Greg Koch described the origins of his love for food and beer pairings as gradual and hedonistic while introducing himself during the "Craft Beer and Cheese Taste Off!" educational salon. This approach represents both the incredible diversity in the American craft beers today and the impressive versatility of beer (and well, maybe Greg's laid back attitude about life). Time to take off those shackles wine drinkers, your local fine liquor store (or local craft brewery if you are lucky) offers a superior pair to your cheese first course, whatever you are having for dinner, and especially that chocolate dessert.
On Saturday May 30, 2009, around 1900 craft beer enthusiasts gathered to sample 136 beers from 68 American craft breweries paired with 32 food items during the 2nd annual craft beer and food experience, SAVOR (but who was counting?). The event was held in Washington D. C. at the majestic National Building Museum. SAVOR, which sold out two months in advance, was a fancy affair with an impressively gender mixed crowd (possibly because the $95 ticket price and fine food and drink screamed "bring a date"). The museum's grand hall was very spacious and perfect for events of this type. Most guests were dressed to impress. I spotted everything from dresses and heels to many a collared shirt to some polyester suits and Chuck Taylors (ugh, what passes for "fashion" these days…).
In addition to the main event, SAVOR offered the opportunity to attend private tasting/educational salons. Three salon options were offered in three different time slots. The first, with a pre-event time slot, seemed like a no-brainer to get the festivities started and maximize the SAVOR experience. Two Pints and I attended Sam Calagione's "Ancient Ales in the Modern World," which consisted of Sam being Sam and free-styling (eloquently) about his efforts to appreciate the history of brewing and his general disapproval for the Reinheitsgebot (Sam's words were "screw the Reinheitsgebot"). The audience was served three cheeses and a chocolate paired with four beers while we enjoyed his ramblings. If the Chinese had Maytag Blue Cheese 9000 years ago, let me tell you, they would have enjoyed the pairing with their beer.
After the salon, we hit the main hall armed with our awesome commemorative glasses and my prepared Excel spreadsheet of must-have pairings. I had 49 targets, so the task at hand was arduous. An Allagash White with a passion fruit-mango mousse cup… check. An Anchor Steam Summer with a mini pulled pork BBQ sandwich… check. An Avery Brabant Barrel-Aged Wild Ale… ugh, 45 minutes had passed (where did the time go?) and it was time to get to our next salon: The Craft Beer and Cheese (and Chocolate) Pair Off.
The educational pair off salon challenged four panelists to each pick a beer that paired with both a piece of Maytag Blue Cheese AND a Chuao chocolate (with macadamia, praline, and chipotle). The selections by chance illustrated the diversity of the panel and the versatility of craft beer food pairings. Christian DeBenedetti, the soft spoken freelance food and beverage journalist from Oregon went with Allagash Black. It was a straightforward pairing that was an adequate match for both items, although I liked it better with the chocolate. Eric Wallace (President of Left Hand Brewing Company), the Air Force guy who came armed with plenty of notes and lists, stayed within the family and chose his Smokejumper Smoked Imperial Porter. Maybe it was my connection to his list making and preparation, but I voted for his selection. It brought out the best in both the items and joined the flavor party without overpowering the complexity of the chocolate or the blue in the cheese. Greg Koch (CEO and co-founder of Stone Brewing Company), armed with his sarcasm, chose his own Ruination IPA and lobbied the audience for his vote with live tweets and humor. But it was Lauren Buzzeo of Wine Enthusiast magazine who won over the crowd with the pairing of the blue cheese and chocolate with Deschutes The Dissident, a Flander's style sour brown ale aged in oak with wild cherries. While I don't totally disagree with the majority vote, I felt the beer overpowered both items just a little. On the positive side, each pairing took on a new flavor with the beer that was reminiscent of the Ratatouille fireworks sequence.
We exited the salon several minutes after the scheduled ending of 9:15PM. With last call at 10:50PM, it was time to refocus if we were to conquer my list. The Bruery Trade Winds Tripel and a scallop burger with cilantro lime mayo... check. Magic Hat Lucky Kat with a piece of Gruyere cheese... check. Russian River Pliny the Elder with… wait, what time is it? Seriously? And the Moroccan spiced lamb burgers are cold now!?
My list was a bit of a flop (we hit 26 of my 49 targets… that is a failing grade of 53%) but the event was far from a failure. We were impressed from the moment we walked in. As an entrance gift, we received a super cool commemorative tasting glass. At each of the tables, two ounce pours were usually generous. If I could add a little criticism, it would be that the brewery reps generally did not do much to promote the food pairing. But why would they? The food was not something they provided. The catering company also struggled a little to keep up with demand. Often the food was a little cold or overcooked. I also spotted servers filling water pitchers in the bathroom sinks.
Overall, much more was right about this event than wrong. Having spent a portion of my life in New Orleans and the majority of it on the Gulf Coast, I can honestly say the raw oysters served by The Choptank Oyster Company were the best I have ever had (for the record, I choose to pair it with a Deschutes Black Butte Porter). Items which were also unanimous favorites of Two Pints and myself (in no particular order):
- Southampton Publick House Double White Ale paired with Hibachi Style Grilled Pacific Salmon Skewers
- Lost Abbey Cuvee de Tomme (blended Barrel aged Sour Ale) paired with Black Forest (tart Montmorency cherries & kirsch)
- Arcadia Brewing Cocoa-Loco Triple Chocolate Milk Stout paired Southwester Black Bean Soup
Judging by the extraordinary lines and confirmed by our personal sampling, the crowd favorites were the oyster bar, Russian River, and Lost Abbey.
Judging by the discarded items on every other table, the crowd's least favorite, also confirmed by our personal sampling, was the Espresso Sambuca Parfaits. My personal note next to this pairing was simply: "OMG, Yuck!" The catering company should have to apologize to Flying Dog, Hoppy Brewing, Odell Brewing, Saint Louis Brewery, Ska Brewing, and Upland Brewing. Surely they did not get to sample this item before they chose the pairing for their beers.
While exiting, we were handed a small tin containing a USB drive loaded with recipes and guides to craft beer and food pairings. I couldn't help but wish the event had been longer or potentially more than one session. One of our salons ate up an hour of our time, but I have no regrets about attending the pair off session. In fact, while I regret not getting into one of the intimate (~10 people) private tasting salons (which must have sold and within the first hour they were on sale), I don't know which salon I would want to swap out. Sam Calagione casually sharing his philosophy of beer making (including a story of an early comment card for Immort Ale: "it tastes like trees, but it got me f*#%ed up") or the cheese/chocolate pairing panel (which included beers as diverse as the panelists' personalities). In only it's 2nd year of existence, the Brewers Association has added another great annual event to their calendar. As someone who has been twice to GABF, I believe the classy and more intimate setting of SAVOR may be my annual beer event of choice.