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.

Photo & Video Recap: The Bay Brewed Rock & Roll Beer Festival

Photos © Brian Stechschulte

A sold out crowd of 300 people piled into the depression era Verdi Club this past Saturday for the first edition of The Bay Brewed Rock & Roll Beer Festival. City Beer Store, the San Francisco Brewers Guild and local indie music experts The Bay Bridged hosted the event. Performances by Terry Malts, Extra Classic, Sleepy Sun and Weekend stretched over five hours in that order.

Participating breweries nearly surrounded the dance floor. Members of the SF Brewers Guild, which included Anchor Brewing, Magnolia Brewing, 21st Amendment, Social Kitchen, Speakeasy and the Beach Chalet, occupied one side, while Ale Industries, Marin Brewing, Lagunitas and Drake’s Brewing sat along the other wall.

Festivities got off to a thrashing start with Terry Malts, but the crowd didn’t follow suite until the beer started to take effect and the lights began to dim. Most of the breweries served standard selections, but there were a few exceptions. 21st Amendment brought a keg of Allies Win the War, Lagunitas cracked a few bottles of Lagunitas Sucks Holiday Ale, and Marin Brewing brought their tasty chocolate Air Porter. A few taps ran dry early, but most of them lasted until nearly the end of the last set.

Overall the event appeared to be a resounding success. The crowd had ample space to roam and jump around, beer lines moved quickly and each performance was outstanding. The Bay Brewed should become an annual event.

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Beers & Bands Unite For The Bay Brewed: A Rock & Roll Beer Festival

Live music at any beer festival is typically treated as background noise. That’s not to say it isn’t appreciated, but beer is always the main promotional draw. Organizers of The Bay Brewed: A Rock and Roll Beer Festival, are hoping to change that scenario by pairing local beers and bands on equal footing at the Verdi Club in San Francisco on December 3rd, from 2-7pm.

The event hosts include local indie music experts The Bay Bridged, City Beer Store and the SF Brewers Guild. For $45 in advance or $55 at the door, you’ll be treated to music from Weekend, Sleepy Sun, Extra Classic and Terry Malts. You’ll also be handed a commemorative mug that can be refilled with unlimited tastings from 21st AmendmentAnchor BrewingBeach ChaletDrake’s BrewingLagunitasMagnolia Pub, Marin BrewingSocial Kitchen and Speakeasy Ales & Lagers.

You should also know that your money will benefit The Bay Bridged non-profit, which is “committed to two principal purposes: 1) educating the public about the San Francisco Bay Area independent music community and encouraging public support of local independent music; and 2) providing Bay Area musicians with unique opportunities to receive public exposure and create original musical works.”

So if you love local music and beer, head over to the event website where you can listen to samples from the participating bands and purchase tickets.


Prepare Your Sea Legs for Brews on the Bay

Brews on the Bay

In its eighth year celebrating at the water’s edge, Brews on the Bay is going to be a little different this year. You’ll still have stunning views from the deck of the historic S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien as you sample some of the best beer from the San Francisco Brewer’s Guild, but there are three big changes. The event is one day only, will feature food trucks for sustenance, and Anchor Brewing is stepping aboard for the first time after finally joining forces with the Guild earlier this year.

The festival is set to take place on Saturday, September 10, from 12-5pm at Pier 45 and is a fundraiser for the National Liberty Ship Memorial. Tickets are now available for $45 online only, which entitles you to unlimited 8 oz samples of over 40 different beers. You can expect traditional styles along with the hop bombs, barrel-aged, sour-puckering, imperial wonders you love. You’ll also be able to chat up the brewers and enjoy live music.

Drink local!


City Beer Store Reflecting on 5 years of Business

Beth and Craig

Nowadays, it’s pretty easy to find craft beer in a corner store. There may not always be great stuff, but decent options nonetheless. Five years ago it wasn’t that easy when City Beer Store opened up in San Francisco. Craig and Beth were curious about this hole in the marketplace and filled it with their bottle shop and tasting bar in SOMA. It’s a casual spot for friends to gather and chat while sipping beer. Bombers and six-packs line the walls in addition to the five fresh taps.

