If you’ve ever been to Social Kitchen & Brewery in the Inner Sunset, you may have seen Rich Higgins through the glass in his upstairs mad scientist's lair. It’s here that he bows down to the yeast and mixes, pours, adds, stirs and brews to create lip-smacking beers like the Imperial Oaked Saison. Here, he tells us what foods to pair with some of our favorite brews (wait’ll you hear about the PBR) and answers the question: why beer?
SCOUT: There are cicerones, and there are master cicerones like yourself. Tell us, what exactly does it take for one to become a master cicerone?
RICH: Becoming a Master Cicerone requires a lot of passion for beer. The test is long and intense, and focuses on beer in both breadth and depth. Once you’re a certified cicerone, you can take the Master Cicerone exam, which is a two-day test consisting of ten hours of essay questions, two hours of blind tasting and sensory panels, and two hours of oral examination in which you go toe to toe with industry luminaries about beer service, brewing, and food pairing.
SCOUT: Where did you learn your Brewmaster skills?
RICH: I started as a homebrewer, brewing pretty terrible beers and then improving steadily over the next seven years. Then I made the jump to brewing professionally, which was great because I learned a ton from my brewmasters about beers, equipment, day-to-day brewing operations, and production schedules. I owe a ton to Brewmasters Brenden Dobel at ThirstyBear and John Tucci at Gordon Biersch San Francisco.
SCOUT: Ok, so why beer?
RICH: It tastes really damn good, and it’s always way cooler and way nerdier than I’ll ever be.
SCOUT: Some people might say “Dude! You get to make and drink beer all day?! Sickest job ever!” But, we’re assuming it’s not all unicorns and rainbows. What are some of the challenges of brewing beer?
RICH: The big thing people think is that I’m in charge of the beer. No way is that the case. My boss is the yeast, and it can be finicky. The stuff I make in the brewhouse tastes gross -- really sweet, really bitter, unalcoholic and uncarbonated. But the yeast loves it, and it makes the stuff we all love to drink. If I keep the yeast happy and healthy, then I’m doing my job.
SCOUT: Let’s test your master cicerone skills. What food/dishes would you pair with the following beers? Social Kitchen and Brewery’s L’Enfant Terrible:
RICH: Open-faced grilled cheese sandwich: gruyere, caramelized onions, and juicy plums on rye bread. The rustic rye and savory cheese echo the beer’s dark malts and the sweet onions and the plums highlight the beer’s stone fruit notes. Or maybe pair it with Chez Panisse’s famous “A Plate of Figs.” Sometimes you just shouldn’t mess with the beer or the food.
SCOUT: Thirsty Bear’s Polar Bear Pilsner:
RICH: Fried chicken with a Carolina-style mustard barbecue dip. This beer loves German food -- think meats, mustard, and salt. The beer’s grassy, herbal hops play with the salt and mustard, and the beer’s leanness, carbonation, and bitterness cut through the richness of the food.
RICH: PBR’s not a very flavorful beer, so while it doesn’t offend many foods, it also doesn’t really offer a lot of hooks for food pairing. Keep the pairing light and elemental, rather than looking for nuance. Salty popcorn, fries, or just some sunshine -- anything dehydrating -- will keep you thirsty for another PBR.
Stay tuned for beer history and food pairing classes I’ll be offering this fall at the Boothby Center for the Beverage Arts. Also, if you’re looking for a fun, educational, and not-too-expensive way to try more craft beer, consider joining the beer of the month club that I curate at Plumpjack Wines in Noe Valley.
SCOUT: SF Beer Week, which you are the event director of, is still several months away, but you have to be getting excited already. What are you looking forward to in February?
RICH: SF Beer Week is so much fun, but there are so many amazing events -- over 325 this year -- that it can be daunting to navigate. SF Beer Week 2012 is indeed coming up (February 10th-19th) and this year we’re working hard to make the website and phone apps even more useful for people to learn about, search for, spread the word about, and personalize itineraries for all the events.
Above, Rich explains the beer and pairings during one of his Brewmaster dinners. Photo credit: Social Kitchen & Brewery