There are a handful of beer events in the United States that everyone wants to go to. Many of them just happen to be put on by The Brewers Association.
The oldest and largest is the Great American Beer Festival and its yearly mega-fest in Denver. Then there’s the more sophisticated younger brother, who always wants to pair great beer with food, and that would be SAVOR. SAVOR has made its home Washington, DC 6 of the 7 years of its existence, with the exception of 2013 where SAVOR flirted with New York City.
Hopefully DC will become the permanent home for SAVOR, but I fear that SAVOR will become a roadshow only stopping in DC every couple of years. And that’s fine. Being able to celebrate this wonderful event in my backyard every few years is better than it not being here at all.
Speaking of backyards, a kind of sort of annual tradition is for Flying Dog to hold their SAVOR Week Backyard Symposium.
I was lucky enough to receive an invite to the Backyard Symposium. This event in itself is one of the great things about SAVOR week. Flying Dog assembled a couple wonderful panels to discuss hot topics in the industry.
In typical Flying Dog fashion, it was a laid back event. After checking in I was greeted with a full lineup of Flying Dog beer, including a custom firkin created by the Flying Dog beer club, the Junto Society, two food trucks to hook us up with some grub, and Rappahannock Oyster Co. shucking some of the most delicious oysters I’ve ever had.
This event, while it had its share of treats to imbibe upon, the most interesting part was the panel discussions.
First off was a discussion about quality. This is becoming a growing topic as the craft beer industry matures. This is no longer wild west brewing on a ½ barrel pilot system. But it’s serious business and serious science.
The panel was made up of Ben Chambers (Flying Dog), Jaime Scheir (Harpoon), Rebecca Newman (Dogfish Head), and JP Northrop (Anton Paar).
Discussing quality control seems like a dull topic, but really it isn’t. Yeah, it doesn’t have the romance of brewing, but without quality control you won’t be brewing for long. Ben Chambers from Flying Dog started by saying, “Quality has to be in the culture [of your brewery].” This statement of ideal was reiterated by every member of the panel.
Rebecca Newman, from Dogfish Head, came to this discussion with a mile long resume, and was likely the most dynamic member of the panel. As she explained, “Quality is at every doorway, making sure your equipment is properly sanitized, sweeping around the pallets where the mice live.” She continued to explain beer is a sensory experience, and making sure that everything is clean. Not just the brewing equipment, but everywhere. The customer doesn’t want to be in a tasting room and smell a dirty bathroom.
Newman also was conveying that the sensory experience of beer involves more than just cleaning too. And that the brewer needs to be sensing and experiencing every step of the brewing process. The brewer should be smelling the grain, crushing the hops to “make sure they don’t smell like buttery goat ass,” and tasting the beer at every stage from the wort, to the brite tank, to post packaging. And maintaining a library to age to see how the beer holds up. She recommended brewers keep beers for 30% longer than the expected shelf life of the beer. So that means her library at Dogfish Head extends back 7 years or more.
I was not expecting the panel on Quality Assurance to be nearly as engaging as it was.
The second panel was an Industry Open Forum, or kind of a state of the industry panel. This panel was made up of An Bui (Mekong Restaurant), David Walker (Firestone Walker), Julia Herz (Brewers Association), and Richard Ellis (Briess Malting Co).
This discussion was a bit more varied than the QA discussion during the first panel. This panel had a few points that were more strongly driven home than others. The first one was local. An Bui owner of the renowned beer emporium Mekong explained that the most prevalent beer style at his restaurant was the India Pale Ale. This beer style is one that demands freshness. The easiest way to maintain a flow of fresh IPA into your restaurant is to buy from local breweries. David Walker followed by stating that 60% of Firestone Walker’s sales came from the 5 counties surrounding the brewery.
Another aspect of local is the ingredients used in the beers. Julia Herz mentioned that every brewer should be as involved as possible with the suppliers and growers of their ingredients. Firestone Walker’s Matt Brynildson sits on the board of the American Hop Growers Association. This is a great way for Firestone Walker to keep their hands on the pulse of one of their most import ingredients. Richard Ellis from Briess Malting Company mentioned that total acreage for barley decreased again for 2013, and that was not a good thing for the prices of the grain. But don’t be discouraged, we aren’t going to run out of malted barley. Which is a good thing, since we are approaching 3,000 brewers.
In fact, as Julia Herz detailed there are currently 2,800 breweries in business today, and there are another 1,700 in the planning stages. Of course that raised the question of, “Is there a bubble in craft beer?” To which Herz emphatically said NO. All of the economic indicators were currently stating that not only were we not close to a bubble, but all indications were that we could support many more breweries than we have today. She also made it a point to remind us that there are over 7,000 wineries in the US today.
Listening to Julia Herz describe the current state of brewing was very encouraging. And I am sure it was very encouraging for any of the brewers in attendance who had not heard this specific take on the industry.
After the second panel concluded we were free to grab lunch and speak amongst ourselves. This led to a number of interesting discussions with a number of interesting brewers many of whom will be featured in upcoming blogs.
Overall this was a wonderful event, and a great preview to the SAVOR event Friday and Saturday. I don’t know how you could get tickets at this point, but if you can I highly recommend it.