Rich Higgins, Master Cicerone
For this edition of Conversations with Hilary, I was able to connect with Rich Higgins, one of seven Master Cicerones in the world. Rich has been curating our beer program in partnership with Josh Thinnes, General Manager and Buyer at PlumpJack Wine & Spirits in Noe Valley and has attracted a cult following to our store and our Beer Clubs. I was able to get Rich to participate in my Conversations with Hilary series and he obliged with some thoughtful and inspiring responses. Enjoy!
What do you believe to be your greatest accomplishment?
Turning my passions and hobbies — studying and sharing the intersections of beer, food, and culture — into my profession, while applying a little humor and humility into what I do.
Do you have a prized possession? What?
Since most of my possessions are edible or drinkable, they don’t tend to stick around for very long. I care more about experiences than possessions, but I’ll admit I get extremely excited when I have a kitchen counter full of perfect, in-season, ripe peaches, tomatoes, and figs.
What do you love about yourself? What do you think others love about you?
I value my curiosity, and I think it makes for good conversations and experiences with others. I’m convinced that there’s always more to learn in life, and I think other people — from experts and elders to novices and kids — have things to teach and share. I’ll never know all I can about beer, food, or neurosurgery, and learning more about them from others is mutually rewarding.
Beer Selection at PlumpJack Wine & Spirits – Noe
If you could be anything other than what you currently are, what would it be?
I really like working with my hands, working with nature, and producing food, so I think it’d be rewarding and satisfying to be a farmer. The work would break my back, but at least I’d finally learn to wake up early.
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up?
Look at the clock, think about how I’m probably not ready to be a farmer yet, and go back to sleep.
What’s your favorite thing to do on a Friday night?
Have friends over to my apartment, cook a big, usually over-ambitious meal, and share beer pairings with each course.
What do you like most about what you do for a living/career?
I love playing matchmaker. Part of my consulting business is built on knowing great brewers, farmers, chefs, sommeliers, and bartenders, and then knowing when one’s products showcase and elevate another’s skills. It sounds lofty, I guess. But it’s really fun to hang out with a brewer, drink a delicious beer straight from the fermenter, then talk with a chef about a dish, and to know that that new beer is the perfect complement to the dish that the chef is coming up with. Then, when I bring that beer onto a restaurant’s beer menu, the chef is blown away by the pairing, and a week later the brewer gets in touch to say that he or she stopped by the restaurant and was also amazed by the pairing. The brewer’s beer looks good, the chef’s food looks good, and the guests have a delicious experience. Everybody wins.
What were you passionate about when you were a kid?
Chronologically, my life has gone through hobbies and phases with Lego, guitar, improv comedy, city planning, and cooking and brewing. I guess the common theme is that I like to create and put things together that are greater than the sum of their parts.
What are you passionate about now?
Broadening and deepening my knowledge about food and beverage. With English and French (mostly) under my linguistic belt, I’m learning German. Flemish (Dutch) is next. I’m also planning to start my Sommelier accreditation process. I look forward to the first-level class and test, and in the meantime, I’m trying to taste both great and terrible wine and food pairings to learn about them.
What’s your favorite season? Why?
Though the San Francisco weather is a little tiresome during the summer, you just can’t beat the seasonal produce. When the weather’s the foggiest, the farmers markets are bursting with tasty reminders of sunny, summer weather. White truffles make autumn a favorite, too, but my wallet thinks otherwise.
If you were a cocktail or drink what would it be?
Since I’m curious and into agriculture, I’d probably be a classic Belgian Lambic. I say classic because some of the newer, more heavily-marketed ones are Kool-Aid-sweet with back-sweetening. The classic gueuzes, krieks, and framboises are incredibly complex and spontaneously-fermented in oak, and they get dry, tart, and barnyardy the way sherry and orange wine can get. Like me, they’re beers that are very curious, and they love to be paired with stinky cheese and white truffles.
If you were stranded on a desert island, what three items would you want?
My wife, a Full Belly Farms CSA delivery subscription, and a little farmhouse brewery.
If you could be invisible for a day, what would you do?
I’d head to the homes of people in Belgium, Germany, and England and observe, unnoticed, how they incorporate traditional, local beer and cuisine into their daily life. Beer is such a big part of culture in those places, and I’d love to see, outside of the pubs and festivals, how cuisine à la bière complements celebration, salves sorrow, and elevates real life.
What’s the #1 most played song on your iPod?
Honestly, I just checked and it’s “I Want You,” by Bob Dylan. Who knew I listened to that much Bob Dylan? I would have guessed some Zeppelin, Otis Redding, or Jurassic 5.
If you could have lunch with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?
Michael Jackson (nope, not that one). The other Michael Jackson: the English beer and whisky writer, who had a TV show in the ‘80s called “The Beer Hunter.” He passed away in 2007. To the beer and whisky worlds, he was a legend in his own time, such a talented, insightful observer of culture and a great writer.
If your life was made into a movie, what would it be called?
The Fermentalist: Rich Higgins’ Incredibly Amazing and Ridiculously Interesting Explorations and Explanations of Beer
Do you have any regrets?
When I was a professional brewer, I let a batch of beer get past its prime right when a big craft brewers convention came to town. It was a bummer. I had to take my biggest seller off line when I wanted to be able to share it with my fellow brewers and industry.
Freedom is the ability to create a perfect, satisfying experience whenever you want to, without it harming others.
What are your personal core values?
Humility, cooperation, hospitality, compassion, altruism are all big ones for me.
ABOUT RICH HIGGINS, MASTER CICERONE AND CONSULTANT A LA BIERE
Rich is one of seven Master Cicerones in the world. He curates the beer programs at San Francisco restaurants like Lolinda, Delarosa, and Starbelly, and has orchestrated beer events in San Francisco, New York, Washington, DC, Denver, Columbus, and Indianapolis. In addition to working with restaurant, brewery, and distributor clients, he teaches beer and food education classes and Cicerone training courses, curates the Beer of the Month Club at Plumpjack Wine & Spirits – Noe Valley, runs corporate team-building seminars, and develops private, in-home events. Now a full-time Beer Consultant, he spent eight years as a professional brewer and brewmaster, in addition to three years as the President of the San Francisco Brewers Guild and the Event Director of SF Beer Week. Contact him at richhiggins.com