Meeting your food (and brews) a matter of course (or two)

By Bonnie Tsui
Globe Correspondent / October 24, 2010

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SAN FRANCISCO -- On a warm late-September evening at 18 Reasons, a storefront community space in the Mission District, guests sat attentively at a long cypress table as Brian Ewing, of Brooklyn-based beer importer 12 Percent, held forth on the joys of Belgian ales. Before each participant was a glass of Brouwerij’t Gaverhopke Extra, a deep, rich beer made from two strains of yeast, one wild and one Trappist. It was this very beer that inspired Ewing to start his business as a specialty importer of small, handcrafted brews from Belgium.

“It’s one of the red-winiest beers I’ve ever had — really voluptuous, with a full-bodied finish,’’ Ewing said as he swished his glass. Ewing’s selection of Belgian ales was the focus of the evening’s event, a monthly “producer dinner’’ that paired beer with a four-course meal prepared by Morgan Maki, the chef at 18 Reasons and the butcher and charcuterie-maker for beloved local grocery Bi-Rite Market.

A nonprofit sister organization to Bi-Rite Market and Bi-Rite Creamery, 18 Reasons hosts classes and hands-on educational evenings as a way to make community food knowledge more accessible to visitors. It’s part of a trend of businesses here going beyond restaurants and markets to make food experiences local, with workshops on raising chickens, cheesemaking and cheese appreciation classes, DIY food craft events, cookbook potlucks, themed dinners, and beer, wine, and chocolate tastings.

The producer dinners are 18 Reasons’ signature experience. Bruce Frazer, a computer programmer who lives in the neighborhood, chatted with Ewing about his favorite US producers of Belgian-style beers and came away with a recommendation. “I’ll make it my homework assignment to go get some Lost Abbey,’’ Frazer said. “It’s nice to be able to ask someone who does this for a living for an expert opinion.’’

The events put on by 18 Reasons are intended to be social experiences, and they don’t attract just locals. “We get out-of-town people looking for a unique experience in San Francisco,’’ said Dabney Gough, a former employee of Bi-Rite Market and now an 18 Reasons board member. She is coauthor of “Bi-Rite’s Market Manual,’’ a cookbook-meets-grocery guide to making better food choices. “This connection to the people who put food in our mouths — it’s not something you can just get by taking a cooking class or going to a restaurant. It’s actually an experience that’s really hard to find.’’

David Harnden, who attended the Belgian beer education dinner with his wife, Susan, agrees. “There are a lot of great restaurants in San Francisco, but they do such creative stuff here,’’ said Harnden, who often comes for the food and wine events. “Morgan [Maki, the chef] is one of the best chefs in the city.’’

Before each course, Maki explained how he played up the flavors of each beer. With Brouwerij’t Gaverhopke Extra, he served Kentucky fried rabbit with baby carrot slaw, cipollini, and chili remoulade. In between, he dished out little off-menu surprises of seasonal bounty — burgundy long beans, gorgeous gem-like red beets — from Bi-Rite’s vegetable farm an hour north in Sonoma.

For dessert, he created perfectly crisped Belgian waffles with malted vanilla ice cream, shaved chocolate, and a caramel sauce that used the beer it was paired with, a dark, toasty imperial stout. After the meal, guests lingered to talk with the beermakers, importers, and chef, and the buzz of conversation spilled out onto the street.

The curated food experience so celebrated in San Francisco — food as art, education, and social event — can also be found across the city at the cheese primer classes and cheesemaking workshops at the Cheese School of San Francisco, run by founder Sara Vivenzio. Vivenzio started the school five years ago to help people learn about regional cheese, and she has a ferocious local following.

On the airy, light-filled second floor of a historic 1907 brick building in the North Beach neighborhood, an evening wine-and-cheese pairing class was filled with repeat attendees. There was a familiar refrain among the students: “I love cheese. I always wanted to learn more about it, but I never knew how.’’

“You can always talk to the cheesemonger at the cheese counter, but it’s typically a five-second conversation: ‘What do you want to buy today?’ ’’ one woman said. “And then I found the Cheese School. I started with the introductory cheese primer class, and I just finished Mediterranean cheeses. I’m totally hooked.’’

That evening’s class was a special event featuring Max McCalman, the country’s first restaurant-based maître fromager and a dedicated cheese scholar responsible for the cheese programs at New York’s Picholine and Artisanal restaurants. He guided students through a series of eight raw-milk cheeses, from a mild Vermont spring cheese to a French Carles Roquefort, and led a lively discussion on what makes a wine-and-cheese pairing a success.

“Raw milk cheeses are alive, so they’re stronger and bigger in flavor,’’ said McCalman. His audience murmured as they tried the buttery Vermont selection with a Riesling from Alsace that had a dry, floral bouquet and complemented the cheese nicely. The class agreed that when paired with a Malbec, however, the cheese’s flavors failed to come alive. McCalman proclaimed the pairing a zero: “It’s like two dancers alone.’’

The lively mingling among guests and specialists is part of the demystification process, and the Cheese School does its best to encourage this interaction with an intriguing program of classes. This fall, classes cover home cheesemaking with chef and educator Sheana Davis; hands-on fondue with the authors of the popular book “Fondue’’; a tasting of the important cheese-producing regions of Italy; and a study of West Coast cheeses from California, Washington, and Oregon.

The Bay Area food movement has long been ahead of the curve; locavores near and far have their roots in the culture here. Both 18 Reasons and the Cheese School of San Francisco aim to engage the larger community and connect them to artisanal producers in the world of food and wine. Above all, they want to make food — and learning about food — a fun and friendly experience. Thanks to their efforts, visitors will find that there’s a whole new menu of ways to sample the scene as if they lived here.

Bonnie Tsui can be reached at

If You Go

18 Reasons
593 Guerrero St.
Curates a food- and art-oriented program that includes everything from classes in chicken butchery and sausage-making to producer talks and local food tours. Ticket prices range from $10 for entry to a jam-making cookbook release party to $85 for a seat at a producer dinner.
The Cheese School of San Francisco
2155 Powell St.
Offers classes and events in cheese appreciation, cheese tasting, and cheesemaking. Most classes are $65 for a full evening of food and drink.