Rich Higgins Departing Social Kitchen & Brewery, Kim Sturdavant to be Brewmaster

Rich Higgins / Photo © Brian Stechschulte

By the end of February Rich Higgins will have made his final batch of beer at Social Kitchen & Brewery on 9th Avenue in San Francisco. The Master Cicerone has been at the helm of the brewing program since the Inner Sunset brewpub opened back in May of 2010.

His immediate plans call for some time off and research in Belgium, England and Germany, and then he’ll focus on his craft beer consultancy business. According to Higgins, “I’ve got too many opportunities, gigs, and contracts out there that I’m not able to seize upon and move my career forward.”

Higgins’ career started back in 2004 when he took an assistant brewer position at the San Francisco Brewing Company (now closed). After leaving in January of 2005 he spent time at Gordon Biersch and ThirstyBear Brewing before taking the brewmaster position at Social Kitchen.

During his two years at the brewpub Higgins created a balanced menu of session styles and bold high gravity beers. He also worked closely with the kitchen and several visiting chefs on his monthly Brewmaster Dinner Series. Higgins firmly believes that “there’s a beer for every food, and a food for every beer,” which he carefully explained during a recent series of beer and food pairing classes at the Boothby Center for the Beverage Arts in San Francisco.

Higgins’ exit from Social Kitchen also means he’ll be stepping away from his involvement with the San Francisco Brewers Guild, where he spent two years as Secretary, two years as President, and one year as a Board Chair. He spent many hours with the group organizing SF Beer Week, Brews on the Bay and other Guild activities. While he said the extra work outside the brewery has been exhausting, “I’ve learned a ton and it has given me great tools for effective leadership, organizing, and rabble rousing down the road.”

Don’t expect Higgins to disappear from the Bay Area brewing community. He’ll be working with restaurants and other venues around town that could use some help on beer menus and food pairing options. Before you can enjoy those results, head down to Social Kitchen over the next few weeks to try his strong beers while you can.

Enter Kim Sturdavant

Kim Sturdavant at right with James Davids

Fans of Social Kitchen shouldn’t despair. Higgins will be handing off the brewing system to a set of capable hands in Kim Sturdavant, who’s spent the last five and half years at Marin Brewing Company under the mentorship of Arne Johnson. Sturdavant plans on easing his beer onto the menu while learning the ropes of Social Kitchen’s brew system.

Down the road his goal is to get 10 beers on tap at all times, but he’s still figuring out how to juggle the equipment to ensure it happens. According to Sturdavant, Social Kitchen’s brew system is far too large for on-site consumption only and ownership has decided to pursue a distribution license.

As for the beer he has in mind, priority number one is a Pale Ale and then some hoppy English beers. Fans of Higgins’ Belgian styles won’t be disappointed. Rapscallion will stay on board and Sturdavant is thinking about brewing some sort of Belgian Single. You can also expect a Stout and Pilsner in the future.

Sturdavant is excited about the new opportunity even though he’s leaving a mentor behind. He said, “Arne Johnson is a great brewer and has impeccable taste. I can’t say enough about how valuable it was to learn from someone like him, to really learn to do things the right way, right off the bat.”

In the coming month you can expect to see Sturdavant’s hard work appearing on Social Kitchen’s beer menu.

Learn About Beer & Food Pairing at the Boothby Center for Beverage Arts

Beer is complex and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. There’s a lot behind this deceptively simple drink and if you want to learn about its history, the vast number of styles, brewing science, how to analyze it or pair it with food, hundreds of books are waiting to be consumed. One of the most comprehensive, The Oxford Companion to Beer, was published last month with over 960 pages of material to digest. While it’s certainly a tremendous resource, sometimes you need to learn by drinking and eating!

When it comes to learning about beer this hasn’t been easy to do in a formal setting. Rich Higgins, brewmaster at Social Kitchen and one of only three Master Cicerones, is addressing this problem in a series of eight beer and food pairing classes hosted by the Boothby Center for Beverage Arts in San Francisco. The classes will take place primarily on Sunday evenings over the next four months and are broken into two different sections, the World Beer Traditions Series and the Beer and Food Pairing Series.

According to the press release here’s what you can expect:

Each class in the World Beer Traditions Series will cover a different beer tradition (United Kingdom, German, Belgian, and American) and will include a lecture, discussion, and lots of sampling of great beers. Rich will cover the basics of beer styles and flavors, how to evaluate a beer, and how technology, taxation, taste, and terroir have affected the flavors of the beers and the evolution of the beer traditions. (Cost: $55 per class or $200 to attend all four.)

Each class in the Beer & Food Pairing Series will delve into the pairing of beer with a different food tradition (Thanksgiving food, Italian cuisine, Superbowl eats, and Valentine’s chocolate & candy) and will include a lecture, discussion, and lots of sampling great beers and foods. Rich will cover the basics of beer and food flavors, how to evaluate a beer, and how to pair beer with food. Students will learn how great pairings of beer and food are better than the sum of their parts, and they will learn when to order which beers while eating at restaurants.  (Cost: $65 per class or $240 to attend all four.)

These classes are a unique opportunity for the casual aficionado or the seasoned beer nerd. In addition, part of the proceeds will help support the Barbary Coast Conservancy for the American Cocktail, a non-profit organization that houses the Boothby Center for Beverage Arts, which is striving to preserve the “cultural heritage of saloons and their cocktails in San Francisco, while also preserving California’s culinary philosophy and tradition.”

Rich Higgins / Photo © Brian Stechschulte


Strong Beer Month at Social Kitchen & Brewery

February is shaping up to be a very tipsy month for beer drinkers in San Francisco. Social Kitchen and Brewery has announced a month long celebration of five new high-octane beers that utilize traditional and non-traditional ingredients. The beer will range between 8.2% to 10.5% ABV and will replace their standard lineup, with the exception of the lighter Social Kolsch, until supplies last.

In the words of Brewmaster Rich Higgins, “February’s long nights and rainy cold are the perfect time to enjoy strong, warming beers. The Strong Beer Social follows in the footsteps of 21st Amendment Brewery’s and Magnolia Gastropub and Brewery’s Strong Beer Month, which is a fun and legendary celebration held every February.”

Here’s the complete menu:

• Big Muddy Weizenbock (8.2% ABV), a Bavarian-style strong wheat beer with notes of chocolate, banana, and clove

• White Thai Affair (9.5% ABV), a golden Belgian-style ale brewed with galangal and lemongrass – a spiced, imperial version of SKB’s popular Rapscallion

• Double Doozy IPA (9.2% ABV), a double IPA with organic hops from Hops-Meister Farm in Clearlake, CA

• The Giant S’more (10.5% ABV), a Belgian-style Imperial Stout with hints of graham cracker, chocolate, and marshmallow

• The Big Lebowski White Prussian (9.0% ABV), an Imperial Grätzer-style ale with espresso from SKB’s neighbors, Bicycle Coffee Roasters

A Conversation with Rich Higgins

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.