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The SAVOR Wrap-up And Concerns About The Growing Snobbery Of Beer…

I traveled to the nation’s capital last week to attend the Brewers Association’s much anticipated food and beer event. SAVOR: An American Craft Beer and Food Experience, was held May 16 and 17 in Washington D.C at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium. Considered one of the best classical buildings in the U.S., the venue was a fitting one considering the event’s focus on elevating the public image of beer.

As a keystone for the association’s American Craft Beer Week, SAVOR served many purposes.
The event first gave craft brewers an opportunity to showcase their efforts to a Congressional audience on Capitol Hill. Many small brewers spent the better part of a week in D.C. lobbying Congress and making their presence known as part of the National Beer Wholesalers Legislative Conference. In turn, many congressional staffers and lobbyists attended Friday’s opening session of the event.

Beyond politics and legislative advocacy, SAVOR gave the association an opportunity to raise public and media awareness of craft beer by associating it with upscale food. The association wanted to spread the craft beer gospel to media on the East Coast and hoped the event would accomplish that goal. While it’s a little early to tell, media database searches show a bit of a paucity of coverage of the small event.

Initially planned to host nearly a thousand attendees per session, the Brewers Association’s staff wisely decided to cut back to 700 persons per session. Sold out by the day of the event, SAVOR offered its 2100 attendees the chance to taste 96 craft beers from 48 breweries from around the country. Each beer was specifically paired with a sweet or savory appetizer selected by the brewery and made by Federal City Caterers.

The event’s $85 price tag was a point of debate among beer geeks and the public, both before and after the event. Some felt that the price far exceeded what they were willing to pay, while others thought it might not be enough. From a financial point of view, the price tag clearly wasn’t enough as SAVOR lost a fair chunk of the Brewers Association’s change. It appears the price tag may not have even covered the per person food costs, not even considering the other sizable expenses involved in hosting the event, including venue costs and the time and expenses incurred by the association’s staff.

As for the event itself, the venue was quite attractive and the staff did a nice job of decorating the interior portions. Beer enthusiasts and well-heeled novices slowly roamed the auditorium, stopping at a center table which hosted the event’s main supporters (who paid $5,000 each for the privilege, on top of donating a significant portion of free beer and their time). Smaller breweries from around the country dotted crescent shaped tables lining the outside walls. While SAVOR offered many ubiquitous names, including Avery, Dogfish, and the Lost Abbey, the association also sought to offer geographic diversity from some smaller names, including Blackfoot River Brewing Company of Helena, Montana, Free State Brewing of Lawrence, Kansas, and Heiner Brau Microbrewery of Covington, Louisiana.

Attendees had an excellent opportunity to meet and talk with brewery staff and the attendance by owners and brewers was impressive. Beers were plentiful and well selected. The food pairings, which were offered either at an individual brewer’s table or from passing servers, included a number of interesting options. The Sprecher Brewing Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, offered its Pub Brown Ale to match pan-seared pilsener sirloin tips with shiitake blue-cheese sauce. Sierra Nevada Brewing Company of Chico, California, suggested its Summerfest Lager and lager steamed Thai turkey and shiitake dumplings. The Stone Brewing Company of Escondido, California, presented its Ruination IPA with either Peking duck purses or Christopher Elbow citrus spiced artisan chocolates. The event staff, especially the waitstaff, did an excellent job of keeping the venue clean and in taking used food items from attendees.

The much touted food pairings proved a bit of a challenge for the new event. The venue’s tight confines caused bottlenecks at the crescent shaped tables, trapping people near the tables as others tried to approach the table. Food offerings became increasingly scarce as the event progressed, with a number of items running out an hour and a half into the event on Friday night (many blamed the ravenous appetites of the aforementioned Hill staffers). Attendees also saw a lot of the sirloin tips and chocolates as the event went on.

The booths also suffered from a decided lack of signage. While signage can certainly appear tacky if done wrong, I found myself coming upon breweries I didn’t even realize were in attendance, even late into the event.

One clear failure for the event were the SAVOR Salons, forums for brewers, journalists, and other beer luminaries to speak to attendees in smaller, tutored tasting sessions. The association designed the salons to “deepen ones [sic] appreciation and understanding of beer and food pairings.? The events included Garrett Oliver pairing American artisan cheeses and craft beers, Jim Koch discussing how to get started with beer and food, and Hugh Sisson talking about the nuances of pairing beer with Chesapeake Bay seafood. Limited to 70 people by the venue’s space restrictions, the salons were poorly marked and proved too popular. Originally advertised as first come, first serve, the association quietly switched to a ticket system after the first session. As people approached the forum well before its start time, security had to bar their entrance to the room and explain that the salon was unavailable for attendance. The venue’s limitations, combined with the popularity of the offerings and the lack of communication, left many people disappointed by their inability to attend the advertised events.

