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Nobody Missed The Frat Boys

By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Recession be damned. Some Americans are not downscaling when it comes to beer.

American Beer Week, as the Colorado-based Brewers Association dubbed the eight-day span from May 11 to 18, culminated Friday and Saturday in Savor: An American Craft Beer and Food Experience, a kind of debutante ball for a beverage that's attempting to redefine itself as the culinary equal to -- or superior of -- wine.

The sold-out event was held at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium downtown. The $85 ticket entitled the holder to taste more than 90 products from 48 breweries, from a watermelon wheat beer to a bourbon-barrel-aged barley wine. Federal City Caterers provided 35 varieties of fancy hors d'oeuvres including soup shots, skewers and exotic bonbons.

The program contained a list of suggested pairings. Anyone up for a soft, orangey Allagash White with some carrot ginger curry soup? How about a dark, raisiny Flying Fish Abbey Dubbel with a savory Peking duck purse? Or an Elliott Ness Amber Lager with a Stilton, bacon and scallion puff?

The two-ounce pours and bite-size portions encouraged mixing and matching. "The key word is experiment," said Hugh Sisson, president of Clipper City Brewing in Baltimore. Sisson suggested I pop a citrus cream chocolate in my mouth and wash it down with his Loose Cannon Hop{+3} Ale. Normally, an India pale ale is the last style you'd want to pair with sweets, but the lemon and grapefruit flavors of the hops meshed wonderfully with the fruity filling.

Live and learn.

"Finally, surroundings to which I'm accustomed," said Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver with a laugh, gesturing at the hall's 60-foot-tall Doric columns and crystal chandeliers. Oliver was pouring his Brooklyn Local 1, a strong, spicy Belgian-style ale, paired for contrast with a sweet, creamy brie spread on crackers.

Oliver was attired in a neatly pressed business suit. Few in the crowd were dressed that elegantly, but button-down shirts far outnumbered tees, a rarity for a beer festival.

"When I started Boston Beer Co. in my kitchen back in 1984, a beer dinner was seven courses: a pizza and a six-pack," quipped Samuel Adams brewer Jim Koch before Friday evening's session. But today's popular spicy, tropical cuisines are far better suited for beer than wine, he asserted. "Just try matching wine with Chinese food or Thai or Ethiopian."

Don't count out wine just yet.

A taste-off -- beer vs. wine, conducted by Dogfish Head Craft Brewery founder Sam Calagione and sommelier Marnie Old (co-authors of the book "He Said Beer, She Said Wine") -- produced surprising results. The partisan crowd preferred a fruity Riesling over a smoked porter as an accompaniment to that ultimate guy food, chips and salsa.

Neither Calagione nor Old took the contest too seriously. "We tend to overstress with wine, and I'm seeing that with beer as well," she cautioned.

"Forget about the rules. Go for what you think is right," urged guest speaker Lauren Buzzeo of Wine Enthusiast magazine, who admitted that one of her favorite combos is a Moretti beer and pizza margherita.

Perhaps the strangest beer at the event was Avery Fifteen, from Avery Brewing in Boulder, Colo. A Belgian-style farmhouse ale, it was fermented entirely with Brettanomyces, a wild yeast strain that most brewers and vintners view as a dangerous invader. But even this funky ale, with its sour tang and earthy, barnyard flavors, found its match in a sharp Maytag blue cheese.

Like any first-time event, Savor suffered from a few glitches. On Saturday, some of the more popular food items disappeared well before the last call (I hardly saw a crumb of the bite-size stout burgers). And it wouldn't have hurt if a few chairs had been scattered around the hall: 3 1/2 hours is a long time to remain on one's feet, especially when juggling a program, a tasting glass and a fistful of finger foods.

A few attendees thought the $85 admission fee served a purpose in scaring away the frat-boy types. "It's about good beer and food, not good beer and drunks," said Lyle C. Brown, a home-brewer from Fredericksburg.

Attendance at all three sessions totaled 2,100, reported Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association. The group, she added, will decide over the next few weeks whether to stage a repeat performance in 2009 and whether to stay in Washington or take the show on the road.

Will we be able to go back to beer and brats after Savor? Sure we will, but we'll also appreciate the subtle interplay of a malty Scotch ale and a creme brulee.

Greg Kitsock's column appears every other week. He can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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