SAVOR Week is over. Per usual, it was a doozy on our calendar, time, and livers. Throughout the week, bartenders, beer fans, and brewers all had some variation of the same questions: how does this SAVOR Week stack up? What are some of your favorite events and beers? Is this SAVOR Week slower than usual? Why didn’t SAVOR sell out? What’s the future of SAVOR?
As you might suspect, we have thoughts. Early last week, some of the DCBeer staff and some contributors and well-known #dcbrews personalities recapped our thoughts about SAVOR. What follows below is a lightly edited version of those thoughts. Stick around until tomorrow when we will also hear from three prominent DC beer directors about how SAVOR went from their perspective. Have your own feelings about SAVOR? Let us know in the comments!
Jake: I think that Fritz's article and The Beerbag covered a lot of why attendance was down (lack of brand name whalez, questionable food in the past, more beer festival options,….). My question is what, if anything, is the Brewers Association going to do about it? Changes to the lottery system, to the price, to the food? (Though I thought the food was solid this year, a pleasant surprise).
I noted that even the beer events seemed to downplay the SAVOR breweries in favor of Surly, Wicked Weed, and Fremont, among others. I'm not complaining, but it's interesting that beer directors like Jace and Nahem brought in whalez to compensate for SAVOR's lottery system.
Anyway, some things I liked about SAVOR:
- Paul [Josuns]'s "welcome to SAVOR" moment: we were drinking Troegs bone dry, super attenuated DIPA Nimble Giant (coming to tallboys near you!) and the beauty of SAVOR was being able to ask John Trogner about the yeast, fermentation temperature, and step mashing. The look on Paul's face when he realized he could nerd out with brewers like that was pretty cool.
- My favorite pairing of the night was Melvin’s 2×4 with that gouger. DC Brau’s OTWOA with the duck breast was also very good, as were a lot of the dessert pairings.
- Staying with WY: who knew? Melvin's hop game is strong, and both Roadhouse saisons were very good.
- FATE upstairs was a hidden gem. Both their Kolsch and India Red Ale were top notch.
- There were a fair number of “weird beers” at SAVOR, so I stopped in for Ninkasi Helles, Austin and Ipswitch IPAs (and Austin Pils) to reset my palate so I’d have some “beer that tastes like beer.”
- I didn't get to all 25 of the beers on our list, but of the ones I had there wasn't a dud in the bunch.
From SAVOR week, standouts:
Great Raft's Come What Mayhaw and the bier de garde from Wicked Weed; any stout from Fremont or 4 Hands; the price of beer at Jack Rose all week long; so much good beer that Kentucky Breakfast Stout stayed on tap at Brookland Pint for 4+ days; Greg and Kelsey's Wedding Ale at Bluejacket is still that good 8 months later; everyone who walked into Rustico on Tuesday didn’t even look at anything else besides that cask of Port City-Schlafly VaSTLy Mild.
But of course the best part is that you walk into any bar anywhere in the area and it’s full of people you know.
Tony: We made fun of New York last year (ed. Note: that was in 2013; how time flies) in for lack of ticket sales. It is noteworthy coming back to DC we saw a similar problem. Maybe the BA will make a change looking at now two years running of much weaker sales. Though, was it still a sellout?
John: I think it should be noted that while sales were "down," sales weren't bad. Saturday was sold out and Friday salons were sold out, so it had to be close to sold out.
Bill: I heard the same, something like tickets were only 70 short of a sellout.
Jake: I am going to have to eat crow about this. I think when SAVOR was in NYC that city had like five breweries actually making beer in the city limits. Now it's more like 25. Beer has just exploded. But the first year back in DC, the tickets sold out in about a week, no? We may also be at the point where Snallygaster is the better festival, and that's okay. Of course, I didn't see any $40 tickets on StubHub.
Tony: Right, that's what I thought. It is noteworthy that SAVOR itself didn't sell out in 5 minutes, but it still sold out. Maybe it’s just that the luster has worn off and the whalers with deeper pockets have actually stopped coming out.
The beer events this year were plentiful and universally good. I didn't hear a bad word from anyone about any of the events. The lists looked spectacular and it was nice to sit down at an event where there were actual whales on tap and not feel claustrophobic. I felt like the events weren't as spread out as they could be, but I'm not sure that's a problem necessarily.
Bill: Since Jake gave his, I figure I’ll offer mine up too.
- The beer directors really went all out, kudos for making all those line and menu changes during a busy week. Lots of events I wanted to go to and beers I wanted to try, which really says something because I don’t always love beer weeks.
- The food at SAVOR really was great. By far the best since I've been going. The experiment with putting FATE upstairs worked well, there was a line all night on Saturday. The beers were tasty (though again, not a ton of whales and nothing where I'll be like "oh shit, I'll remember that beer a long time." Then again, I didn't make much of our list either. Maybe if I had had the Crux, Lost Abbey, etc. I would've gotten some of those. Anyway, no bad beers in our list, which is always a relief.
