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Andrew Nagy

Beer Fest in the Capitol's Shadow

Posted: Jul 3, 2014 4:30am ET

Amid the surplus of alabaster buildings that surround the National Mall in Washington D.C. stands proud a pleasant outlier: the Pension Building. Home of the National Building Museum, the massive red-brick structure, a sterling example of Italian Renaissance design, sticks out like a stout in an IPA flight.

And that's a good thing, because at the moment I was a bit lost, nervously meandering along D.C.'s sidewalks, looking for any sense of familiarity. I had left my cab on 11th St. NW because it was stuck in traffic, and I didn't want to miss a minute of Savor 2014, the craft beer festival that took place in the Great Hall of the Pension Building. Just when I was about to ditch my pride and ask for directions, I spotted the venue in the near-distance and guided myself to its entrance.

It feels like a week doesn't go by without a craft beer festival occurring. From obscure, loosely organized gatherings where breweries agree to serve one beer style only to large fetes celebrating the craft industry of an entire city or region, the craft beer festival scene is alive and well in America.

In the plethora of beer bashes, Savor, now in its seventh year, is one of the best for a few reasons. First, more than 70 of the nation's premier craft beer breweries pour at Savor, which is two nights. Many breweries offer extremely limited beers or suds they brewed specifically for the event. Second, it very well could be the owner of the company filling your glass, akin to cigarmakers who hand out cigars at Cigar Aficionado's Big Smoke. Many luminaries of the craft beer world travel to Savor because it's run by the Brewer's Association, the organization created and run by brewers that represents 2,000 breweries and 43,000 homebrewers. Third, these same brewers hold court and speak throughout the night at various themed salons. Fourth, each beer is meticulously paired with its own unique dish by a chef (this year it was Chef Adam Dulye, chef/owner of The Monk's Kettle and The Abbott's Cellar in San Francisco, and Chef Kyle Mendenhall, executive chef at The Kitchen in Boulder and Denver), and then that pairing is approved by an expert tasting panel.

And the fifth reason why Savor is so special? The event's space. Not enough can be said about the Great Hall, a 36,000-square-foot room with a central fountain and cut into thirds by eight enormous Corinthian columns extending 75 feet up from the floor. Last year, Savor took place in New York City for the first time. While it was still a great time, the space where it was housed can not compare to the one in D.C.

Great Hall National Museum.

After receiving my tasting glass at the entrance, I was ready to hit the beer booths. I knew Allagash Brewing out of Portland, Maine, had brought its Coolship Red, a beer only sold at the brewery's retail store in limited quantities, so I had to get in on that. What makes Red special is how it's brewed:

After boiling the wort, Allagash will pour the liquid into a shallow, metal pan called a coolship, housed in its own building at the brewery. Rather than add yeast to this mixture, the brewers crack open windows on the walls of the building so as to encourage natural yeast in the night air to come in and inoculate the wort. The next morning, the mixture is transferred to oak wine barrels that have each been stuffed with 100 pounds of Maine raspberries. The barrels are corked and the liquid ferments inside for six months or more. Allagash was the first to bring this Belgian technique to the U.S., and other breweries have built their own coolships, too.

The beer is wonderfully dry and makes you want to pucker up before sending in notes of fruits, oak, vanilla and tart-raspberry goodness. Red was paired with roast duck with pink peppercorns and Olio Nuovo; the beer cut through the duck fat and played well with the peppercorn spice. I would have been very happy to stay there the whole night. The line to get a sample was, unsurprisingly, long.

Next up on my list was Colorado's Odell Brewing. Living in Brooklyn, it's hard to find Odell's beers, but at Savor, I'm able to find beers normally seen more out west, and vice versa.

Odell served Tree Shaker, a big-alcohol (10.1 percent) Imperial IPA brewed with 3,000 pounds of Colorado's finest peaches. Big, bold citrus notes hit the tongue, becoming almost orange honey blossom before a nice balance of malts comes in at the end. Tree Shaker was paired with Thai mussels on the halfshell with coconut, lemongrass and pickled shishito. The lemongrass and pickled shishito brought out a peppery depth from the beer that I didn't notice before.

Another notable was Saranac Tramony Rouge, brewed by upstate New York's F.X. Matt Brewing. A strong saison, Tramony Rouge received a dose of a hybrid red wine grape call Corot Noir during fermentation. German Hallertau Mittlelfruh hops were then added for aroma, resulting in a beer that is spicy and floral, with a deliciously fruity ending. Interestingly, a lot of folks believe the Belgian yeast used to make a traditional saison is related to red-wine yeast.

And that's how most of the night continued: I sampled beer after beer, making sure to drink plenty of water in between. Beer dominated the conversations of the well-dressed crowd, who could be heard discussing every aspect of beer life, from brewing to imbibing. It was true beer geekdom, fit for a great space.

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