The beer and the hors d’oeuvre paired well from a culinary perspective, if not a theological one.
I was nibbling on “devils on horseback” (bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with goat cheese), and washing them down with Ovila, an abbey-style dubbel recently released by Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Chico, Calif. Ovila isn’t actually brewed in an abbey, but this dark, rich ale with herbal overtones is inspired by the beers that certain Trappist monks brew and sell to support their communities. In fact, the brand’s Web site states that a portion of Ovila sales will help fund the reconstruction of a medieval chapter house (originally built in Spain between 1190 and 1220) at the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, Calif.
Thomas X. Davis, 77-year-old abbot emeritus of the monastery, was behind the table helping to pour samples: a throwback to an era when religious orders, rather than Best Westerns and Marriotts, provided shelter and sustenance to tired wayfarers.
Having the genial Davis hand me a beer was one of my highlights of SAVOR 2011.
The annual beer and food showcase, now in its fourth year (the last three at the National Building Museum), doesn’t lack for colorful personalities. Sam Calagione, president of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Del., once again made his entrance dragging a media contingent behind him. Calagione was touting Savor Flowers, his collaboration with Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Co. and the Sam Adams line. Attendees received a 750-milliliter bottle of this flower ale (brewed with rose water and incorporating essence of hibiscus, lavender and jasmine) as a parting gift.
Savor Flowers is not available commercially, and Calagione and Koch insist they have no intention of repeating the recipe ever. You could probably recoup the $115 cost of a SAVOR ticket by auctioning off your bottle on eBay. But then you’d miss a genuinely unique beer.
Savor Flowers has a spicy vegetable aroma, almost like thrusting your nose into a fistful of pollen, a sweet candyish middle and a perfumy finish as the oils from the flowers waft their way through your sinuses. One-batch-only beers like this are a risky proposition because the brewers have no chance to refine their recipes, but the collaborators aced this one. (Watch a video of Calagione and Koch making the beer.)
Terms like “piney” and “resiny” are often used to describe hop varieties, but sipping the Spruce Pilsner from Short’s Brewing Co. in Bellaire, Mich., was actually like drinking evergreen needles. The suggested pairing, a sweet and savory chilled pork rillette, helped tone down the beer’s sharpness. (A day earlier, Short’s Brewing had pumped 30 of their beers at ChurchKey, including a Bloody Mary brew made with Roma tomatoes and horseradish, and a key lime ale incorporating limes, marshmallows and graham crackers.)
“We brought in a truckload of beer, so you’ll be seeing us for a few weeks,” commented Joe Short, but Short’s has no plans to add Washington D.C. to its distribution list permanently.
I never got to try the key lime beer, but Oatmeal Raisin Cookie, from Cigar City Brewing Co. in Tampa, Fla., was dessert in a glass, an “oatmeal brown ale” aged over cinnamon, vanilla and raisins (all of which could be picked up in this softly sweet and subtle brew).
Banana bread was a hand-in-glove pairing for this beer and also for the Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale from Lazy Magnolia Brewing Co. in Kiln, Miss. “We’re the only one!” answered owner Mark Henderson when asked about the incursion of craft breweries into this traditionally dry southern state. (Mississippi didn’t repeal Prohibition until the 1960s, and even today about a third of its counties ban alcohol sales.) In spite of such obstacles and a state alcohol cap of 5 percent that prevents Lazy Magnolia from experimenting with many styles, the brewery is thriving, reports Henderson. “We’re selling all we can make.”
Don’t underestimate the South. Moon River Brewing Co. in Savannah, Ga., returned with its Rosemarie Swamp Fox IPA, a crowd favorite at the 2009 SAVOR. The food pairing, herb-roasted mushrooms on toast, was a little underwhelming (basically, oversized croutons), so I reached over one tray and grabbed some “biscuits and belly” (buttermilk biscuits with pork belly, mustard greens and bacon), which did hit the spot.
It would be a distortion to imply that SAVOR is solely a celebration of non-traditional styles and oddball ingredients. Jason Oliver, head brewer at the Devil’s Backbone Brewing Co. and brewpub in Roseland, Va. (one of a handful of local operations among the 72 breweries represented), offered a clean, lightly toasty, immensely drinkable Vienna Lager. (You’ll see a lot more of this beer once Devil’s Backbone finishes building its packaging brewery near Lexington, Va., in early 2012.)
Oliver was also pouring a Belgian-style strong golden ale called Azrael. Ales of this sort, like Duvel, are notorious for disguising their alcohol content until the drinker has had one too many and feels glued to the barstool. Is the name Azrael supposed to be a warning, evoking some demonic harbinger of doom?
“It’s the cat in the Smurfs cartoons,” explained Oliver.