San Francisco Beer Week has come and gone, leaving behind a wake of satisfied beer fans across the Bay Area. The event, once again a rousing success, leaves one question – where is the craft beer industry heading?
To answer that, we talked with Master Cicerone Rich Higgins prior to Beer Week. Higgins is one of six Master Cicerones in the world and has helped curate beer programs at restaurants like Lolinda, Delarosa and Starbelly.
The beer industry has undergone a major change over the last few years; what are some of the reasons you think craft breweries are becoming so popular?
One of the biggest changes in the craft brewing industry over the last 5-10 years is that more and more breweries are being influenced by beers outside of the English subset of styles. The ’80s and ’90s were all about American craft brewers finding their footing and voice with pale ales, IPAs, brown ales, porters and stouts. Those are all great styles, but they constitute just a slice of the wider “beer pie.” The new millennium has seen much more exploration of Belgian, German, and uniquely American styles, departures and mash-ups. American craft brewers are painting with the widest palette in the beer world now, and that’s really increased the number of drinkers that beer can appeal to, as well as the number of contexts for beer: Americans realize now that craft beer belongs at the high-end restaurant, the dinner table, the book club meeting and the fundraiser, not just at the Super Bowl party.
Why do you think there has been such a rise in breweries in SF?
San Francisco is a city of tastemakers and an insatiably hungry, thirsty and incredibly savvy population. There’s a two-way discourse between food artisans — chefs, vintners, brewers, distillers — and the consumers, each influencing the palate of the others, creating a fertile terroir of delicious craftsmanship.
Are the SF producers doing anything specific/unique that has made their products so popular?
More than in other cities, San Francisco brewers are brewing beers with food pairings in mind. Our beers aren’t the hoppiest, maltiest, or most aggressive out there, but they’re incredibly nuanced and full of food flavor and pairing proclivity.
Looking into your crystal ball, where do you see the beer industry heading in the next few years in the Bay Area?
I think we’re going to see a lot of amateur brewers continue to make the leap to setting up shop as a professional brewery in a new location. We’re going to continue to get back to the older, better idea of local brewing, where every neighborhood needs its local bakery, greenmarket, butcher shop, and brewery.
Talk about the growth of SF Beer Week over the years?
SF Beer Week is such a fun collaboration of the whole beer scene. It’s not just about the beer, it’s about the whole community, bringing breweries, bars, restaurants, travelers, casual beer fans and hardcore beer geeks together to celebrate what it is they love about beer and to learn new stuff about it. It’s like a homecoming, revival and renewal all in one.
For our readers, where are some of the best places to grab a beer either in SF or the surrounding areas? And do you have any under-the-radar places?
You can’t beat fresh beer, so brewpubs are my frequent watering holes. There are some great restaurants that are really bringing beer and food culture together — clients of mine like Starbelly, Delarosa and Lolinda are all top-notch and St Vincent, Abbot’s Cellar, Fat Angel and Suppenkuche are really serving great beer and food. And certainly standbys like Toronado and Zeitgiest are certainly worthy pilgrimages.
Some personal reflections from the week? Yes, it was much more than standing in line waiting for a cherished pour of Pliny the Younger, although it’s obvious that many did just that. With so many breweries featured, it was really a showcase for them. There were so many amazing beers being poured throughout the 10 days; it truly shows how far the beer industry has come in the last 5 years or so. SF Beer Week was also a true coming together of the Bay Area beer industry – from restaurants and bars holding events each day and night to the brewers themselves, traveling from site to site, to the employees and volunteers. A wonderful celebration of all things beer.