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.
The journey to the debut of Northern Pine Brewing Company may have taken longer than its owners would have expected or preferred, but after more than a year of hard work, the Oceanside brewpub is set to open its doors to the public this Friday, October 27. Built around a thematic celebrating community, the outdoors and beer, the business has been delayed by permitting and other items outside ownership’s control, but the team made good use of that time, putting finishing touches on a stylish eatery and brewing beers that will be tapped this weekend.
Located on the corner of Horne Street and Civic Center Drive, the brewpub is a joint venture of Northern Pine and the restaurateurs behind popular downtown Oceanside barbecue spot, That Boy Good. The latter specializes in Southern Louisiana-style BBQ and will have a limited menu available during the opening weekend, however, a large kitchen will eventually allow the business to offer its entire menu along with a full suite of catering services. TBG’s original eatery on Coast Highway will soon be converted to a new concept called Miss Kim’s which will serve po’ boy sandwiches, gumbo and some of the classic ‘cue recipes.
Similar to the food plan, the initial menu of Northern Pine beers will be smaller than the eventual ten taps’ worth. A total of six will be available, most of which represent styles that will appeal to a broad variety of palates. The line-up of balanced ales will include Turning Point cream ale, Midnight Walker amber ale (which tastes a bit like a brown ale due to a one-time use of alternative, more roasty grains), a SMASH (single-malt and single-hop) ale brewed with Maris Otter and Northern Brewer hops, Golden Horizon India pale ale (IPA) and Dark Traditions porter. A California common, stout and another IPA are also on-deck.
Northern Pine’s black exterior belies inviting interiors with rows of communal tables flanked on one side by an open brewhouse (that includes components created by the team at Monster Garage, and is setup for near-term expansion), a shanty-like ordering counter for That Boy Good, and a main bar with taps and a metal rendition of the company’s logo built into a wall of logs hand-chopped by the owners. A local artist painted a pastoral mountain range onto the wall. That scene will be used as a backdrop for the bar’s tap list. Additional art, including diagrams explaining the brewing process, can be found in the restrooms, while one of the owners’ shared mottos—let’s get lost—is inscribed on the dining room’s south wall. An outdoor patio will be added to the front of the restaurant at a later date.
Northern Pine’s located at 326 North Horne Street. A date has yet to be set, but ownership is planning an official grand-opening event that will include live music, photo booths, giveaways and more.
From the Beer Writer: Last year, San Diego’s longest tenured Post-Prohibition-Era brewing operation, Karl Strauss Brewing Company, earned big-time bragging rights, being named the Mid-Sized Brewing Company of the Year at the most prestigious brewing competition in the country, the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). Held annually in Denver, Colorado, the competition garners thousands of entries from breweries in all 50 states (so many that, this year, each brewing location is limited to a maximum of four competition beers). Those ales and lagers are evaluated by high-caliber industry professionals and certified judges to ensure reliable results, lending deserved credibility that ups the value of GABF medals. Karl Strauss’s champion designation came as a result of winning four medals in 2016, including a gold in one of the most hotly-contested style categories—American-Style Sour Ale. That went to Karl Strauss Queen of Tarts, a stallion in Uncle Karl’s sour stable that has been refined over the years and comes on strong with assertive tartness given luxurious body and layering care of heavy oaken toastiness. Next weekend, Karl Strauss will attempt to repeat at this year’s edition of GABF (check our site next Saturday for a list of local award winners) and this beer will surely be among its entries, but it doesn’t need precious metal to register as a winner on the palate. Head to the company’s tasting room or any of its five local restaurants for a taste of certified gold.
