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Craft beer, the great democracy: A review of SAVOR 2013

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The following is a guest post from John Karalis, who attended Savor 2013, the craft beer and food experience held in New York City on June 14 and 15. Karalis is co-founder of the Celtics website RedsArmy.com.

“A seven-course beer dinner is a pizza and a six-pack.”

Those words, which Sam Adams founder Jim Koch (below, left) used to describe the perception of food pairing, sum me up nicely. The closest I’ve come to pairing beer with food is holding a hot dog while picking through the 12-packs everyone brought to the barbecue.

But what I walked into in Manhattan was no backyard grilling party.

It wasn’t long after I walked into the Altman building in Chelsea for the annual SAVOR American Craft Beer & Food Experience that I was trying a Brooklyn Black Ops stout with chicken liver and dark chocolate. A minute later, I was figuring out how the cherry in Ommegang’s Three Philosophers complemented the pulled lamb cassoulet. And then there was the Sam Adams Honey Queen, a braggot I sipped while eating baked apricot with toasted farro and honey tuile.

And it was glorious.

Here’s the beauty of these craft beers and those who brew them. That last paragraph drips with pretentiousness, but there wasn’t a hint of it when I walked around. The food was prepared and presented with a five-star flair, but the beers stripped away whatever elite overtones may have existed.

savor2.jpgIf this had been a wine pairing, I’d have been surrounded by blue bloods with upturned noses. The beer, though, brought it back to earth.

“With wine, you’re always thinking there’s a better, more expensive wine out there,” Koch said. “No matter how much money you have, I can’t make a better Sam Adams Boston Lager. Anybody who can afford a six pack of Sam Adams can get the best beer I can possibly make.”

SAVOR is in its sixth year of spreading the gospel of beer as a complement to your meal. And while this isn’t a “beer versus wine” thing, it’s something that hangs over events like this. Wine is supposed to be paired with food. Beer is something you drink outside Gillette for three hours before heading in to watch the Pats.

“It is a new world where beer is being brought up to the level of wine as far as pairing,” said Ommegang brewmaster Phil Leinhart. “It’s different. One thing that makes beer different is that it’s cooked. It has that commonality with food. Wine is more of a contrast where beer is more of a compliment.”

“Most people would rather have beer than wine,” added Koch. “It’s more accessible. It’s simpler. It doesn’t carry a lot of fancy baggage. Beer is democracy.”

It’s not a new concept, really. Beer has been around for thousands of years. I’m sure it’s been used to wash down a meal or two in that time. Somewhere along the line, though, wine cut the line. What SAVOR does is show us that once you strip away the preconceived notions of when, where, why, and how beer is consumed, it can be quite the compliment to even the highest class of meals.

“We seat beer at its rightful seat at the head of the table, “ said Ommegang’s Allison Capozza.

Whatever you’re eating, even if it’s fluke crudo on cucumber with rhubarb and vermouth, there’s something like 21st Amendment’s “Hell or High Watermelon Wheat Beer” that dances around your palate with it quite nicely. And if you choose not to eat the fluke, or if you don’t like wheat beers, that’s cool, too. And that’s the beauty of the folks at SAVOR.

Not once did I get hit with a “this is what you should be drinking with this food” vibe. They were excited about their beers, and why they thought they went well with what was being served. But they all know that we don’t all like the same things.

“Pairing beer to food is like pairing beer to people,” explained Fred Bueltmann of the New Holland Brewing company.

We’ve all got our tastes. An oatmeal stout is one person’s heaven, and another person’s hell. So there’s no point in force feeding someone that stout just because that’s what’s been determined to pair well with a certain food. You have to like what you’re drinking, and then work within that realm to find something that works with what you’re eating. There are plenty of ales that work just as well if that’s what suits you.
SAVOR has only been around for six years, which means this movement to bring the beer and food pairing to a higher level of sophistication is still in its infancy. In a room full of people so passionate about their craft of concocting new beer recipes, this may be what excites them most.

“It’s still not entered the mainstream that most of the food we eat today is better paired with beer than wine,” said Koch before returning to the scrum of beer brewers and beer fans. “That’s still a frontier. To me the cool stuff is there’s still frontiers where we can work to push the boundaries, break new ground, change people’s thinking. We’re just at the beginning of this.”

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