The store is now a mainstay in the craft beer community. During events, elbowroom is often tight and their stock of Pliny the Elder flies out the door. Last week ranked their humble shop 31st among beer retailers worldwide.

On a recent afternoon, BACB sat down with Craig to chat about Unicorn beers, the store’s origins, challenges, upcoming Anniversary and plans for SF Beer Week.

Did you envision a career in craft beer early on and what triggered your interest?

I wanted to pursue the beer industry coming out of school, but when I was attending Indiana University I moved around between departments. I have a business minor but ended up with a history degree by taking my mom’s advice. She told me to do something I enjoy since I had access to a great educational system and could figure everything out later.

While I was in school I took an overseas trip to the Czech Republic and one day my friends and I had a beer that caught our attention. It was something to pay attention too, not just drink. I couldn’t believe how much was going on in that beer.

Coming back from Europe in 1997 the craft beer movement was really hitting Indiana and I remember my first pitcher of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I didn’t know anything about hops at the time. Guys were also coming back from spring break in Colorado with 22 oz’s of Fat Tire and Indiana University had its first beer festival that year. It was good timing.

Did you see this business filing a void in San Francisco?

In San Francisco there wasn’t really anywhere to buy good beer, but one factor, and this may sound a little hokey, was 9/11. It played a role in our decision to open. It affected everybody, especially if you lived in the urban city. We didn’t know what was happening?

I was in my mid 20’s wondering where I wanted my life to go? There were changes a lot of people thought they probably needed to make. In 2002 I took the day off just to think and relax. I reflected on everything I went through during the weeks after 9/11 and felt I hadn’t done anything. From that time on Beth I decided we were going to make a change. We both quit our jobs and took a year off to travel. We took half that time to work at different places, like waiting on tables and moved around.

During that time we decided to start a small business. We had a bunch of different business plans. One plan was for a paper shredding business, another for a bed and breakfast, and the beer store, which was the first one. When I did the first beer store analysis I determined it wasn’t feasible. It didn’t add up. I tried to do some research, but couldn’t find any similar beer bottle stores combined with a bar like the one we wanted to open except for this place in Chico that I found on the Internet, but it was closed.

Ultimately, we decided to try and find a way to make it work. Also, the timing was good. A resurgence of beer was right around the corner. When I first came out to California I sold wine, beer and spirits and worked for Pete’s Wicked Ale as a customer service rep working with wholesalers, so I had a good sense of the industry. Now I have almost a decade of experience, all of which was a factor in deciding to start this business.

A lot of people have this romantic vision of owning and operating a beer store. What’s the biggest challenge you face running the store?

The thing that I probably underestimated the most was the physical work. Moving stuff around and even just standing on your feet for 10 to 12 hours a day is exhausting. Anyone interested in running a bar like this should work somewhere similar for at least 6 months.

Also, it’s a challenge learning how to run a small business on the fly. If something doesn’t work you have to figure it out. If the windows need to be cleaned or are broken at 3 in the morning, you need to clean it up. When you go on vacation it’s like having a pet. You have to have people come by and make sure things don’t get vandalized or a cooler doesn’t break. You don’t think about these things at first.

How has the industry changed since you opened?

The industry is completely different. I think it’s almost over crested right now. I’m trying to be optimistic, but I experienced the previous bubble and it feels a lot like the mid to late 90’s.

I just read an article about a drug store chain in New York that put a beer store inside their Williamsburg location just to be a part of the neighborhood. If it was a Walgreens or something people would’ve protested, but because they formulated it around beer store they could open their doors.

Now that may sound natural to some people, but for a guy who did a business plan seven years ago and didn’t see much of anything, it’s amazing. Its gotten to a point where not only does a large chain know about the craft beer movement but formulated a plan around it to sell band-aids and Pepto-Bismol. Whole Foods is also doing the beer bar concept now in Santa Rosa and its weird. It’s kind of strange. It happened so fast. It’s really the last 2 years.

Has it been difficult keeping up with changes in distribution and pricing?

It is. When I started it wasn’t that hard. Now I have to redo my math all the time because prices change so quickly. Distributors just don’t know or aren’t telling people. I think its a little of both. That’s what I spend the most time on in addition to working with breweries to find the next new thing.