From the Brewer: “Queen of Tarts is our dark sour ale with lightly roasted malts, dark fruit flavors and a nice, tart finish. We age it in American oak barrels with Michigan tart cherries for six months. It’s always been a favorite around the brewery, and we were stoked that the GABF judges loved it as much as we do. We feel very fortunate to have had such a great showing at GABF last year and to be recognized for beers across a wide variety of styles, especially to take home the gold in such a highly-competitive category as [American-Style Sour Ale]. It really shows the versatility of our team of brewers.”—Paul Segura, Brewmaster, Karl Strauss Brewing Company
Back in March, we introduced you to key personnel from Viewpoint Brewing Company (2201 San Dieguito Drive, Del Mar), Charles Koll and Gunnar Plantar. The former conceptualized the business and brought on the latter to lead the kitchen, but both are chefs with white-linen backgrounds. Over the past four months, they’ve been busy putting finishing touches on their brewpub (Del Mar’s first-ever beer manufacturer), which included hiring a head brewer. Not surprisingly, that individual, Moe Katomski, amassed years of chef experience before transitioning to the fermentation industry via a job with Vista’s Bear Roots Brewing. As soon as next week, the general public will be able to see what this trio of toques has been working on when Viewpoint opens its doors.
The opening has been a long time coming—more than three years, in fact. Having recently toured the space, that time was put to good use. Viewpoint is in a simultaneously great and not-ideal location. Located across the San Dieguito Lagoon from the Del Mar Fairgrounds, it is highly visible and should receive plenty of patronage, not only from San Diego County Fair and Del Mar Racetrack visitors, but Del Mar residents, in general, and walkers on the trail abutting Viewpoint’s shaded outdoor patio. The latter area is outfitted in a mixture of concrete and artificial turf, with live-edge, wooden communal tables and banquettes with tabletop fire features, as well as large, open, globe-shaped swings and corn-hole setups. These contemporary SoCal environs are particularly inviting and will surely inspire would-be exercisers to sit a spell and shift from calorie-burning to consumption.
Those dropping in by car might find themselves a little less enamored rolling into a parking lot that, with Viewpoint’s industrial roots fully exposed (perhaps to too great an extent, aesthetically), doesn’t appear to house a restaurant. The front door is small and inauspicious, but upon stepping through it, guests figure to be glad they did. While not as luxurious as the patio, the main dining room is neatly situated and comfortable. A zig-zagging bar gives way to two high-top communal tables and additional bar-seating bordering Viewpoint’s fermenter tanks. Roll-up garage-style doors provide access to the outdoor area as well as a pair of Skee Ball tables, further increasing the family-friendly aspect.
Viewpoint’s license allows for sale of guest beers to supplement a selection of house brews currently coming in at five. Katomski’s wares include a single-malt-and-single-hop (SMASH) beer made with Maris Otter and Chinook hops, a rye IPA with Red X malt that lends a chocolate-like character washed away by a dank finish, and a light-bodied Belgian-style saison that’s herbaceous and lemony with a hint of bubble gum. There is also a pair of pale ales. The first, Pleasant Surprise, was the initial beer run through Viewpoint’s 15-barrel system and didn’t turn out exactly as planned, but is not without its charms. Built on a Kölsch-recipe base with minimal infusion of Chinook hops for bittering, it may actually be a big hit with Del Martians. The second go at that beer is big on citrusy Mandarina Bavaria hops and a much more successful iteration in Katomski’s opinion. That recipe is now set in stone.
Drinkability and approachability were strived for and achieved with Viewpoint’s first beers, but Katomski also plans to follow some suggestions from Plantar, who regularly turns him on to exotic ingredients from the culinary world. For now, he’s fighting the urge to get “too crazy” and that seems a good game-plan for a community that has yet to have much exposure to craft beer.
With so many cooks in the kitchen, one might expect a for-chefs-by-chefs menu that’s overly extensive and out of control. Viewpoint’s is relatively brief but offers variety, including an assortment of appetizers that includes riffs on poutine and Jidori chicken wings served by the dozen with house sauces, charcuterie, salads, sandwiches, entrées (steak frites, salmon) and desserts. Beer and its ingredients make it into accoutrements such as a hop vinaigrette and milk stout demi-glace. Then there’s a rare first for the local beer scene, a beer-and-food flight wherein three of Viewpoint’s beers are served with a trio of pretzel bao buns stuffed with ingredients selected to match their liquid counterparts.
Following its debut, Viewpoint will be open seven days a week. From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. it will operate as a tasting room offering light bites, before converting to a full-on restaurant from 4 to 11 p.m.