Although it was a beer and cheese pairing, there was some chocolate, too, but I found it a bit granular inside like the sugars had not quite dissolved.  The maytag cheese was good, though.  From best to, well, not the best for me the pairings went 1) Deschutes’ Dissident, 2) Stone’s Ruination, 3) Allagash’s Black and 4) Left Hand’s Smoke Jumper.  The panel had good chemistry, but it went on far too long and none of the pairings really blew me away.  Greg was fun and amusing, and embodies what Stone is about but, outside of that and getting to try The Dissident, the whole thing felt like an hour lost away from the main floor.

Back out of the floor, the food was just…… boring.  It felt catered in the most pejorative way.  The 4 or 5 types of sliders sounded interesting, but ended up being mostly bread and all tasting the same.  The skewers were lifeless,  and I cannot remember anyone actually standing in one place with food in one hand and a beer in the other actually paring the two with any seriousness.  The oyster bar was a huge exception to this, though.  The line for that was obscene, worse than the best breweries, but the oysters I had were big, meaty and flavorful.

Perhaps I was spoiled by the Brooklyn dinner, but none of the pairings from that night hit me with that any of profundity.  If I was there for beer AND food, I would have been disappointed.  But I was there for the beer and the brewers brought their “A” game.

I loved trying Lost Abbey’s Cuvee Tomme, The Bruery’s Saison Rue, Russian River’s Consecration, Deshutes’ Dissident and Mirror Pond Pale Ale, and Great Lakes’ Dortmunder Gold.  Jeff was kind enough to score me samples of DFH’s Theobroma (which I am still getting my head around) and Sam Adam’s Utopias (surprisingly good, and as strong as you imagine.) I liked the Angel’s Share, but I tried it way too late in the evening.  After hours of sampling relatively strong beers, ending it with a barleywine aged in bourbon barrels was a bit too much. But that was my fault.  I look forward to trying that again at the beginning of an evening, or curled up by a fire.

Another big highlight was trying Pliny the Elder, which it seems we all pronounce incorrectly.  Despite the amazing amount of hops that goes into this beer, it was smooth and drinkable.  And the fact that my first Pliny was poured for me by Vinnie himself was priceless.

The beers were amazing, and the brewers were kind and patient.  It was great to see and meet them in person, but having a 15 second conversation with them diminishes the real value of having them there in the first place.  I’d love to have had some discussions about wild yeast and wood aging, but it just wasn’t practical.

It was a good event for the beer side, but the food was lacking.  And frankly that wouldn’t have bothered me if the event was just spun as just a celebration of craft beer.  But since they went to such great lengths to push the pairings aspect and they never even listed the beers without having the food pairings on their site, they clearly came up short on that goal.

Will I go again?  Maybe.  I really had a good time, but they need to improve their food pairings and bring in some real chefs, or just simply not make pairings the focus of the event. The price of admission was steep, but worth it for someone who was eager to try so many beers that he had only been able to hear about before.  Next year, thanks to this event, that list will be much smaller, so the ways they improve SAVOR will be much more important to me and my wallet than just the beer line-up.

I would go to another Lupulin Reunulin event in a heartbeat.  We’ll see about SAVOR in 2010.