But Savor has been showing its age. The $135 tickets, which used to sell out in less than an hour, moved very slowly last year, and veteran attendees grumbled about the beer selection, the lack of buzzworthy new breweries, and the long lines for oysters and other snacks.
The festival, which returns on June 2 and 3, turns 10 this year, and Brewers Association Events Director Nancy Johnson says organizers “wanted to make it special,” but also, “based on feedback, we wanted to do something a little different.” Savor hasn’t been dramatically reshaped, but it’s been modified in a few promising ways. Here’s a quick guide.
There are more breweries.
Seventy-six breweries participated in 2016, and that number will climb to 86 this year. To ensure a wide geographic spread, the Brewers Association divides the country into eight regions, and then picks a certain number from each region, totaling 70 in all. (Sixteen other “supporting breweries” or “supporting partners,” including Dogfish Head, Allagash and Samuel Adams, pay for the right to skip the lottery, have better table placement and prominently display their logos.) Johnson says 362 breweries entered the drawing this year, which is slightly higher than in 2016.
This year’s participants, each of whom must bring two beers and have the brewery owner or head brewer stationed behind their table, represent 31 states and Washington D.C. Only 36 percent of them were at Savor last year, while 40 percent have never poured their beers at the festival. And of the 86 attendees, at least 41 are not regularly distributed in the Washington area, if they’re found here at all. (The draw was very kind to local breweries: Northern Virginia is represented by Adroit Theory, Old Bust Head, Fair Winds and “supporting brewery” Port City; D.C. has DC Brau and Right Proper, plus “supporting brewery” Bluejacket; and Maryland is sending Flying Dog and Union, so just over 10 percent of the offerings will be from our own backyard.)
At the same time, the list of breweries suffers from the same problems as its predecessors. It contains some well-known names that Washington drinkers will be thirsty to try, including Odell, Lost Abbey, Melvin, FATE and Half Acre. Detractors will point out that it lacks the kind of buzzworthy names that might encourage beer geeks to drop $135 without thinking twice — say, Toppling Goliath, Suarez Family Brewers, Tree House or Aslin. Of course, Savor’s organizers can’t force some of these smaller names to enter the lottery, but they might consider some sort of incentive to get them to participate.
More breweries means more space.
With 10 more breweries setting up at Savor, organizers have decided to reorganize the layout of brewery tables. Ten breweries are moving up to the museum’s mezzanine level, where only one brewery, Colorado’s FATE, was located last year. The balcony will also feature tables from “individual producers,” including beer pairings created with butchers, fishmongers and cheesemongers. (More on that below.)
The bulk of the breweries will remain on the main floor, but with brewery tables and taps running around the perimeter of the room, instead of grouped in fours in the middle. The idea is to make it easier to socialize and move around the room, Johnson says, as well as provide more tables and chairs, which have traditionally been in short supply at Savor.
“You see people sitting on the stairs sometimes,” Johnson says, with a sigh. Each brewery’s tables will also be higher, adds executive chef Adam Dulye. “When you come over to talk to the brewer, it’s like you’re coming up to the bar.”
They’ve improved the food offerings.
Savor has always provided food pairings with each beer. Sometimes it’s spot-on. Sometimes the food runs out first, and you never get to see how pheasant vol-au-vent complements an IPA. But this year, Savor is using that second level to offer snacks from five artisan companies. D.C.’s own Red Apron, which matched its charcuterie to FATE’s ales last year, will return, as will the Choptank Oyster Company. Pennsylvania’s Nathan Miller Chocolate “is making bean-to-bar chocolates to pair with two breweries,” says executive chef Dulye,” while the Monterey Fish Company, from California, is developing a raw bar with both “super clean” and “complex” pairings. Members of the American Cheese Society are working with three breweries, and Dulye expects the results to be “more educational: ‘This kind of cheese works with hoppy beer, and this cheese brings out the malt,’ so the next time you’re at the grocery store, you can pick some up” based on the beer you have at home or in your cart.
No more educational salons.
This is the change that might cause the most grumbling. The salons at Savor were really craft beer small-group seminars, offering the chance to nerd out on an in-depth topic: New Belgium brewer Peter Bouckaert talking about the effects of aging beer in wood (with different liquid examples), or the brewers of Stone, Green Flash and Coronado discussing the growth of San Diego’s beer culture. On the other hand, seminars took an hour out of the evening, leaving just two-and-a-half hours to explore the offerings from the assembled breweries. It was always a difficult choice, but trying to hit a few dozen breweries in three hours is much easier than in two.
Johnson says the space previously occupied by salons could be used for live music, additional seating or a media room; the decision was “not totally finalized” when I spoke with her at the Building Museum earlier this month.