Is it worth it?: CUESA cocktails

Welcome to my new series: Is It Worth It?

The San Francisco Bay Area is f*#%ing expensive.  The U.S.’s most expensive rental market accordingly supports exorbitant fees for cocktail events, classes, and other entertainment.

Weighing cost against value is therefore as common as ordering a drink for the frugal cocktail enthusiast.

While I cannot personally investigate all options ($100 intro-level classes are out of my purview, for example) I am pleased to share my assessment of assorted classes and events.

Our inaugural event is one of my very favorites and its next iteration is coming up next week.

CUESA Cocktails

In a nutshell, CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) runs the best local farmers’ markets. Their work intersects food justice, tourism (anything at the Ferry Building on a Saturday inevitably reaches out to tourists), sustainability, and just plain good food. And they throw a mean cocktail party. There’s always an emphasis on fresh produce, which I increasingly appreciate as a Californian influence on cocktail trends (check out Robert Simonson’s contemporary history A Proper Drink for more info.)

Your $55-$65 ticket grants you access to wander around sampling small tastes of original cocktails from area bartenders. In addition to these unlimited sample sizes you get three full-size cocktails and one sample each from the available snacks. Theme, seasonal ingredients, bartenders, costumes, decorations, and even sponsoring spirits vary. There is no repetition at these events.

My event advice:

  • No coat. No purse. No phone. You need both hands for snacks and drinks.
  • Many tables offer business cards and menus. You’re going to want to check out some new places after you taste what their bartenders can do.
  • Arrive early. It gets crowded.
  • Food goes fast. Don’t wait around if something looks good. Cocktails rarely run dry but I’ve seen food tables close shop early.
  • The ballot may leave you thinking you can only vote for a full-size cocktail. Not so! All cocktails are eligible. CUESA, please redo your ballots to make this clear.
  • Participating bartenders, I have tasted such wonders of subtlety and softness from you. I love them. They won’t win. Attendees’ tastebuds are deliciously assaulted from all sides. The winning drinks grab our attention. Strong infusions, big flavors, spice and heat.

I follow my own advice and rarely photograph these events, but check out Instragram’s #CUESAcocktails tag or enjoy CUESA’s Facebook albums for nights like A Library of Libations, Picnic on the Plaza, and Fizz and Pop.

Is it worth it?

An unqualified yes.

The price point is well worth the variety, quality, and quantity of drinks. These events lead you to new bars, introduce you to creative bartenders whose work you may wish to follow (Hi, Karlo and Pilar!), put you in touch with industry gurus, share new spirits, inspire culinary experimentation, and generally delight at every turn.

The primary drawback is that between the crowd and your occupied hands, you won’t find much time to talk much to the cocktail geniuses there or take notes on what you learn. It’s more about sensory exploration than education. To counteract this, I’d love to see recipe cards appear at these events. While the seasonal infusions and purees may be out of scope for home cocktail enthusiasts, it’s still illustrative to see how the experts put everything together.

Tickets are available now for A Toast to Science: Spring Cocktails of the Farmers Market on April 19.

5 thoughts on “Is it worth it?: CUESA cocktails

  1. These seasonal Farmers’ Market Cocktail Night events are an equal collaboration between CUESA and the USBG (U.S. Bartenders’ Guild, and that’s why the drinks are so good!) and our next event of the year is August 2nd. This time in Oakland’s Jack London Square. It’s the first time we are hosting on the East Bay and I am very excited!! I hope you can come. The tickets are a little discounted as it’s our East Bay debut. But I assure the talent, cocktails and bites won’t disappoint! Hope to meet you. Look for me.


    1. I bought early bird tickets as soon as I got the email! This will be my seventh Cocktails of the Farmers’ Market event. I refuse to miss any. Best value, best creativity, best opportunity to learn about creative local bartenders, bars, and brands. Now that I know what you look like, thanks to the superb cocktail seminar at tales, I will try to introduce myself! Thanks so much for commenting.


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