I used to feel a thrill riding the metro in from where I live in the suburbs to anywhere downtown Washington, DC. A weekday morning or after work excursion would mean squeezing into a full car during peak rush. Weekend rides meant luckily getting a seat then watching as the car slowly filled the farther into the city it progressed. Either way, my mind would race, anticipating the chance to explore unfamiliar surroundings.
There always seems to be something on offer, whether that is the usual tourist attractions to the more day to day haunts and scenes of life in the nation’s capital. Before my last job stint in the city, I went to a lot of talks and events, the enjoyment of those amplifying the excitement I felt boarding a train for a ride that would last from half an hour to an hour depending on how far into the city I was traveling.
Working at a couple of jobs in DC in recent years and an increase in outages due in large part to the age of the system has leached some of the joy I once felt when riding into the city. Savor, the large craft beer and gourmet food event that the Brewers Association hosts at the National Building Museum, is one of the few occasions that evokes that same anticipation and joy. This past Friday was no exception.
When I got on the train close to one end of the red line, I admit I was feeling a little tired, mostly in anticipation of a long and a late evening. I don’t recover as quickly from beer fests as I once did. The fact that Savor is an evening event doesn’t help, these days I tend to turn in at a pretty tame hour. A lot of people warm up at events throughout the week and even right before the main event. I know of at least one after party on Friday as well, I am sure there were more. I was happy to make it to last call, something I haven’t managed each time in previous years, then make my way back home.
The weather was beautiful on Friday. Riding up the escalator right across from the venue, the sun felt invigorating. The sight of the line melted away any last bit of tiredness I was feeling. The excitement of people waiting to get in was infectious. Savor is an excuse to turn out well, too, and the sight of people dressed for an evening really elevates the mood.
A younger me once felt differently, that dressing was a chore. One of my DC jobs, working in public policy, required stepping up my wardrobe. I learned that dressing for an occasion could be exciting. Well fitted and flattering clothes can make you feel sharp and bold. Being surrounded by other people who take the time to dress well only enhances that feeling.
It was a little warm in the line though occasional breezes helped keep it bearable. DC in Summer is not fun, one of the downsides when you work there and have to wear a suit from time to time. June is not as bad as August and it was a little more bearable because this year I decided to forego a jacket. Usually I like how it sharpens a casual yet dressy outfit though struggle not to wilt wearing it in the warmer months. Once the doors opened, the line, as it always has in years past, moved very quickly.
Last year, the organizers changed the floor layout. The National Building Museum is similar to other buildings in DC, although as you might imagine, much more beautifully designed and decorated. An open atrium is surrounded by spaces that can be used for offices or in the case of the museums exhibits and storage. The breweries used to be packed in pretty tightly, in sets of four. Last year they moved most to line the perimeter of the open space. The sponsoring breweries stayed in the center as they always have been. Two sets of four remained on the floor, one each on either side of the sponsors tables in the middle.
The number of breweries is the same and it somehow feels more spacious. That is important to me and one of the reasons I keep going back to Savor, no matter how local sentiment towards it might ebb and wane from year to year. I don’t do well with crowds, becoming easily overwhelmed, in extremes to the point of a panic attack. The thoughtful layout of the space and the cap on ticket sales create a space that in four years, I have never felt anxious to be in.
Even if you are not sensitive to crowds as I am, this careful arrangement still sets Savor apart from many other fests. There is always room to pause and collect yourself, to note what you’ve enjoyed so far and think for a minute about what you would like to try next. The lines for the taps never seem to exceed a few people. I learned from one of the people from Fate, whose table was located upstairs this year right next to the charcuterie from local favorite Red Apron, that part of what is required from brewers is that at least one member of the actual brewery staff needs to help at the tables.
Not only do you have the time and space to ask about the beers, by design, the people you are asking are likely to be some of the very people who made the beer.
And speaking of the beer, there is a lot to sample. There are bigger festivals in DC although I can’t imagine how anything bigger than Savor really enhances the value of the experience. There are more than sixty breweries, each pouring two beers. I enjoyed about 25 samples, a feat that was only possible for me partly because everyone pouring stuck well to the 2 ounce guideline and that no one made anyone else feel bad for taking advantage of the dump buckets. I only dumped a couple of beers myself after a sip or two mostly because they were 10% or higher gravity beers and there wasn’t the time or fortitude to enjoy them properly.