The event, which took two years to plan and execute, left some Brewers Association staffers a bit exhausted. In speaking with the staff, it’s not at all clear that this event will be repeated next year. Considering the expense and questions about the ultimate utility of SAVOR, it would not be surprising if the event went on hiatus for at least a year. The association’s staff has also discussed the possibility of moving the event from the capital to New York City in the future.

After attending the event, I was also left slightly questioning the purpose of the event. While I understand the potential media and legislative benefits to raising the public image of beer, I’m not convinced that an expensive beer and food event (where attendees are encouraged to “dress to impress”) is really the way to go. A certain air of elitism pervaded the event, which attracted a bit of an odd assortment of attendees (from tuxedoed wine folks to guys in t-shirts and shorts).

In traveling around D.C., I also found beer exposed to and ensconced in a similar and unexpected sense of exclusiveness. The city’s beer venues, from Georgetown to downtown, offer a surprisingly limited range of beers at some pretty exorbitant prices, even compared to other pricey cities. The cheapest draft beer offering we found was $5 at RFD and that was by $1.50 the cheapest pint we found in D.C. We saw several drafts above $10, including one at $14 (Brasserie Beck). The pours were also surprisingly small; in one case, Brasserie Beck offered a number of pedestrian beers of average quality for expensive prices and with ridiculously short pours. Maybe I’ve become disconnected with the real world, but I think $7.50 for a 8-ounce pour of Bavik pils is outrageous.

I’ve written a number of times in the past about my concern that beer will become untethered from its egalitarian roots and will spiral off into the price and snob stratosphere and my D.C. trip only served to aggravate my worry.

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9 thoughts on “The SAVOR Wrap-up And Concerns About The Growing Snobbery Of Beer…

  1. As a former DC area resident I can say I am not surprised by the limited selections and high prices, that is pretty much business as usual in the town. If you want good beer you have to search and it’s never inexpensive. The DC area has had some great breweries but they never seem to last.

    Interesting to read your take on the event.

  2. It certainly was an ambitious attempt at their first event, and I would have attended merely for the tasting and pairing sessions if not for the steep price tag. I could stop by Norm’s and discover uncharted flavors without paying a premium to be in the presence of the brewing industry elite.

  3. Andy,
    Saw this referenced on DC-Beer.
    Well written. Raised some good questions – keep askin’

    Esp good points about costs – not a fun/popular topic to raise but an important one. Keep ’em coming.

    cheers from DC

  4. The Brewers Association also puts on the Great American Beer Festival–has for more than 25 years. That is certainly an “egalitarian” event. Plenty of others put on similar festivals around the US. So why, when the beer world is full of “common man” events is it a bad thing to have a few events that appeal to a different crowd? Do you not want craft beer to grow and prosper? Do you not want brewers to find a market for their rare and unusual beers so that they can and will make more of them? I think it is very small minded to criticize something just because it is beyond your willingness or ability to appreciate it.

  5. Great article, however I am sad to say that you clearly missed some of DC’s more affordable beer bars. One of my personal favorites is The Reef in Adams Morgan…16 rotating taps with excellent and affordable beers. In fact there is always a great selection available for $3.00, lately it has been Peak Organic Pale Ale, and in the past it has been Bell’s 2-Hearted, or Dogfish 60 Minute. Happy hour is a great way to drink for cheap in DC. Both Bourbon locations (Glover Park and Adams Morgan) offer all of their draft craft brews for $3.00 during happy hour. Cheap good beer is available in DC, but sometimes you gotta hunt for it…Speaking of which Big Hunt in Dupont is another excellent beer bar with a great asssortment and decent prices.

  6. Hmm, these two places have eluded my notice in DC. Thanks for the suggestions. I can fully get behind $3 Two Hearted pints. I’ll give them a shot when in town next.

  7. I know I’m rather late, but I would highly recommend you scoot on up to Maryland. The area is so small you can hit a couple brewpubs in a few hours. There are some excellent beer up there along with some hoppy stuff for those that like that sort of thing.

    I loved the article and hope that SAVOR will take your feedback and others to heart to make a better show. But in the end, the result is to get craft beer out there. Good publicity, bad publicity, just spell my name right.

  8. Andy:

    Found this a year late, as I’ve already bought my tickets for the 2009 event, but a few comments:

    1. It’s been my experience that many beer events attract many people who are basically there to get bombed and throw up. If a slightly higher price tag keeps out the frat boy crowd, I’m prepared to live with that. Call me an elitist if you must.

    2. I thought the 2008 SAVOR, for a first shot, was well-run. I note the 2009 is in a larger venue, with only ONE session. Presumably, that’ll keep the BA’s costs down somewhat.

    3. Yeah, there was a mixed crowd in 2008. I thought that was fine. My gang was basically in khakis and button-downs; there were suits there; there were shorts there. What’s wrong with that? Not every beer event has to be in t-shirts and shorts under a blazing sun.

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