It’s the type of moniker that inspires more question marks than exclamation points: Black Plague Brewing (2550 Jason Court, Oceanside). The first time I heard about it was nearly two years ago when I first interviewed the owners of the now-open business. And over that span, the odd resonance of that name hasn’t diminished in the least. Part of it may be the fact the words are typically presented along with a spooky logo featuring an ancient, crook-beaked plague doctor, but mostly it’s the reference to the historic bubonic plague (AKA “the black death”), which wiped out between 75 and 200 million Europeans (30-60% of the continent’s entire population) from 1346 to 1353. But there’s more to a business than its handle and motif. I was sure to remind myself of that as I entered Black Plague’s tasting room for the purpose of sampling its beer and atmosphere as part of a recent brewery touring session.
Walking through the door, I bid adieu to a perfectly sunny day and took a second for my eyes to adjust to the darkness of the space. Though outfitted with skylights and a lobby bordered on one side by floor-to-ceiling windows, the walls are painted jet black. Furniture hues range from brown to ebony and the only relief from the dim color palate is a beer board decorated with colorful, artful names and descriptions, plus rudimentary thin, white-line sketches of the plague doctor and such. It was around Halloween when I visited, but it’s clear the creep factor had little to do with that macabre holiday. And while it wasn’t my personal cup of tea, I had to hand it to the folks who handled the interior design. They took a thematic, embraced it and delivered. It’s complete and makes good on a promise set forth by the brand and its back story, even adding a touch of whimsy here and there in the process.
Fortunately, the service element does not fall in line with what one might find in the midst of a continental pandemic. The bar staff is rather friendly. My only knock was a seeming lack of knowledge or interest in the finer points of beer and brewing, but not everyone can be a nerd. They knew Black Plague’s beers enough to be helpful, and made a point to note something very cool (literally): a glycol-chilled copper strip running down the center of the bar. That amenity keeps beers cool should you be consuming a style that you’re not looking to warm for increased sensory effect. The customers, too, were in a jovial mood as they drank their beers and watched football on a screen mounted left of the beer menu. As I received my taster flight, I looked forward to falling into their frame of mind.
Prior to coming to Black Plague’s tasting room, I had sampled only one of the company’s beers, 1347 IPA. Named, as they say, for “the year of the plague,” it was hazy and juicy. Now, however, it’s no longer Northeastern in body and has far less of a fruit-juice character. If anything, it’s much drier and exhibits a grapefruit pithiness more evocative of a San Diego-style IPA. For those looking for fruit, however, there are multiple versions of this beer available, all of which have been infused with a different fruit (mango, pineapple, blood orange, grapefruit, blueberries) as well as habanero peppers. Plenty happy with the base beer, I chose the purist route, moving on to a Kölsch called Remedium that was crisp and balanced, and Nelson Pandemia, an IPA hopped with “an outbreak of Nelson hops,” that had a sharp, bitter finish that left a sticky, peppercorn-like spice in its wake.
From here it was on to more avant-garde beers, starting with ChaI.P.A. Fans of chai (which I am) are likely used to encountering this exotic-tasting adjunct in beer, but typically styles on the darker end of the spectrum. I was skeptic of how it would come across in a lighter-bodied, hoppy beer, but it was a winner. All chai in the nose and only slightly bitter, allowing the added spices to come through, it was my favorite of Black Plague’s beers. Second place went to Samoa Stout, a beer brewed with chocolate, roasted coconut, maple syrup and graham crackers to emulate the Girl Scout Cookie of the same name. Dessert-like, but not overly sweet, it comes across as dark chocolate with a supportive caramel backdrop.
