San Diego Beer Week

The third San Diego Beer Week is just around the corner. It seems like just yesterday that a group of friends got drunk one night and started a ball rolling that snowballed into what is now a huge annual event. I mean, Beer Week was going to happen in San Diego one way or another, but the way it actually came down seems, in retrospect, improbable. I was there, and it is fun to recall.

In spring of 2009, our friends at Magnolia Pub in the Haight had told us about the many successes of San Francisco’s second Beer Week. Philly’s 2009 Beer Week, also its second, had just concluded. There were grumblings in San Diego’s craft beer community, frustration that San Diego — which would, in that same year, be named by Men’s Journal as the nation’s best city for beer — didn’t have a Beer Week.

Eric Spieth — then CEO of Mad River Brewing — was in town visiting us, and by the end of the nite we found ourselves at a table at Blind Lady Alehouse. Eric, Michael from the Linkery, Andy Waer (who I believe was already then a Cicerone) and I were running through pitchers fast enough that I’m not sure of exactly who else was there. Lee Chase, former lead brewer at Stone and now Blind Lady co-owner, came in and out of the conversation, which turned, naturally, to what it would take to get Beer Week rolling.

Andy had been recently surprised to find that the URL “sdbeerweek.com” was still available. It showed that nothing was happening on the Beer Week front. With only a little encouragement, he bought it on his smartphone. Now you own Beer Week!

Prodded by Eric’s “why not just do it?” attitude, we discussed how we would make it happen. If we just act like it’s a done deal, everyone will participate. Everyone’s just waiting for some authority to set the date. We’ll just act as though that’s happened already.

Andy knew the national craft beer event calendar, and identified a week (I think it was in June) that had no competition. I tweeted from the Linkery account that I had just gotten word about the dates of Beer Week, and that we were stoked to participate; we all texted various friends in the industry to similar effect. Lee, who is generally down for anything that involves good beer, was down with Beer Week too.

Of course, what is a brilliant idea at midnite sometimes has unexpected repercussions the next morning.

People in the industry, many of them our friends, were confused and somewhat taken aback. I think they didn’t quite understand how this had all happened overnite with no planning, but they saw we were somehow the culprits. It seemed like they weren’t sure how seriously to take us, but since there was this air of inevitability about Beer Week happening eventually, it was conceivable that we might actually be the ones doing it.

Then a local tavern owner, known for this sort of thing, wrote in his Internet newsletter a long diatribe lambasting us for having no business organizing Beer Week. Not only were we basically nobodies in the local beer community (which was somewhat true of me, for sure), the worst part was that I (Jay) wasn’t even a committed beer drinker, I drank wine instead of beer (which was also largely true — our commitment to craft beer is carried principally by our team, not by me). The missive, replete with missing punctuation and frantic grammar, was a car crash that few could turn away from, and as a result it was cemented: the Beer Week train was rolling and we were somehow at — or near — the controls. At the center of it all was Andy, who had the URLs and who also, by a drunken vote of acclamation, owned Beer Week.

We quickly ended up in impassioned discussions with brewery owners and the Brewers’ Guild. My belief was that in other cities, Beer Week was run by the restaurants, and that it wasn’t something the Guild needed to coordinate, just support. (I lost that argument, which was for the best. The Guild does a great job coordinating the event.)

A couple of us, including me, advocated for a crowdsourced model with minimal control; the Guild pushed for a top-down structure with a crowdsourced event component. That was another case where the Guild’s vision was better than mine, their argument won the day and proved to be superior. There were conflicting opinions as to the best date: in the end, November was chosen over August. I suspect now that the date isn’t that important, it would have been successful in either month.

By November, the tussling had been forgotten, and mostly what had happened is that a bunch of restaurants and bars had organized excellent events. Andy served that week as kind of the Beer Week Czar, which had to be exhausting, there were so many happenings worth attending. And the Guild and the breweries had put together a hell of a Beer Week.