Every year the local beer press releases lists of must try beers on offer at Savor. I certainly saw several people with print outs and spreadsheets methodically working their way through. No matter how I plan it out, I can’t see how you could possibly try every single beer being poured. My 25 wasn’t even a majority of the beers there.
My own approach was to take several slow, lazy laps around the floor. If a particular beer description or food pairing caught my attention, I would stop for a sample or if there was a line, I might note it to return to on my next pass. I ended up trying a couple of the “whales”, the must try beers but not because I made a bee line. Rather, they looked good to me when I reached the table, so I enjoyed them.
A huge draw for me of Savor is the chance to really talk to the people behind the beer. I love the stories as much as I love the beer. Where else do I get a chance to hear stories from people making beer all around the country?
My favorite story was from Boothbay, a brewery from Maine, about their beer, a Block of Time. I was drawn in by the name of their other beer, Thirsty Botanist, and after asking about the name of pilsner, was utterly captivated at the explanation of how icemen would judge the quality of the ice they cut from the Knickerbocker Lakes by how well they could read the local paper through it. Both beers were delicious.
I enjoyed every beer I tried with one exception, a sour that had what I felt was a bit of an off flavor. The only beer I went back for more than once was Ninkasi’s Yours Truly, a cream ale. That probably says more about me than anything about the many other excellent beers on offer. I love this style, especially the pre-prohibition examples. Ninkasi’s was especially delicious and very forgiving at a little over 4% ABV. It was a more modern take on the style, adding in some flaked barley to good effect, to help provide body and an excellent mouth feel.
The peak of this year’s Savor had to be a few people I got to meet and chat with towards the end of the evening. In my experience, everyone at Savor is super nice, probably partly due to the shared enthusiasm for beer as well as its effects. That extends to the representatives of the breweries. I only really geeked out my first year, getting to meet Steve Grossman of Sierra Nevada and Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head. Every year since it has been more about the beer though I have continued to seek out Sam, simply to shake his hand since he has struck me as one of the nicest people in craft beer.
This year, one of the other folks at the Dogfish Head table encouraged me to come around back so I could get more of a chance to talk to Sam. My impression of him from years past, based largely on a word and a hand shake, was thoroughly upheld. Despite being interrupted for pictures and handshakes from other fans, he spent what I felt was way more than my fair share talking to me, expressing genuine interest when I mentioned my podcast. When I gave him a card, he encouraged me to reach out to him directly after the event.
The woman from Fate who pointed out that the organizer’s of Savor require each brewery be represented by at least one brewer or owner also introduced me to Adam Dulye, the chef behind all of the wonderful food pairings. I did mention Savor is as much about the food as it is the beer? The generous amount of incredibly tasty finger foods certainly helped me enjoy Savor without hurting myself.
The same woman, I think it might have been Erin Lawinski though it was late enough in the event I simply didn’t have the presence of mind to ask, also mentioned Charlie Papazian was at there and took me over to say hello. Charlie literally wrote the book on home brewing and founded the organization behind Savor. I met him in passing at Homebrewcon two years ago when it was in Baltimore. My impression of him them, despite the brevity of the encounter, is that he is an incredibly nice fellow. That impression held on getting to meet him again, though I didn’t get to exchange many more words as he was unsurprisingly surrounded by many other well wishers. I did get a chance to chat more with his wife, an utterly charming woman who indulged my limited knowledge of her home, Brazil, with incredible good grace and wit.
Shortly after meeting Charlie and his wife, it was last call. On the way back to Ninkasi for one more cream ale, I bumped into some local DC beer folks–Greg from DC Beer, and Scott Janish and Michael Tonsmeire, both long time members of the DC Homebrewer Club and co-founders of Sapwood Cellars. I’d met all three, briefly, before, and it was a delight to run into them all again, not solely because Scott and Michael are on my list to approach for the podcast but also for the realization that Michael has the most amazingly awesome laugh, even if it was at my expense as I self deprecatingly shared my recent struggles with brewing hazy IPAs.
For me, Savor never disappoints and this year was no exception. The variety of large and small breweries from all around the country presents the opportunity to taste and learn about so many beers that might otherwise be inaccessible. The venue, the food, the logistics all combine to thoroughly delight and satisfy while simultaneously whetting the appetite for next Summer.