It has never been like this before.
There are a lot of people in the DC area devoting column inches to this phrase or something like it these days, but when they do it, the tone tends to be rueful or concerned. You can almost hear the wringing of their hands.
Not me. I’m elated.
A little less than two weeks ago, the Neighborhood Restaurant Group held their seventh annual Snallygaster. To call Snallygaster a beer festival doesn’t give it enough credit, and it would also be giving too much credit to typical examples of such events, which often (but not always, fortunately, in our area) tend to be boorish booze grabs. Not Snally, which billed itself as a “beastly beer jamboree.”
It’s easy to take Snally for granted, which is what I said to my wife as we walked into one of its many entrances, this one at 7th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. (Thanks to NRG for the passes to come by for the day and to my in-laws for babysitting; shout out to the many parents who brought their kids and to NRG for providing a kids’ zone.) I think it’s too easy not to appreciate that the event shut down multiple city blocks on one of the most powerful avenues on earth, the U.S. Capitol, ineffectual and tempestuous as it is, looming in the background. It’s too easy not to appreciate the number of volunteers it takes to pull the event off; their numbers alone larger than the number of attendees at nearly every other major beer event in the area. It’s too easy not to appreciate the logistics: the signage, the bathrooms, the multiple stages, the food trucks, the security, just the sheer coordination of it all. The event gets announced, the event gets put on, people attend, people leave, the event wraps up. Ho-hum. No. It’s bonkers to overlook what it takes to put on an event like Snally.
This brings me, finally, to the beer. You can’t have a beastly beer jamboree without beer.
Think about the DC beer scene as a three-legged stool. You have homegrown breweries (and I count the DC metro area here, not just DC proper), you have out-of-town breweries who distribute here through the three-tier system, and you have DC’s gray laws, which let bars and restaurants import easily anything else they can’t get from the first two legs of the stool. Snallygaster took the best of all three legs and jammed them together into one nearly 400-beer list. It leaned heavily on the gray laws to bring in well-hyped breweries like Hill Farmstead, Night Shift, The Alchemist, and Monkish, among many others, as well as up-and-comers like Black Narrows, Great Raft, Charles Towne, and Magnify. But national stalwarts like Allagash and a great number of local breweries found a place, too. Casks from places like Heavy Seas and District Chophouse sat with German gravity kegs in a mash-up of nearby and international rarely seen in our area.
For one glorious afternoon the best beer bar in America was the tent housing offerings from Bellwoods, Crooked Stave, De La Senne, De Ranke, Fonta Flora, Great Raft, Jolly Pumpkin, Mahr’s Brau, Suarez Family, The Lost Abbey, and The Rare Barrel.
Or maybe it was the tent housing Cantillon, Casey, Great Notion, Grimm, Hill Farmstead, Night Shift, Other Half, Toppling Goliath, Westbrook, and District Chophouse. I guess that one also had a fair claim to the title,
I think it’s also easy to take NRG for granted in the DC beer scene, mostly because they’ve come to dominate so much of the oxygen within it. ChurchKey has been the crown jewel of the DC beer scene for nine years, as of this month. NRG’s 20 some odd other establishments have a huge footprint and influence on people’s beer tastes, whether those people realize they’re drinking at an NRG property or not. The torch the Brickskeller lit and carried for decades has been taken up by Greg Engert (now with the assistance of Tim Liu), and they’ve advanced it further than we could have imagined when this site was formed a decade ago this December. Still, even for a company that has come to have a heavy, maybe sometimes even dominating, presence in events like SAVOR Week and DC Beer Week, this felt big.
Why do this event given the scale of the logistics and the outsized footprint NRG already has area-wide? According to its website, “Snallygaster serves as the largest annual fundraiser for Arcadia, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a more equitable and sustainable local food system in our region right here in our own backyard.” So not only were attendees drinking great beer, they were doing it for a great cause. Seems good. A figure on the amount raised didn’t make it to me by press time, but I’ll update here once I have it.
All this praise heaped, the event wasn’t hiccup-free from my perspective, just nearly so. Oenophiles (that’s a word wine Twitter taught me) weren’t excluded from the event (which is pretty nice of the beer community, to be honest) and were able to indulge in a variety of offerings. Unfortunately, those offerings came from a tent called “Planet Pink,” which has its roots in an all-rosé showcase from last year. Defensible as that explanation is, the optics of serving wine out of an electric pink tent at a beer event given craft beer’s general struggle to be equitable toward women could and should be improved.
Two other minor quibbles aren’t Snally-specific. The first is that there’s some dissonance between being able to drink some of the finest beers on the planet and drinking those beers out of plastic cups. The logistics of providing glassware at an event like this, cleaning glasses, having that cleaning be sanitary, etc. are a bit much even for this behemoth, I imagine. The second is that when nature calls after my tallboy of Night Shift Night Lite (very fairly priced, as most beers were, at $6) and a bevy of other brews, it calls loudly. To the bathroom line where everyone else is seeking relief from the same problem.
For NRG’s part, I’m sure they’re mostly relieved that not only did it not rain (as it feels like it does annually, although I think it has probably only been three or four years out of seven) but that the weather was beautiful. The setting was perfect for the masses of people (and there were many, though it never felt overly crowded to me) who came to sample the many offerings. The crowd’s diversity, across multiple characteristics, was great to see, and we should so fortunate as a beer scene that this would carry through to craft beer bars all year-round.
Ultimately, I hope attendees were able to find and appreciate some new beers or styles or to revisit some left by the wayside and that they not view the event as "just another beer festival." By any number of measurements, it is not. Greg Engert, Tim Liu, and everyone at NRG associated with Snallygaster created a monster in the DC beer scene. Here's to them keeping it unleashed.