- Talking to out of town brewers, they were all impressed with both the scene and the hospitality. SAVOR as a way to spread the word about DC shouldn't be overlooked.
- Forget Darkness, Surly’s lagers are incredible. I crushed Hell and ‘Merica multiple nights. Next transfer window post we make, I’m bringing them in.
- Virginia makes a lot of hop juice IPAs. (In hindsight, not sure how this made the pluses list initially).
- Iowa and Wyoming have particularly strong beer scenes that were on display all week. Who knew? The Iowapocalypse event at Lost and Found was notable (and super well-attended).
- Not a ton of creativity here in the beer events. "Here's 40 beers, you sort through them!" I guess if the hook is that they're novel beers you can’t normally get, this is a pretty cheap gripe I guess.
- I do wish there was some more beer education put on during the week. SAVOR has a pretty significant education component, but that wasn’t mirrored in the SAVOR Week programming (which is not the BA’s fault, though they could set some things up I’m sure). Something to think about for the future; we can’t always be drawing on the same group(s) of people all the time, need to bring new blood in and reach out to people beyond the age 21-40 white dudes who make up the majority at these events, which brings me to…
- Where were all the fucking people for these events? There weren't any more events than past years, but nowhere were the crowds overwhelming. Maybe it's because I tried to hit bars at off-peak times, but I never heard much about lines or big crowds. For the freight/logistics time/etc. to set these events up, not sure the bars got the return they were looking for. Wonder if that'll change the calculus in future years. (More on this tomorrow from the beer directors).
Idea for Improving SAVOR:
Save five brewery slots at SAVOR for a beer fan nomination/voting process. If your brewery is one of those voted in by popular vote, the BA subsidizes your trip to DC in some way. You'll never get a member organization to approve all 76 breweries being selected by fan vote (that’s bad for member relations), but this might be a good compromise to get the Toppling Goliaths of the world in and build up hype for the event.
Paul: I'm not going to speak much on the events since I had to be a shut-in and didn't make it out. I wonder, as Bill Jusino mentioned via Twitter early in the week – does NHC being in Baltimore this week have anything to do with low(er) turnout?
As Jake mentioned, actually being able to talk with brewers about processes was a major eye-opener and wasn't something I expected. I thought the food was excellent, but I can't compare it to other years. That said, Saturday morning Paul wished he had a bigger dinner.
Ditto on the FATE beers. I'm not sure if it was an "experiment" to have them upstairs with the charcuterie station, but it was a real eye-opener about what the event CAN be. There was a line, but it moved very quickly and was a good place to get away from the crowds and snap a photo or two. It wouldn't surprise me to see another brewery or two upstairs in the future, but I do hope they don't start to pack them in up there. Top beers I had: FATE IRA, Troegs Wild Elf, Bell's Barrel Aged Expedition. Most unexpected "why is this beer good?" beer: Hardywood smoked Berliner-Weiss.
There were so many breweries in attendance that I haven't encountered and beers I've not had from places I know, that it was a smart idea for me to just hang with Jake, who'd attended before. His advice: skip the salons, don't wait in a line since all the beer will be good, talk to people.
Tony: Bill brings up a good point about education. If you're having a beer and food pairing destination event, then it makes sense to have more beer and food pairing-style events at bars, eh? Instead of just tap takeovers? Maybe an actual educational forum outside of SAVOR to talk more in-depth about it? I dunno, just shooting from the hip.
The bar owners may not have gotten their money's worth out of the events, but I would love to know how true that is for sure. Mostly because I'm selfish and seeing events that are great with seats full but not standing room only makes me happy.
Bill: The Flying Dog SAVOR Symposium really needs to be webcast next year. The panels this year (I don't mind tooting my own horn because it's true in this case) were phenomenal and I wish more people could've seen the discussion.
Aaron: Everyone's talking about the sluggishness of SAVOR event sales, but really the eye-opening thing for me was that most of the events I went to were simply…not well attended. That's especially the case when you subtract the people that are always going to go to these things (us, the RateBeer nerds, brewers, etc.).
There's a lot of reasons why this was, but to me it breaks down into three things:
- A focus on quantity over education/curation (as Bill mentioned above),
- A lack of mainstream press coverage, and
- The fact that it seems like most people just feel overwhelmed by craft beer, defaulting to local options (not necessarily a bad thing, mind you), and there aren't many people out there guiding their hands.
(I will say, at the risk of lacking modesty, that I heard nothing but praise for the work that DC Beer does, so kudos to Bill and all of you guys for chipping in). Even events that you would have thought would have been a slam dunk weren't that full. Granted, I didn't get everywhere, but it also feels like the events that people here are saying were awesome — the Symposium, the Virginia event at Meridian Pint, the Port City/Schlafly collab release — most seem to have involved local breweries.
TL;DR: I can't be the only person who walked into a number of events this week and said "oh, so this is what the craft beer bubble actually looks like."
