For years, Savor has been the gold standard of beer festivals in Washington, and one of the most important beer festivals in America. Every May or June — with the exception of 2013, when it went on tour to New York — more than 70 craft breweries have descended on the great hall of the National Building Museum for the classiest such event I’ve ever seen.
Most beer festivals celebrate the beers of a certain state or region, but Savor is an opportunity to sample beers from all over America, each paired with gourmet snacks. Attendees get the chance to chat with superstars such as Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione and Boston Beer’s Jim Koch, and to attend educational seminars on specific trends or styles. The week leading up to the festival is a parade of tap takeovers, dinners and meet-and-greets with visiting brewers at bars around town.
Savor’s popularity has led to complaints about how hard it is to get tickets, with the 2,000 tickets for each of its two nights generally selling out in less than an hour. (In Savor’s third year, 2010, tickets for the one-night affair sold out in 10 minutes.)
But some of the luster seems to have rubbed off: More than two weeks after the $135 tickets went on sale, many of the salons with brewers have sold out, but general admission is still available for both June 3 and 4.
It’s a strange turn of events for what was once one of the hottest tickets on the beer calendar, especially because interest in craft beer and brewing is at an all-time high. Is Savor on a downturn, or is this just a blip?
What has changed since Savor began in 2008 is the level of competition. Although Savor was once one of the few really big festivals in the D.C. area, there are now many more throughout the year — and, more important, none of them approach Savor’s price tag. For example, the DC Beer Festival at Nationals Park on Saturday includes unlimited samples from 83 breweries. Admission for a three-hour window is $40. At least 60 breweries will be in Leesburg, Va., for the Americana Beer Fest in June, which carries a $45 ticket price. The Maryland Craft Beer Festival in Frederick in May includes unlimited beers from at least 40 breweries for its $40 ticket.
You could attend all three of those events for less than the cost of entry for 3
Of course, none of those events occupies the same rarefied air as Savor. For a hardcore beer fan, DC Beer Fest is a comparative yawn: You won’t find Allagash founder Rob Tod pouring White at his brewery’s stand. Your Great Lakes beer won’t be paired with a snack of braised rabbit and herb spaetzle. And, most important, the majority of the beers can be found in any craft-centric bar on a Saturday night: The lineup is heavy on locals such as Denizens, Hellbender or the Ocean City Brewing Company, and it’s tough to get excited about “national” representatives Magic Hat or Shiner Bock.
Would you rather spend three afternoons out drinking in the sun with friends, or one night inside a landmark museum with some of the biggest names in craft brewing?
But even for the hardcore, Savor doesn’t have the kind of buzz it once did. And that’s because of the breweries involved.
Of the 76 participants in 2016, there are plenty of faraway breweries I’m looking forward to sampling, including Country Boy, Austin Beerworks and Strange Craft. Then there are numerous breweries I’ve never heard of: Boone Valley Brewing from Boone, Iowa; Lewis & Clark Brewing from Helena, Mont.; Mitten Brewing from Grand Rapids, Mich. That is what sets Savor apart from the region’s other beer festivals: the excitement of discovery. Sampling the unfamiliar and stumbling across a great new sour or IPA is, to me, the point of going.
A quick scan of the Savor menu shows 41 breweries whose products aren’t regularly available in the Washington area. By Savor’s own count, half of this year’s breweries have never been featured at the event, and only 30 percent were included last year.
The hankering for new flavors and beers should be a good thing, right? Sure, if they’re the right new flavors. Hardcore and casual beer geeks alike would leap at the chance to try the biggest, buzziest breweries they can find. Think Tree House, Toppling Goliath, Three Floyds or Russian River. All of those are likely to have multiple entries in any list of the World’s Best Beers. All are Brewers Association members. None will be pouring beers at Savor.
Unlike most beer festivals, Savor doesn’t curate the list of participants. Sixty of the 76 breweries are chosen by random lottery, with a certain number representing each of eight regions of the country. The remaining 16 places go to breweries that sponsor the event. This year, supporting breweries, including Devils Backbone and New Belgium, paid $6,000; supporting partners, including Dogfish Head and Hardywood Park, paid $15,000 for better table spaces and more prominent display of their logos. Those are not sums that most small, growing breweries can afford to pay for the right to give away their beer at a festival.
If the Brewers Association wanted to make Savor one of the most exciting beer festivals in the country, it could turn the field into a mix of random draw and invitations. As much as a spot at Savor will raise the profile of a tiny brewery in the Great Lakes region, the people buying tickets for the tasting would be more interested in trying something from Minneapolis’s well-regarded Surly Brewing, which was one of the first breweries to run out of beer in 2015 but didn’t get in this year.
This is a choice that will satisfy no one: The Brewers Association has more than 3,000 brewery members and only 60 non-sponsored slots. Members can argue that the right to go to Savor — or the association’s Great American Beer Festival in Denver — is a benefit of membership. The choice is whether Savor’s organizers want to create consumer buzz, or let all participants have a chance to show off their beers.
One is good for prestige, the other is good for ticket sales.