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Beer: Quaffing on the high end


The stagnant economy and 10 percent unemployment rate are enough to drive one to drink. And if you do, you might as well drink something decent. Indeed, discriminating beer buyers are still paying top dollar to sip high-end brands and mingle at pricey beer events.

According to the latest figures from the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association, craft beer recorded a 7.2 percent increase in volume in 2009 over 2008. In terms of dollar sales, craft beer was up an even more impressive 10.3 percent, a result of consumers being willing to eat price increases and — maybe, to a lesser extent — trading up to high-octane, experimental beers like wood-aged barleywines that often cost between $10 and $20 a bottle.

The craft segment’s performance was by far the brightest ray of sunshine for the United States beer industry, which suffered a 1.1 percent decline in volume in 2009, according to the Beer Institute. Imports were down 9.8 percent, as lead dogs Corona and Heineken faltered badly.

Still another indicator of craft beer’s health: even at $95 a pop, tickets for Washington, DC’s annual beer and food extravaganza Savor — all 1,750 of them — sold out within 12 minutes of becoming available, according to Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the BA. The event, scheduled for the National Building Museum on June 5, will feature 68 brewers pouring two beers apiece and 35 types of beer-friendly hors d’oeuvres prepared by Federal Caterers.

Nine educational “salons,” to be held in connection with the event, filled up rapidly too, even though they cost an additional $30 above and beyond the Savor ticket.

But Savor isn’t Washington’s only big ticket for the beer crowd. The Brewer’s Ball, held March 6 at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce building on H Street, drew slightly more than 700 revelers, each paying $125 for admittance to this annual fundraiser for cystic fibrosis research. Co-chair Dennis O’Leary (whose eight-year-old son has CF) estimated that the event netted $220,000 from ticket sales and a silent and live auction. One raffle item, consisting of 35 large bottles of assorted microbrews, brought a winning bid of about $3,800 (that’s more than $100 a bottle, folks).

To a certain extent, the Brewer’s Ball is the kind of elegant beer-and-food showcase that Savor is still aspiring to be. Savor organizers urge attendees to “dress to impress,” but the Brewer’s Ball actually does get brewers to don evening wear. (Even Bob Tupper of Tuppers’ Hop Pocket Ale fame squeezed into a tux.)

The selection was much smaller (14 breweries donated beer), but included a nice range of styles from quaffable golden lagers to a double black IPA called Hoppelganger from the Front Street Brewery in Wilmington, N.C. Food items (I dined on jambalaya pasta, chicken florentine and braised rib tips) were served fresh, hot and in unlimited portions. What’s more, tickets were still available at the door.

One correspondent to the online chat group DC Beer commented last year, “The brewers were very easy to talk to because the event was not jammed. It is a very sedate event. People seem to be there to support the charity, not drink gallons of beer.”

The next Brewer’s Ball is set for March 5, 2011. Beer geeks who get shut out for Savor might want to mark that date.

After last year's Savor, I was moved to ask: Is beer trying to be more like wine? The trend of beer vs. wine continues. Consider this:

On March 10, 22 diners who wondered which goes better with food paid $95 to register their votes at Brabo in Alexandria. Choosing the beers that accompanied five courses was Thor Cheston, beer manager at Brabo’s sister establishment, Brasserie Beck downtown. Selecting wines was Leah Dedmon, Brabo’s wine and beverage manager. The affair was more than academic, as Thor and Leah are engaged, and had bet on the outcome, with the loser agreeing to do the other’s laundry.

Easy on the starch, Thor. When all the votes were counted, wine had defeated beer in three out of five pairings. Particularly hard fought was the battle over a pork tenderloin with honey apple sauce course; both the beer (the German strong wheat beer Aventinus) and the wine (a fruity Alsatian pinot gris) went superbly.

Admittedly, wine held the home field advantage at the grape-friendly Brabo (which stocks more wines than beers), but Lisa Mason, a self-professed wine snob, admitted, “This completely opened my my mind to beer and food. I’ll definitely be back for the next one they do.”

One diner suggested they stage the next beer vs. wine dinner as a Friday night sleepover.

Chef Robert Wiedmaier smiled but remained noncommittal.

-- Greg Kitsock

By The Food Section  |  March 15, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags: Greg Kitsock, beer  
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