While my inner-marketing professional shudders when presented with this brewery’s branding, I would happily reach for one of its beers. Though its owners lack beverage-industry experience, they have been wise enough to consult with professionals who possess just that. Their brewhouse is currently benefiting from the services of ex-AleSmith Brewing and Mikkeller Brewing San Diego fermentationist Bill Batten, who specialized in traditional beer styles for more than a decade before shifting to more experimental brews at his most recent gig. He seems a perfect fit for his current digs while he waits for his next post, North Park’s TapRoom Beer Co., to be constructed. From what I tasted, he’ll leave some big boots to fill.
This is the last post in a four-part series examining work-in-progress brewery projects throughout San Diego County. Our last stop finds us in the western expanses, a region with strong and varied interests in the works. Check them out and, if you missed any of our other tours, take a look at upcoming projects in the south, north and east regions.
Gravity Heights | 9920 Pacific Heights Boulevard, Sorrento Mesa: It will take the better part of a year to get this brewpub project built, but it has some star power behind it. The project belongs to Arturo Kassel, the restaurateur behind Whisknladle and the Prepkitchen eateries, and figures to be smart, stylish and sustainable. When searching for someone to mastermind brewing operations he went straight to Skip Virgilio, the original owner of AleSmith Brewing who devised many of that company’s award-winning recipes. This should prove a solid opportunity for a return to the local beer scene.
Latchkey Brewing Company | 1795 Hancock Street, Five Points: Headed by a brother-in-law duo bit by the brewing bug, this will be the sixth business to give brewing at Mission Brewery Plaza post-Prohibition a go after taking over the existing production facility and tasting room from Carlsbad-bound Acoustic Ales Brewing Experiment. The factor of this interest that inspires the most hope is the fact a brewer with experience garnered at Ballast Point Brewing will be heading the ale-and-lager making. Look for this biz to debut in spring of next year.
Attitude Brewing Company | 1985 National Avenue, Barrio Logan: Many are the beer businesses aiding in Barrio Logan’s renaissance. To date, they’ve been existing companies, but this will be the first to debut there. Its headquarters will be a combination brewery and eatery offering gourmet wraps, burgers and more. The ultimate goal is for house beers to eventually be distributed throughout San Diego as well as across the border in Mexico. It’s a lofty aspiration, but one that’s time has come with cross-border beer-appreciation at an all-time high.
He hasn’t brewed a beer on a professional level since 2002, but Skip Virgilio has never strayed far from the San Diego brewing scene he was a major part of in its early days. Best known for founding Miramar’s AleSmith Brewing Company in 1995 (in the original brewery now occupied by Mikkeller Brewing San Diego), he sold that business in 2002, but not before developing many award-winning recipes. As he puts it, AleSmith was ahead of its time. There wasn’t enough of a market for craft beer on the shoestring budget he was operating with. He admits it was “bittersweet” watching the industry boom after his departure, but he’s stayed close and supportive of his many friends throughout the suds subculture while working in real estate finance via his small business, Park Village Financial. All the while, he’s kept homebrewing and, of course, imbibing, and now he’s ready to get back into a commercial brewhouse as the brewmaster for Gravity Heights, a work-in-progress brewpub being brought to Pacific Heights Boulevard in Sorrento Mesa by Whisknladle Hospitality (WNLH). We sat down with him to touch on the past and, more importantly, the future.
Did you explore any other brewery-related ventures after AleSmith?
Naturally, there’s been a lot of interest on my part to get back into brewing commercially and there have been several potential projects and partnerships over the years that never fully materialized. That was until I got to better know my now business partner Ryan Trim—a member of homebrew club QUAFF and BJCP-certified beer judge—and, eventually, his neighbor Arturo Kassel, the founder of WNLH. [That happened] at beer shares hosted by Ryan in his garage. At some point, Arturo suggested, “You’re really good at the whole brewing thing, we know what we’re doing with restaurants, and we should do something together.” We decided to meet for beers at Pizza Port to explore a potential collaboration that eventually developed into the plan for what was to become Gravity Heights.
What can you tell us about the project?
