Interview: brewmaster Rich Higgins (Social Kitchen & Brewery)

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Brewmaster San Francisco

Photo courtesy of Jesse Friedman

Rich Higgins has no trouble keeping busy. For six years, he pulled double-duty at ThirstyBear Brewing Co. and Gordon Biersch breweries before landing the head brewer job at Social Kitchen & Brewery in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset neighborhood. The certified cicerone also makes time to work as President of the San Francisco Brewers Guild and consults on the beer programs for restaurants Delarosa and Starbelly. On August 12, we spoke by phone, and Higgins better explained his background and approach.

What inspired your initial interest in beer?

I really enjoyed when I lived overseas in Europe as a little kid. There’s a lot of beer drinking there. My family was into wine, and we lived in Belgium, and they’d go to France every weekend, and I didn’t understand why. I started homebrewing in college and that got me excited about it, and I enjoy cooking and I enjoy putting stuff together , so it was fun to see how beer is put together.

What was the first beer that you made, and how did it turn out?

The first beer I made was a Red Hook clone and it was phenomenally terrible, a Red Hook ESB. I didn’t add hops and didn’t boil it, just thought you could pour in the can of syrup and let it go. After a few batches, I realized what I was doing wrong.

How did the Social Kitchen opportunity come about?

This space is in a very mixed neighborhood ethnically, and there’s a group of six Filipinos who grew up here. They’re all friends. When this space opened up, they wanted to open a brewery and didn’t’ have a brewer. One of them lived across the street from the brewer of Thirsty Bear, my boss Brenden. He declined but said I have this pesky assistant, Rich. They liked what I said in the interview. That’s how it happened.

What is the criteria for a beer at Social Kitchen?

The beer’s supposed to be interesting and not offering flavors and styles that duplicate a lot of what else is being brewed right now. There’s a lot of good beer being brewed across the country and in the Bay Area. There are also a lot of beers that aren’t being brewed. I wanted to help to fill in some of the gaps and keep the dialogue moving forward about what beer can taste like and who it should appeal to. I’m trying to add to the fabric of beer and make sure that certain beers that aren’t commonly brewed can be brewed and I can offer a twist on them, or do classic styles.

What’s the most recent beer that you made, and what was your approach?

I just finished brewing the Big Lebowski White Prussian. Not Russian, Prussian, like in northeast Germany. It’s two beers in one, one of them is taking the White Russian cocktail and reenvisioning it as a beer. It’s a rich, full bodied beer that’s light in color, and it has some coffee that’s been added to it, and I left residual sugar in the beer a little bit high…It’s also 9.5% alcohol, so you get a warmer finish, similar to drinking a cocktail with vodka in it. I was inspired by a style called grätzer, and a grätzer is kind of an esoteric style now, it hasn’t been brewed in a century. It’s low in alcohol, light in color, and has a smoky flavor. I imperialized it. It’s a 9.5% alcohol, so it’s light in color, so I used coffee and replaced the smoked malt to get the smoky flavor, and used a German ale yeast, our Kolsch yeast, a very clean fermenting German ale yeast.

What other brewers or breweries inspire you?

There are a lot of great breweries in San Francisco that are putting out fantastic beer. The SFBG is made up of the eight breweries in San Francisco, and I’m good friends with the brewers and business owners. We all get together and drink each other’s beers. They are definitely inspiring to me. I worked for six years part time at ThirstyBear underneath Brenden Dobel and part time at Gordon Biersch, under John Tucci. I take great inspiration from them as well. There’s great beer being brewed over the country and around the world, so there’s a lot of inspiration everywhere.

If you could only have one more beer, and it wasn’t your own, what would it be?

It depends what I’m eating, what mood I’m in. My deathbed beer is a bottle of 2003 North Coast Old Stock. That’s one of the first beers I had that really showed me complete new directions for beer. It tasted like no beer I ever had before. I had it with ripe pears and black pepper on it, and it was just gorgeous together.

If you could drink it anywhere, where would you drink it?

That’s a fun question. You can’t beat doing it at the brewery, because the brewery overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Everywhere you look to the west is Pacific Ocean and everywhere you look to the east is redwoods. That would be a good foggy beach cool breeze beer.

What would it take for you to consider your involvement with the SFBG a success?

If we turn more and more consumers, restaurants and media on to local beer in San Francisco. That’s specific to San Francisco. It’s not important for me to turn on people in Texas or Minnesota to San Francisco beer. It’s all about local beer. I want to turn the local scene on to San Francisco beer.

How are you able to maintain balance in your life, if you’re even able to?

I don’t know. I try to just keep in mind that if I get too busy, it’s all for beer, and that’s a fun, timeless legacy to be playing a role in.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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