Beer Man

Master Cicerone Rich Higgins on GABF, Denver restaurants and melancholic beers

Cicerones are the beer world's version of sommeliers, and those who passed their certification tests become experts on beer storage and service, tasting and flavors, brewing ingredients and processes and pairing beer with food. There are three certification levels -- Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone and Master Cicerone -- but so far, only four people in the world have reached that final level.

Rich Higgins is one of them.

See also - Copper Kettle co-owner Kristen Kozik on GABF judges, award-winning beers and kick-ass sours - GABF volunteer coordinator Carol Hiller on over-pouring, comfortable shoes and Guinness - Euclid Hall's Ryan Conklin is the only certified Cicerone behind a Denver bar

A teacher, brewer and consultant, Higgins is the former head of the San Francisco Brewers Guild and has worked with chefs to put together the beer-pairing menus at several well-known Bay Area restaurants. He'll be in Denver for the Great American Beer Festival, hosting beer dinners at Russell's Smokehouse (TODAY!) and Lou's Food Bar (on Sunday). You can find details of those in Westword's GABF 2012 Calendar of Awesome Events.

We recently caught up with Higgins, who dished on GABF, his favorite Denver restaurants and melancholic beers.

Westword: If you've been to Denver a couple times, how would say our craft beer scene has evolved?

Rich Higgins: Well, certainly, there are more breweries, which is a great thing. More breweries not only offer more choice and expand the dialogue about beer, but they signal that more and more people in Denver are drinking beer. Beyond just the number of breweries, it's great to see a week-long festival coalesce around GABF. Restaurants all over the city are involved, selling tickets to events way in advance, curating great beer lists, doing great beer and food pairings, and even collaborating with breweries to brew special beers. (It's also the only city I know of whose weekly's managing editor is a beer writer!) These are all signs of not just a beer scene, but a great beer community.

How do you decide what beers to pour with a menu if you haven't tasted the food?

I'm a food geek, and really study it and learn from everything I read, eat and cook. McGee's on Food and Cooking is by my bedside. Talking to chefs, farmers and ranchers, as well as reading cookbooks, eating out at restaurants, and cooking at home, has taught me a lot about the base flavors of ingredients as well as how flavors and textures build during cooking. Being a brewer has helped a lot, too -- understanding cooking is really similar to envisioning a beer, putting together the recipe, brewing it, and monitoring the interplay of textures, flavors, sugars, proteins, alcohols and all that stuff. I can predict and imagine the flavors of both the food and the beer. (It means I'm always hungry and thirsty.)

Aside from the events at Lou's and the other Bonanno restaurants, what events, are you looking forward to this week?

I'm looking forward to meeting folks at GABF. I'll be working the San Francisco Brewers Guild booth at all four sessions, pouring great beer from San Francisco. I'll also be stealing away to GABF's Beer & Food Pavilion, too. I can't wait to check out Euclid Hall for some excellent food with Ryan Conklin's excellent, balanced beer list. I'm also hoping to squeeze in a meal at Fruition. I had Chef Seidel's food a few years ago, and still remember how tasty a bottle of St. Amand French Country Ale was with a delicious dish of seared lamb chops. Some Frisbee in Commons Park may need to happen, too.

What is one beer or brewery you haven't tried, but are looking forward to sampling this week?

I'm really excited about Prost Brewing Co. I'm a huge fan of German beer and traveling in Germany. I'm hoping a couple lunchtime weißbiers by their German copper kettle brings me back to Germany (and revives me from the previous night's beer "research").

If you could improve GABF in one way, what would it be?

I'd really like to be able to drink more than one ounce of beer at a time. I understand the intent behind keeping the pour size small -- small pours discourage people from drinking too much too fast, and also encourage people to try beer from as many breweries as possible. But beer is as much about texture as it is about flavor and aroma, and it's hard to judge a beer's body, carbonation and palate presence tasting it just an ounce at a time. That's a pretty small tweak, though -- the festival is really incredible, and the BA deserves enormous praise.

There are only four master Cicerones in the world. What is something that the four of you know that no one else does?

There may only be four of us so far, but that's just because only four of us have succeeding in jumping through the exam's many hoops. I've been lucky enough to meet a ton of people in the beer industry that know as much and more than I do, and there's little that's more fun to me than to sit down with them with a beer and pick their brain. That's probably something the four Master Cicerones have in common -- that we all know that there's a lot more to know about beer.

I've heard all sorts of crazy descriptors used by people when describing beer, including "fatty flank steak." What are some of weirdest ones you've used or heard?

Hah! Fatty flank steak is a great one. Sort of an oxymoron, since you'd have to bard a flank steak in pancetta to make it fatty. Sounds tasty. I've been drinking a lot of saisons lately, and the best ones really capture a "rustic elegance," meaning that they can be earthy, gritty and dirty at their roots, but they lead with an austere, herbaceous, tart impression. I love that rustic elegance. I also heard a guy describe a beer as melancholic, once. Then he left to go to the library to look up what that word means.

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes