New Jersey born Ray Decker grew up in the restaurant industry starting with his family-owned seafood restaurant. With restaurant in his blood and as a Certified Level II Sommelier, he is the General Manager for all The Kitchen restaurants. Decker guided The Kitchen's once-small beer program away from the likes of Coors Light to unique, craft breweries throughout Colorado, the country and world. By diversifying the list with carefully curated options, all four of The Kitchen properties have become perennially successful largely due to their powerful beer program. Eater sat with Decker as he shared The Kitchen's philosophy on beer, what you can expect to find across the beer programs at each restaurant and even his favorite seasonal beers for fall.
You have been with The Kitchen since 2005 and thereafter, one of your first tasks was to create and curate the beer program at The Kitchen and The Kitchen [Upstairs]. What was your philosophy and how did you start? I had the opportunity to start purchasing beer for the restaurant in June of 2006 after I helped open [Upstairs]. When I took over it was really a dream come true. Back then the beer list had about 12-15 beers and there was a bunch of macros on there like Coors Light, Amstel Light and Stella. Pretty quickly we started steering away from those macros and bringing in a lot of craft beers. My biggest emphasis was trying to feature some of the country and world's best craft breweries; focusing on breweries that had history, connection and a relationship (something I definitely didn't feel that with those macros). The beer list went from 12-15 to about 35 in a matter of a month or two. About another few months the list reached to about 65. Now it fluctuates because we have a lot of beer we've been aging and cellaring so if you were to make a count on how many beers are in the restaurant total, it probably is 100-125, however, what's presented on a menu roughly is about 50-60.
How important for The Kitchen Community is it to focus on Colorado beers? Colorado is very important to us especially at [Next Door]. [Next Door] has been open since June 2011 since then, we have never had a beer outside of Colorado. It's 100% craft, Colorado beer. Colorado is such a mecca for amazing beer. We are fortunate to be able to feature the state 100% and not feel the need or pressure to source outside of Colorado since we have such an amazing pool of craft beer.
Can you tell us the difference between The Kitchen Boulder and Denver, [Upstairs] and [Next Door] in terms of their beer programs? Going back to 2009, The Kitchen [Upstairs] had a different beer list than The Kitchen in Boulder. If you were to sit down at The Kitchen you would have a list that was just a snapshot of what was offered upstairs. We decided then to change that and we developed a menu that would be the same for both floors. Now, If you are downstairs you could have the same beers offered upstairs. The Kitchen in Denver's menu is formatted the exact same way as Kitchen in Boulder. There is about 50% crossover between the two. The Kitchen in Denver does however have more tap space, so we have 8 draft lines while The Kitchen in Boulder only has 3. Everything that The Kitchen in Denver is doing, matches here in Boulder, philosophy-wise. Next door only have 10 beers available only on draft and no bottles. [Next Door] is most unique of all the spaces as its 100% draft and all Colorado beer.
What's your favorite seasonal beer you have on tap right now? That's a tough call. I would say on draft at [Next Door] Odell has a beer called Deconstruction. It's an awesome beer. You don't see it on draft too much so that's pretty special. Also, a good standby for me is Oskar Blues' G'Knight. And finally, Bootstrap Brewing. Those guys just started brewing back in June [in Niwot] and we have their Oktoberfest on tap right now - it's nice, malty and rich with a clean finish. Those guys are super cool.
The Kitchen is a champion of buying local and seasonal in terms of food - how important is your selection of beer in that process? Domestically, we try to have a great relationship with the brewery. That's always going to be the backbone as to why we're bringing a beer in. We obviously don't have the luxury to have relationships with some of the Belgian or German beers on the menu so in those situations we look for family owned breweries, breweries that have tradition, breweries that are really small and still holding onto their roots, philosophies and values. We look for their values to be similar to The Kitchen's.
How do you feel The Kitchen restaurants stand out compared to other restaurants, in terms of your beer program? I don't think it's too common to see restaurants have such an emphasis on beer programs. It's definitely common to see bars or pubs have some amazing beer programs, but The Kitchen is unique in that standpoint since have such a big emphasis on the beer. The beer program fluctuates with the season, just like our food menus do and it's constantly being tied into what we're serving as far as food. We have so much fun with beer and food. We also continually try to become better at educating ourselves. We have a really indepth education program for the kitchen with weekly beer and wine classes and blind tastings for the staff. One thing I've learned, especially in the last few years is that our guests that are coming in are super knowledgeable. If we don't have what they ask for, its cool to be pushed from that side. It's one thing to be pushing ourselves but to feel that from our guests, drives us. It's important for us to continue our pursuit of education. In the end, everything that we do, we just try to give it a lot of attention and love.
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Ray Decker [Photo: Grace Boyle]