Gravity Heights is a 13,000-square-foot, multi-level indoor/outdoor brewpub and beer garden located in the heart of Sorrento Mesa. It’s San Diego, so there’s no shortage of great beer or great brewers, so the thought of being just another alternative or another beer on the shelf wasn’t appealing to me. However, the prospects of partnering with someone that could pair my beer with what WNLH refers to as “delicious food, exceptional service and genuine hospitality” and help create a unique environment where people would want to come spend time with friends and loved ones was something else altogether. We certainly won’t be the only brewpub in San Diego, but I know that WNLH will put as much love and detail into the dining experience as I will into our beer so that our guests won’t have to make compromises with food, service or ambiance to get outstanding local craft beer.
What will your title be and your role entail with Gravity Heights?
I will be the Gravity Heights brewmaster which means I’m where the buck stops when it comes to beer quality and recipe development. In the past year, we have been focused on planning the brewery-specific aspects of the operation including designing the physical layout (with fellow QUAFFer and local architect Dustin T. Hauck), and evaluating brewery configurations and options with various manufacturers. We have just contracted with Alpha Brewing Operations in Nebraska to build our 15-barrel direct-fire brewhouse and we will have six fermentation vessels and 10 serving tanks. Ryan and I have also been focused on developing, reviewing, and refining my recipes so that we will have a comprehensive and exciting beer program when we open our doors in the fall of 2018.
What will the brewing MO be at Gravity Heights (any thematic, types of styles, barrel-aging, etc.)?
It’s a work in progress, but the direct-to-consumer brewpub model gives us the freedom to offer a broad variety of beers on an ongoing basis. There will be a strong West-Coast influence with plenty of hop-forward beers, but I love beer styles from all over the world so there will be a little of everything. I expect we will have beer styles from Belgian, Germany and the U.K., including cask beers. We will also have a barrel-aging program which we hope to jumpstart with some collaborations prior to opening, and we are considering options for developing a sour-beer program down the road as well
Will we see traces of your AleSmith work at Gravity Heights?
Like anyone in this industry, I can’t help but be influenced by my past brewing experiences, including the beers and styles I developed at the PB Brewhouse and AleSmith, and my extensive homebrew recipes. Some of these recipes may serve as inspirations or starting points, but every Gravity Heights beer will naturally evolve through an iterative process of brewing, sensory evaluation and feedback, followed by re-brewing with our brewery staff.
How does it feel to be back in the saddle?
It’s exciting and terrifying at the same time. I’ve always pushed myself to produce beer that people are excited about and enjoy, so there’s a self-imposed pressure to clear a high bar. As someone who was has been immersed in San Diego’s craft beer culture since the early days, I think it’s also important to strive to make products that affirm the reputation our city has garnered as one of the top craft beer centers in the world.
Twice a year, I assess the work-in-progress brewing-company-owned projects throughout San Diego County and offer my thoughts on those that appear to have the most promise. This is the first post in a series of four, broken down by geography. This time around we’ll start with the southern part of the county, which for the first time since I began this bi-annual practice, is home to the most interesting trio of under-development venues anywhere.
TapRoom Beer Company | 2000 El Cajon Boulevard, North Park: The brothers behind Pacific Beach craft-beer-bar stalwart SD TapRoom will go from procuring and slinging ales and lagers to manufacturing them once their two-story North Park brewpub is constructed. That structure will have a fully visible brewhouse as well as a wealth of outdoor seating, but what gives it its best shot at instant success is the fact Bill Batten, a veteran of AleSmith Brewing Company and Mikkeller Brewing San Diego, will be in charge of beermaking operations.
Coronado Brewing Company | 535 Florence Street, Imperial Beach: As if acquiring Monkey Paw Brewing, helping its ex-head brewer launch SouthNorte Brewing and installing a kitchen at its Bay Park headquarters weren’t enough irons to have in the proverbial fire, CBC is constructing a brewpub within its half of IB’s Bikeway Village development. Proven brewing prowess and a prime location that will turn the heads of local and tourist pedestrians and bike-riders are big positives this veteran brewery operation should be able to build on.
