It’s rare to come across someone who’s excited to attend their monthly trade association meeting. The very name conjures up images of roll call, bylaws, interminable lectures, and possibly even a helping of weird, fraternal-organization hats—at best, it’s a mild inconvenience, and at worst, it’s an obligation you dread. When it comes to the US Bartenders’ Guild, though, it’s a bit of a different story.
With its stated mission of elevating the craft of bartending, the USBG has taken an active role in the cocktail industry’s explosive growth. The tastings, educational events, and plain ol’ parties the guild puts on are the sort of thing its members buzz about, and they’ve come to foster a sense of community and collaborative spirit throughout the bartending world as a whole. Membership is open to anyone who’s interested, whether they actively work in a bar or not, which has made it an increasingly popular haven for enthusiasts and home bartenders as well.
Fortunately for us, one of the organization’s largest and most active regional chapters is located right here in San Francisco. Headed up by President Summer-Jane Bell (and Vice President Andrew Meltzer, with whom we spoke a few months back), USBG SF has grown into a hub for bartenders from all over the Bay Area. Thanks to their collaboration with everyone from industry celebrities to sustainable agriculture nonprofits, their events are a hot ticket in the local cocktail scene.
We recently sat down with Summer-Jane Bell at newly-opened Financial District bar The Treasury to discuss the state of bar culture in San Francisco, how she went from glassblowing artisan to craft cocktail guru, and what the Bartenders’ Guild is doing to inspire a new generation of spirited geeks.
An Artisan Barkeep
While these days it’s hard to imagine Summer doing anything else, it wasn’t that long ago that bartending wasn’t even on her radar. “I actually moved here to go to art school, and I studied glass blowing. I was a professional glass blower for many years, working in local production studios making furniture and lighting. I started bartending on the side to make a little extra cash because I was a starving artist,” she laughed.
“I started in a dive bar in Oakland called Radio, and I ended up working there for eight years. They’re like family to me. Even when I started getting more into craft and working in cocktail bars, I always kept one shift at Radio. I didn’t know anything when I started—I got hired because I was friends with the owners and had done some lighting work in the bars. I think my resume points were, ‘I have a big smile, I love people, and I love drinking.'”
From there, Summer found that her passion for the craft was turning it into more than just a side gig. She began to read up on the history of cocktails, scouring the internet for new drink recipes to practice in her free time. When an injury prevented her from continuing her work as a glassblower, she threw herself into bartending and decided to pursue it as a career.
“I started really learning about cocktails at Hotsy Totsy in Albany,” she told us. “It was one of the first craft cocktail bars in the East Bay, and Jessica Maria, the owner, was already a member of the USBG at the time. It was really where I learned how to stir properly, where I learned about the classics, and about artisanal spirits. It was just like a candy store for me where I could taste all these things I had read about, and get really creative.
“Because I wasn’t able to make everything I wanted to in glass anymore, cocktail recipes became my new creative outlet. It was a really natural progression for me. Also, with glass, you make something really quickly, it’s a very fast-paced art form. You can make a little sculpture in 30 seconds, so it’s kind of a similar pace as cocktail making. It became my new love, and it just felt natural.”
As she gained experience behind the stick, Summer was coming across more and more people from the USBG—so she decided to join up herself. After a few years of showing up at every meeting and volunteering for every event she could, Vice President Aaron Gregory Smith (now Executive Director of the USBG) started to take notice.
“He asked if I wanted to be Membership Director, because he saw that I was really passionate about it. I always tell people that the USBG changed my life, which is a pretty good pitch,” she said, laughing. “They were looking for someone who would be good at that, and it helped that I was from Oakland because there were hardly any East Bay members at the time. The chapter was very small and very San Francisco-exclusive.”
She spent four years as Membership Director, after which she, Andrew Meltzer, and Trent Simpson decided to run for elected office and continue to broaden the Guild’s reach. The trio took office in early 2015, and set out to shift the focus of the events they sponsored—as fun as the tastings and competitions were, most bartenders still had need of more practical guidance.
“For example, we might do a really cool history of Irish whiskey, and then a seminar on tax planning for bartenders. We had an accountant come in last March and do just that,” she told us. “But the brand sponsors actually appreciate it, because it increases the draw to the events more than just straight brand education would.
“San Francisco is a really educated market, not just the bartenders but also the consumers. So when we were just doing pure brand education, interest from our members really started to drop off. We can fill more seats if we make the content really rich. It also helps us stand out, because it seems like there’s an event almost every day now.”
Tech with a Twist
In the years since she stopped working behind the bar full-time, Summer has transitioned into brand ambassador roles for a number of spirit companies. But her passion project these days is one she started with her husband: TrophyCocktail, a photo sharing app that’s tailored to the world of craft bartending.
“As a brand ambassador, I was constantly posting pictures of cocktails that I was representing, and even if I wasn’t working I really love showing off my friends’ bar programs. A little way that I can give back is to take a picture of these beautiful drinks they create and share it on social media,” she explained. “So I was doing that a lot, just for fun, and I noticed that a lot of my friends were doing that as well. I felt that Instagram was kind of clunky when it came to inputting the recipe, and Facebook as well. And even then, it would just get lost in pictures from the rest of your life.
“My husband has been in tech for over 20 years. He saw all the cocktails in my social feeds, and we started brainstorming a way to streamline that process. We had wanted to do a business together, but we weren’t sure what it would be, and it morphed into this photo sharing app. It stems from those core principles of the USBG, furthering the craft and highlighting programs in smaller cities.”
TrophyCocktail’s reach has grown considerably since it launched, drawing bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts from places as far-flung as Budapest and Dubai. True to form, Summer has found a way to turn its recent success into an educational opportunity for her fellow bartenders.
“It’s given me a good avenue to talk about social media in the bartending industry, so I’m teaching a seminar on that at Tales of the Cocktail this year. It can be a really powerful tool when it comes to getting bars and bartenders noticed, whether you’re trying to get people in the door or make a name for yourself. I did a workshop at Sacramento Cocktail Week last year, and I’m going to New York to give a seminar there as well. It’s been a really fun part of this whole project, I love to teach.”
Living the Dream
2016 marks the final year of Summer-Jane Bell’s term as USBG SF Chapter President, but she certainly has no intention of reducing her involvement in the Bay Area bartending community. “I think I’m at a really exciting point in my career where I’m getting to do a lot of the things I’ve wanted to do for a long time. More teaching, helping the USBG to further its goals, potentially joining the board and helping the national organization in the long term.
“I have lots of dreams and lofty goals, and we’ll see which ones come to fruition. But I’m in a really great place right now. I put in so much time volunteering and doing these things for free, and I’m finally at the point where I’m getting paid to do them,” she laughed. “I’m really stoked. I’m living the dream.”
Photo: Will Shenton, Bevvy