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SAVOR 2016: Hear Feedback from Beer Directors

On Monday we brought you some staff and contributor thoughts on how SAVOR 2016 went. There was a lot of conversation about why SAVOR seemed slower than normal and whether SAVOR was "worth" it. In an effort to bite into these issues a little bit more deeply, we reached out to three prominent beer directors to hear directly from them. This is a pretty cool opportunity to hear directly from beer directors speak frankly about business operations, so thanks to them for taking the time. 

Below are lightly edited transcripts of what their thoughts were to questions like:

  • What was your overall satisfaction level for how SAVOR Week went in terms of your events, attendance, brewery selection, etc.? What event are you most proud of?
  • How were your attendance/sales (speaking generally)? We all noticed a general lack of audience everywhere. Did you perceive the same? If yes, any thoughts on why that might've been?
  • Do you still think it's "worth" all of the extra work (line cleanings, menu switches, staff education, shipping logistics, storage, promotion) doing these kinds of events? What are the costs vs. benefits?

Jace Gonnerman (Meridian Pint, Smoke & Barrel, Brookland Pint):

I perceive the lack of audience as a testament to our beer scene. A few years ago, it was a handful of places (ChurchKey, Meridian Pint, Pizzeria Paradiso, Scion, Big Hunt, Jack Rose, etc) that were leading the charge when it came to beer weeks and events. Now you have even more places getting in on it. Dave Donaldson at City Tap House put together some great events. Same with Dave Delaplaine at Roofers Union. We had a packed line-up at both Smoke and Brookland. Great events at Lost and Found, The Sovereign, Bier Baron, Sixth Engine, Jackpot, and countless others I'll forget.

I remember looking at the Allagash event at City Tap House and saying, "If this was 2-3 years ago, there would have been a line up the street an hour ahead of time."

That said, we were very happy with our attendance from the week. The Tuesday event at Meridian with the local breweries was a pleasant surprise. While all of those breweries might have a big presence in the "beer nerd" community, they're all small and relatively new. That was a resounding success.

The Wednesday event at Meridian (Parish/Melvin/Wicked Weed) was quite successful. Friday drew a great early crowd (3 p.m.) with beers from Country Boy and Short's. It also helps when you're able to tie another element into it. The Pig Roast at Smoke & Barrel to kick off the week was well attended and combined a great food element from Chef Logan McGear with a great beer line-up from Ommegang, Boulevard, Firestone, and Victory. The Thursday event at Smoke was the same thing. Great beer line-up from Surly and Flying Dog with ridiculous pork specials.

Brookland is still coming around event-wise, and I get it. If you stay in northwest DC, you can hit Meridian, Smoke, ChurchKey, Jack Rose, and many others within a short time frame. You can hit most by walking. If you venture out to Brookland, you might be there for the night.

It's still worth it. We've been able to streamline our operations over the years where pulling off a week like this isn't quite the feat of strength it once was. You plan and staff appropriately for your spots to get lines cleaned and changed. The days of staying until 5 a.m. doing keg changes are over. It's still an exhausting week, but it's still worth it.

Nahem Simon (Jack Rose Dining Saloon) 

I am satisfied with everything that we were able to offer. I feel that events weren't as well represented on the SAVOR website with details so some missed out of the Master Pairings from "Dr." Bill when the website said "Stone Tap Takeover" when it was geared to be a rare cigar and beer focus.

Attendance was great because non-industry folks hear about what we are doing and are inclined to check it out without the intimidation of not knowing the products but wanting to taste and learn. I am most proud of the Stone Cigar event because we had a great show of folks that weren't intimidated by the intensity of the beers and loved tasting them.

I felt that events petered out a little earlier than usual. I think that now everyone is trying to get on the SAVOR band wagon, and it stretches everyone a little thin. It's an expensive week for the average person with a week of events leading up to SAVOR, the price of the ticket, and on top of that the additional price of salons that they might wish to attend. If lucky, you only spend $200 after going to one event and SAVOR, but I imagine other folks spent a lot each night on top of the tickets. If some go both nights that is at least $260 they are dropping on tickets.

