Photos © Brian Stechschulte

At the dawn of 2011, the Bay Area beer community is poised to have another great year. SF Beer Week is right around the corner, the Craft Brewer’s Conference takes place in March, and several brewers are launching new ventures. I spent an afternoon with Brewmaster and San Francisco Brewer’s Guild President Rich Higgins, to talk about his recent Master Cicerone designation, how his beer’s evolving at Social Kitchen, and the upcoming events.

How long have you been head of the SF Brewer’s Guild and what are the goals of the organization?

I’ve been working with the brewer’s guild for 3 years. I was secretary for a year and I’ve been the president for the past two. Its fun but its a lot of work.

Our mission statement is to preserve and promote the heritage and quality of craft beer in San Francisco. Its kind of broad, but in general we make sure event organizers that want good beer can call upon us to get involved and ensure a spectrum of beer is represented. We eventually want to be the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for local beer. If there’s an event featuring the San Francisco Brewers Guild, people will know it’s an awesome festival, its unique and represents all the different neighborhoods. That’s the stuff were focusing on now, how to bring our beer to people in a context that they might not be expecting.

Why did you choose to become a Master Cicerone? Was it simply part of your evolving education or is it also about earning credibility?

Its a little about credibility. I’m not going to lie. Its fun to have some sort of diploma on the wall, but it really satisfies me. It speaks to what I care about when I think about beer. Beer is so many different things to me: it’s art and it’s science at the same time, it’s culture, it’s community, it’s agriculture and history, all of which the Cicerone program really emphasizes. There are many different representatives throughout the beer world who are very interested in the Cicerone program. There are brewers, retailers working in restaurants and bars, and distributors.

As for the program itself, it’s easy to describe it as a way to pair beer and food but it’s more than that. It’s making sure the styles of beer and the history of beer is represented in each glass and you’re able to convey that to someone who’s interested. Its also emphasizes knowing how to operate and trouble-shoot a draft system. How to clean beer lines and how to make sure that a beer isn’t too foamy or flat, or how to clean glassware correctly, there’s so many different angles. In one respect its basic, but knowing the proper ratio between nitrogen and carbon dioxide that you should be using to dispense a beer at a certain temperature, at this pressure, with this resistance and altitude, is pretty geeky, its pretty technical so it affects every basic thing about peoples experience of beer. There’s a lot of technical stuff that goes into it.

The Cicerone program makes you accountable for the depth and the breadth of beer. It’s not just learning a lot about different styles, you have to know the specifics about each and how they fit with their neighboring style and the historical, technological and historical implications. It casts a big wide net that I really care about.

With eight months under your belt at Social Kitchen, how is the beer evolving and what do you have in store for 2011?

I would say that the beer is getting a little more consistent which I’m excited about. I’m learning the personality of my yeast and my equipment a little bit better. At this point I’m starting to bring the beers around to where I wanted them to be. I think they’ve always been drinkable and people have responded well to them, which I’m happy about, but they haven’t necessarily been exactly what I envisioned, but we had to open our doors with a full set of beers that I’d never brewed before in my life, on a system I never used in my life, with a crop of barley and hops I never used either. There were a lot question marks on the beer quality when we opened and I think at this point I’m starting to get a handle on exactly the way I want them, but you know its all subjective, its a moving target. Beer is very much an agricultural product and a lot of people don’t realize that or appreciate it, so it’s important to always keep an eye on what your barley and hops are like and how they’re interacting with your yeast and water quality.

For next year were going to be doing some fun stuff. We’ll be hosting a Strong Beer Social, a month long celebration of strong beer in February. We’ll have 5 different strong beers on tap along with our regular Social Kolsch. It will be a fun way to enjoy the heft and power of beer. Today were brewing White Thai Affair, which is an Imperial Rapscallion spiced with lemongrass and galangal. It will highlight the natural ginger and lemony flavors that this yeast imparts in this beer. Were also going to be hosting a lot of events during SF Beer week and will continue to do our monthly Brew Masters dinners along with some more educational events and tastings.

How is SF Beer Week shaping up?

Well were going to have a lot of cool events. In the past we’ve seen a lot of events come together that are beer dinner focused, and I think there’s still going to be a lot of those, but there seems to be a little bit of a maturation maybe, of the restaurants, bars and breweries that have hosted the beer dinners. They’re going to shake it up a bit and do some more interesting stuff with their beer dinners, which is fun because when there’s so many beer dinners on the calendar its nice to have something that makes them distinct. Last year we had over 225 events in a 10-day period.

Will there be more?

I don’t know yet until it all comes together. Were still working on getting a lot of the events submitted. Stay tuned to Were going to have our big calendar release date on January 11. A whole bunch of events will be posted that day.

The Craft Brewer’s Conference in March is a great opportunity for Bay Area brewer’s to shine, is there an impression of the regions beer scene you would like visitors to leave with?

The craft beer industry is so stereotyped particularly along the west coast by really big, high alcohol hoppy beers and we certainly have that in San Francisco, but we have a nice breadth, a real wealth across the beer spectrum of different flavors and styles represented. I would like visitors to San Francisco, particularly industry folk, to realize that San Francisco has a variety of beers as well as different types of pubs, and not just the brewpubs where it’s brewed fresh, but also in the different bars. We have high-end bars like La Trappe and Monks Kettle, and divier places like Benders, Lucky 13, Zeitgeist, and Toronado. There’s also a bunch of great restaurants serving food from all over the world at different price points and at different levels of authenticity verses fusion that offer really fun beer lists. So it’s an awesome city to be drinking beer in and I want people to realize that.