Since that time, a lot has changed. We let our membership in the Guild lapse, deciding it was better suited to craft-beer-driven bars than ingredent-driven restaurants (though we still do a full schedule of events for Beer Week). Eric left Mad River. As far as I know, Andy isn’t a Czar of Beer Week anymore. The URL that started it all is no longer used. The tavern owner now has a chain of establishments, which I’m told are mostly successful.

San Diego Beer Week was going to happen regardless of what schemes we hatched that nite at Blind Lady. I’m grateful to have spent a little time at its inception, wrangling with it. And now I’m more than contented during Beer Week, just from participating in a great craft beer happening.

And I still often choose to drink wine.

Do Something With Your Food

Yesterday I spoke to a group of culinary students about farm-to-table restaurants. Finding that they had not had any courses on the history of restaurants in general, we started with a brief, oversimplified accounting of how modern restaurants came to be, and then talked about farm-to-table cuisine in that context.

The ancestor of the modern table-service restaurant looked something like this: English aristocracy in a luxury Paris hotel or nearby chateau, their meal being cooked by a brigade of French men who had studied in culinary guilds and/or the French Army. With no refrigeration available, only slow transportation, no cultural emphasis on sanitation, and no guarantee that the food was grown nearby, the quality and condition of the food coming into the kitchen was, at the very least, undependable. Only the skill of the chefs could create alchemy — turning the unremarkable and perhaps foul ingredients into a meal fit, literally, for a king. In this context you see both the origin of the heavy classical French sauces, and of the macho chef-strutting later to become embodied in the caricature of pre-Food-Network Anthony Bourdain, among many others.

Meanwhile, in seaside towns and farming village throughout Europe (and to some extent in the New World), people worked with local ingredients and traditional local recipes to make dinner for their families and neighbors. Sometimes this cuisine would also express itself in an inn or a rustic restaurant, probably in which only one type of meal would be cooked each day — no menu from which to order. The cooks were generally women, and the cooking was an expression of the place, people, and culture that had, over time, naturally coalesced into a cuisine.

This division in restaurant styles persisted, more or less, into modern times. In the US, serious restaurants were all of the French Brigade variety, and without much of a rustic tradition to call upon, in much of the country the local foodways that would uniquely inform a community cuisine simply didn’t exist.

In the 1970’s came the inception of farm-to-table cuisine, often called in its era “California cuisine”. While several restaurants pushed the idea forward more or less concurrently, it is of course Alice Waters and Chez Panisse — a restaurant named after a character in a movie about life in seaside France — that are most iconically associated with the idea.

The promise of the farm-to-table restaurant is simple: all the skill of great chefs, applied to the best possible ingredients. With the freedom now to not hide the flavors of the ingredients but instead to explore and celebrate them.

Within the farm-to-table narrative the chef is not much of hero. And it turns out that a lot of people — including chefs, restaurant patrons, and TV audiences — prefer stories with heroes. Thus you have the bemusing situation of certain diners seeking out places with mediocre ingredients and a chef that can make them taste good, rather than places with excellent ingredients and a (almost certainly lesser-known) chef that starts with good tasting food, and the intention of making it excellent.

In the farm-to-table paradigm, the preparation of the meal starts with attention to the soil. The farmer’s work is realized at the point of a fork — by the time the ingredient reaches the kitchen, its potential has largely been determined by the work done to grow it. Oftentimes, the ingredient may be so excellent that the chef feels called to do very little to it beyond presenting it to the guest. When the instinct to not interfere with great ingredients becomes a culture and a cuisine, people who are passionate about cooking find the results highly unsatisfying. Thus David Chang’s poignant and frustrated lash: “fucking every restaurant in San Francisco is just serving figs on a plate. Do something with your food.”

Chang exaggerates, but he has a point. In a farm-to-table project, the line between cooking the food and fetishizing the food can get pretty thin. In order for the restaurant to meaningfully contribute to its community, it has to have a point of view, a sense of who it is and who it serves, and to express that through its food, and through its clientele. This is more the case than ever, now that restaurants have evolved to perform a unique role in American life, something which will be the topic of a forthcoming post.