Kairoa Brewing | 4601 Park Boulevard, University Heights: The team of New Zealanders behind Red House Pizza has taken over a neighboring building on the corner of Park and Madison Avenue and is in the process of converting it to a two-story brewpub that will serve a wide range of beer styles alongside cuisine with Kiwi appeal (think meat pies and sausage rolls) plus vegetarian and vegan fare. Though home to numerous watering holes, this will be University Heights’ first source for beer made within the neighborhood.
For the past three years, Kearny Mesa-based Kilowatt Brewing Company has been the little brewery that could. Bolstered by flamboyantly outlandish beers and striking interior lighting design, the nano-brewery has earned a cult following, patronage from which allowed owners Steve Kozyk and Rachel Fischer to open a flashy satellite tasting room in Ocean Beach that has been quite the hit. Yet, the company has never had a brewer with previous professional fermentation experience. Until now. A recent search for a new head brewer that can take Kilowatt to the next level ended with the hiring of Brian Crecely, who came over from Miramar’s AleSmith Brewing Company last month to fill a crucial role at a critical time for the soon-to-expand business.
What road led you to your current position with Kilowatt?
I was a homebrewer and member of QUAFF (Quality Ale and Fermentation Fraternity) before beginning my professional career at AleSmith in 2011. I started on the packaging line, much like a lot of people do when they first get into the industry. The company saw a tremendous amount of growth during my time there and I was able to grow a lot with them. I managed to work my way up to become a cellarman and, eventually, a brewer. After gaining experience as a brewer, they gave me the opportunity to complete the American Brewers Guild: Brewing Science and Engineering Program, which really helped me add to my brewing knowledge. During this time and until I left AleSmith, I assisted the company with developing (then managing) its barrel-aged sour beer program and took on the role of specialty brewer working with one-off and pilot batches.
What inspired you to leave AleSmith?
Being AleSmith’s specialty brewer gave me the chance to be creative and experiment with lots of different ingredients and ideas. When I heard Kilowatt was hiring a head brewer, I saw a great opportunity for me to continue exploring new beers and styles, and the chance to learn more about brewery management. I also really liked the small, close-knit vibe at Kilowatt, and it was very appealing to have the chance to work closely with the owners on their vision of the brewery and have an impact on making that a reality.
Will Kilowatt’s brewing direction change at all now that you’re on-board?
The focus at Kilowatt has always been to offer a wide range of styles and flavors. I am hoping to continue doing that, but also fine-tune our lineup of beers and try to constantly find ways to innovate and improve each batch that we brew. One of the best parts of being a small brewery is that we have the chance to experiment with new ideas. I am very much looking forward to brewing some mixed-fermentation and barrel-aged sour beers while expanding Kilowatt’s barrel-aging program and IPA (India pale ale) varieties, and adding more classic and session styles to our lineup.
What are you most excited about?
I am excited about our upcoming brewhouse expansion and the new possibilities that are going to come along with it. During the first quarter of next year, we will upgrade from our three-barrel brewhouse to a seven-barrel brewhouse. We will also install a new glycol system, three 15-barrel fermenters and a seven-barrel fermenter, while keeping a few of our existing three-barrel fermenters for experimental and specialty batches. The new system is really going to allow us to bring in more consistency to our beers, and more accurately monitor and control each batch. I saw AleSmith go through some major changes over the years and I feel like I really learned a lot from it, however, back then I was mostly on the sideliens. This time around I’ll be able to be much more hands-on and have the ability to shape the company’s success and how the brewery will operate.
What are the greatest opportunities you see for Kilowatt?
Currently, we sell the vast majority of our beer in our two tasting rooms, and have a limited number of off-site accounts that carry our beer due to our small production. With the expansion, we will be able to reach a lot more people than before. It’s going to be a lot of fun to be a part of that and try to contribute to building the Kilowatt brand.