For others, it is multiple brewery events at multiple locations that can dilute the desire for folks to attend certain events.

I think it is always beneficial to showcase breweries. It is a double edged sword because there are a lot of bars that don't clean their lines between beers, so if they are going from event to event and beer to beer, cross-contamination is going to occur. It is beneficial if done correctly, because it opens the consumer to products which might not be available in the market, along with offerings that might be overlooked with how saturated with breweries the market has become. Some folks get a taste of home, like with Surly, that isn't available [in DC], and others get to try some of the offerings in breweries' porfolios that they might not have ever come across but will then seek out at off-premise locations. By not just showcasing rare beers and instead having a mix of core brands and rarities, the events strengthen the experience and knowledge-base of the consumer and make them more inclined to seek out craft brands next time they go to their local market. We try to make it affordable for everyone as well, and we price all the beers equally…but the cost of lesser expensive beers offsets the more expensive ones, and once [SAVOR Week ] is all done, revenue can be made up by charging the appropriate cost.

The 6-7 hours of line cleaning a day were tedious but worthwhile when seeing people enjoying the hard work put into showcasing the brewery as they intended their beers to taste. It also offers the opportunity to reach out to new potential customers by offering an event where they never knew that there was a solid beer program (like Jack Rose Dining Saloon where we are foremostly known for our whiskey selection). 

It's a week based on celebrating craft beer and its history and evolution, not to turn a quick buck. Money will be made by establishing new clientele and working through partial kegs, and that is "worth" the "grueling" week of logistics.

Greg Engert (Neighborhood Restaurant Group)

I think we do differ from other beer programs in how not-so-unique [SAVOR Week] is for us. It’s in our DNA to operate in that fashion across the board. It’s not just Birch & Barley/ChurchKey. It’s Red Apron-Union Market, Sovereign, The Partisan, both Rusticos, EatBar, Bluejacket, etc. Our staffing model and cleaning model and printing model all exist already to do what we did last week all year. At ChurchKey, we’re flipping 5-10 lines nightly most of the time anyway. What it comes down to on whether or not it’s worth it: absolutely it’s worth it.

It might be a different question for some of these other guys who suddenly flip the switch and host a lot of events, flip lines, print menus, but for us it’s a chance to do what we always do. Having a huge array of brewers and beer geeks, etc. remarking on how well the events were organized and how great the beers were tasting, that’s what we’re after. That gratification, it’s a cool thing to do. You hope that you have a lot of business. Another thing that we do is Snallygaster. We wouldn’t continue to do it every year if the turnout was the draw, because we put the same amount of work into these events whether it rains or shines. We’re in it for the execution, and our staff, sure, would’ve loved to have been busier than it had been, but at the end of the day, it was busy. We put on 344 new, distinct beers across our company [during SAVOR Week]. 15 different events in 6 days.

As far as the “it wasn’t as busy as in years past,” I don’t know. I don’t know what it means. I don’t think anybody really knows what it means. I will say I’m really big on the effect of holidays. We see it all the time. Coming off of Memorial Day Weekend, we had a much better post-Memorial Day Week last week than we did last year. We were softer Tuesday/Wednesday [than last year], roughly even Thursday, but had a better weekend from Friday to Sunday. That to me speaks more to the fact that Memorial Day being a Monday, you’re not going to do a huge Tuesday.

What it seemed like was in the beer geek community, people were definitely out. People were very, very efficient with their time. I saw people coming in at 4pm, drinking 5-6 tasters, and then going somewhere else, treating it like a circuit. What I found was less of the standard drinker, less of the occasional beer geek, maybe it seemed like the mainstream [beer fans] crowd wasn’t as full force. Maybe those were people who went a little hard on Memorial Day Weekend.

Another thing that appeared to be the case, and it hasn't been in most years, is that most breweries that came into town had the mentality, "If we’re going to do one event, we might as well do five." I don’t remember it being quite that way in previous years. I can’t begrudge a brewery for doing that, why wouldn’t you do that?

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