We know a farm-to-table philosophy is key for restaurant kitchens, both from a business and a quality perspective. But what about behind the bar?
According to our friends at CUESA, the organization behind the famous Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, bartenders have just as much to benefit by sourcing from local farms as chefs do. Just ask Brian Means: as the Corporate Lead Bartender and Mixologist for the Mina Group in San Francisco, he supports the cocktail teams in all Michael Mina restaurants with education, staffing, and building bar programs.
We talked to Brian all about his approach to farm-to-bar mixology and how he elevates cocktails with fresh, local ingredients. Read on for his tips!
1. Look for unexpected ingredients.
Brian visits the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market as often as possible, shopping with his favorite farms like K&J Orchards and Brokaw Farms. In addition to their standout fruit — “cool stuff like kaffir limes and different varieties of figs and amazing stone fruit” — he looks beyond the basics for inspiration.
“I personally have always loved doing savory cocktails,” he says. “I always look for out-there ingredients that people aren’t using.” He loves using wheatgrass to infuse cocktails or dry-aging kaffir limes for a garnish, for example.
2. Learn distinct flavor profiles.
Just as not every fruit is created equal, neither is every lemon — or even every Asian pear. “I didn’t even realize there were different types of Asian pears until I started going to K&J Orchards,” says Brian. By visiting the farmers at the market and tasting their products, he learned the different flavor profiles and acid profiles of each variety, which really helped dial in his cocktails.
3. Make your own building blocks.
In addition to using fresh fruits and vegetables for cocktails, use them for infused spirits and cordials. At PABU, Brian’s team made a tea cordial with a pomelo citrus base; at MTK they used Buddha Hand lemons to infuse tequila. They also bought Concord grapes to freeze in ice cubes so cocktails would evolve as they melted.
Besides being fun and creative, making ingredients in-house is economical. By purchasing lots of pomelos at their peak and breaking down cases at a time, Brian’s teams are able to make cordials that they can preserve, seal, and freeze in a vacuum-packed bag that they can use for months to come.
4. Collaborate with your chefs.
Originally, Brian never thought of bartending as a career. But working at San Francisco institutions like Zero Zero and Fifth Floor, he was able to partner with chefs — David Bazirgan and Francis Ang, to name a couple — who educated and inspired him. “I got more interested in cocktails, but also I would go to the market with them every Saturday.”
“Working with chefs is great because their palates are so different from mine, and it helps me out seeing what they’re using in the kitchen,” he says. In some of the restaurants he tries to incorporate into the cocktails the same ingredients the chefs are using in the dishes — yuzu at PABU, for example. Or, when chefs made preserved Meyer lemons for a menu dish, the bar team would save some of the liquid to use in cocktails in place of a shrub or acid. “There are really great options for the products we use.”
5. Enjoy the R&D process.
Naturally, R&D is a big priority for the Mina cocktail programs. Brian goes into the restaurants outside of service to play around with ingredients (if he hasn’t had time to go to the market, the chefs will pick products up for him). Often he’ll spend hours making syrups and cordials and infusions, always relying on other chefs and team members for input. “I really like bouncing off ideas and integrating flavors — whether it’s inspired by dish or a flavor we’re doing on the menu, or doing a riff on the classic and keeping it simple.”
Some recent R&D innovations? PABU recently opened in Boston, and Brian developed a spiced Asian pear syrup for the cocktail program. At MTK, he created a riff on an Aperol Spritz using a blood orange and rosemary cordial.
6. Start with the classics.
Brian’s tip for farm-to-bar drinks: start with the classics. “Learn how to make an old-fashioned that you like, learn how to make a collins or a daiquiri,” he advises. “Figure out what kind of booze-acid-sweetener ratio you like, and then start playing around with other flavors.” Swap out traditional fruits for different ones, and plug and play different flavors you’re excited about. “It’s like science class: you’ve got to have your hypotheses, and test out your results, and see how they work. But this is a little more fun than science class.”