That’s what you pay for when you come here. I do the research. It’s actually a wine philosophy that I’m adapting to beer. We taste all the wines so that you don’t have to. You can trust us. If it’s in here, it’s a good beer. It’s worth whatever the price is. You can make that determination, but I wouldn’t have bought it if I didn’t think it was worth someone’s hard earned money. At the beginning I just bought everything because it was available. Now I think about what’s different that nobody else has. I’ve tasted a lot of beer and now I have a profile I’m comfortable with.

So how are you going to celebrate your big 5th Anniversary?

We’ve decided to celebrate West Coast brewing and asked five brewers to reflect on the last five years and brew something they had in the back of their mind, but weren’t sure if it would have a large production appeal or couldn’t get around to it. We wanted them to take a look back. When people do that its pretty cool. It’s historic. We also wanted to be a part of the brewing process as much as possible.

Who did you ask to participate?

We chose brewers that we have relationships with or they had a hell of a five years, like The Bruery in LA. They weren’t even around five years ago and look where they are now. We met them at the Boonville Beer Festival and we were the first store in San Francisco to carry their products. We’ve benefited tremendously from their reputation and success.

We also chose the San Francisco Brewer’s Guild. We have great relationships with all the breweries and inviting only one would have been a challenge so we thought working with the whole Guild made the most sense. They were some of the first supporters who embraced us and told people to visit our store. We were the first store to receive 21st Amendment cans. Shaun O’Sullivan was here and it was a great experience.

For the third brewery we decided to go up the mountain with Fifty Fifty Brewing in Truckee. They’ve also blown up in the last 5 years. The owners have a similar story to Beth and I so that connection made sense.

Then we went to Portland and talked to Cascade Brewing. They’ve been around more then 5 years, but 2005 is about the time they started their barrel-aging program. They were already successful and had this idea to put money into barrels with the hope of selling it to a market that didn’t really exist like it does now. They weren’t the only brewers with this concept but it’s been very successful.

The final brewery we chose was Midnight Sun in Alaska, who we totally dig and get along with. There history goes back farther then 5 years as well. We came across them while looking for Unicorn beers.

What are Unicorn beers?

They’re beers or breweries you here about or might be able to see, but are hard to get. For example, people would go up to Alaska and bring back bottles of Midnight Sun and it was awesome, but I couldn’t get their stuff in the store. It took about a year and a half to get their beer down here.

So is the whole project going to culminate in an event?

The actual anniversary is May 2nd and we’ll have an off-site party on that Saturday to serve the beer. It should be a lot of fun. We think we have a SOMA warehouse lined up and were going to invite some of the talented people who visit our store to perform 2 or 3 songs. This neighborhood has so many people like that. We haven’t completely solidified that concept with the venue, but we hope to bring together the whole local community since all the businesses support one another. In some ways SOMA is a small town.

How are your plans for SF Beer Week shaping up?

This year we’re trying to collaborate a little bit more. We kind of did that last year. We’re doing two big events this year.

The first is a dinner at Citizens Band Restaurant with 12% Imports and Stillwater Artisan Ales. It’s going to be more of a wine style event. Instead of having the hosts talk before each course we’ll have two seating’s that are staggered by 15 minutes and you’ll be able to follow the pairings at your own pace with the hosts approaching each table like a wine steward. If you want more interaction with hosts you’ve got it or you can just relax and have a good food and beer experience. I’m excited about that because it’s something different.

On the same night we’ll also have Tomme Arthur from Lost Abbey here in the store and then Bloodhound across the street will be doing a desert thing. The idea is that you can come down to this block and go around between each establishment and enjoy yourself.

The other big event is on Friday and it will also be off-site at TCHO chocolate with Eclipse Beer from Fifty Fifty Brewing. It’s a ticketed event because the beer and space is limited. The other days will function like our normal brewery nights but were going to stagger two each night to disperse the crowds. We’ll be closed on Valentines Day.

Is there any particular beer that you would like to carry but can’t get your hands on?

I would like to get more beer from the Midwest like Founders, Three Floyds, and Bells. There’s some really cool stuff there. I took a 5-day trip out there awhile back and tried to convince them. I thought I had a good solution but they weren’t ready for it. Once we get one of them all of them will follow suite. Once a truck is coming its easier to get the rest of them moving in this direction.