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

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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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