John: Events felt different this year: I felt the majority of events, both from my personal experience of going out to many of them and from talking to many of the beer directors and reps/distros around town, is that they were very mellow. I feel having SAVOR between a holiday weekend and NHC a week later in Baltimore eats at two crowds for SAVOR/SAVOR Week events. It cannibalizes early in the week as many went out and celebrated on the holiday weekend. So they blew a lot of their "fun funds" and early events suffered. True homebrewing nerds may have gone out to an event, but I feel they're saving their money for Baltimore next week.
Also, something that I brought up this week somewhat in jest is still based in reality: When everything is special, then nothing is special. I feel we've become a victim of our own awesomeness. Some phenomenal lineups this week….yet we really get some awesome stuff every week. I feel there isn't a week or two that goes by now that we don't get someone new coming into the market or a new limited release beer being showcased. So when everything is rare, then nothing is rare. And I know this is probably a problem around the country, but it is especially an issue here in DC with our laws. We've become accustomed to a constantly new thing coming in and out.
Bill: I have a lot of trouble believing NHC could be that disruptive to the beer week crowds. Yes, there's a big overlap between beer nerds who go to events and homebrewers, but if we're relying on the DC Homebrewers that much to populate beer events, it's a real indictment of how bad outreach/inroads has/have been by the scene overall. I just don't think NHC is that big a draw for non-homebrewers and I don't think homebrewers are that big a part of the event-going population. We need survey data!
John: I wouldn't say DC homebrewers per se. I simply mean people that are deciding to spend their money at NHC instead of SAVOR. Be it because they're homebrewers or simply like those events all over Baltimore this week better. That could be a large swath of the DMV. I personally think they're a large contingency of the ultra nerd events versus generic tap takeover ones.
Jake: There were also people spending their money in Philly for CBC last month. Might play a role.
Aaron: One thing John is 100% dead on about: Memorial Day (and, to a lesser extent, the fact that many people got a new paycheck on Wednesday) definitely meant events on Monday and Tuesday were going to be attended mostly by the die-hard attendees that also happened to be around for the holiday weekend.
Bruce: Attendance seemed slower for almost all of the events. I will say that the Tuesday Out of Market Virginia breweries at Meridian Pint was the one event that bucked that trend the best in my opinion. As someone who had recently beforehand been introduced to Triple Crossing, had been aware of the Aslin hype and was decently familiar with Ocelot, I had high expectations for that event and was not disappointed.
The other big standout event for me as usual was the Brewer's Brunch on Saturday at Birch and Barley. The menu and the pairings were well conceived, and the event was up to its usual standards. I especially liked the Melvin Hubert and the Great Raft Come What Mayhaw, but the beers were all solid.
I also went to two pretty great events at Jack Rose, and I think our previous tweeting about their "counter-programming" deserves some attention. I know in your "What is Savor?" primer, you mentioned that a lot of the events are big tap takeovers, and I'm clearly right with you on that, but Jack Rose's "Wood You Be My Savor" and Stone/cigar events are at least a small departure from that. I am sure there are others on the list that would not be takeovers, but I didn't attend any of them. There was some discussion at the Stone/cigar event of the potential to have a similar event in the fall when it might be more seasonably appropriate.
I also popped into the CK Shorts/Surly and Southern Breweries (my highlights were Burial, Great Raft and Parish) events, and briefly went to the Meridian Pint Country Boy/Shorts Friday preview before heading over to the Building Museum. I even found a little time to drink a lot of water and a cask ale at District Chophouse (one of those "decently kept secrets" that makes DC a great beer town) on Saturday afternoon. The cask at Chophouse was the newish District Jenny IPA with blood orange peel and hops, and they also had barrel aged stout on tap. I just thought it was cool that they were pulling out specials for Savor.
Friday did seem slightly but noticeably slower, though I do feel like the vibe of the two nights is always a bit different. Saturday felt the same way Savor usually feels (very busy, sometimes hard to get around, but generally very polite, with a pretty late mass exodus).
Two Roads, D9 and Devil's Canyon were the new-to-me breweries that stood out the most. I enjoyed both of the beers from all three of them, but the Two Roads Kriek was one of the very few beers I doubled back to try a second time. It was recommended to me multiple times, and I definitely made sure to send a few people over that way as well. I know the Top 25 list had the D9 Systema Naturae, but I slightly preferred the Viking Fraoch, though both were great. I also made sure to recommend the Devil's Canyon Full Boar and the pairing when available (I think that pairing was among the very best)
Other standouts include Lost Abbey, Fate, Melvin, and Austin – I expected great beer from all of them and was not disappointed.
I found a couple of minutes each night to check in on a couple of salons, and thought the topics I listened in on were interesting. I heard great feedback from people on New Belgium's Coopers Dance (a barrel was assembled as a part of the salon), and the Developing the Savor Menu (apparently there was plenty of "inside baseball" discussed) salons, and will be interested in hearing them in full.