Late last year, after four years in business and a failed attempt at opening a manufacturing facility with contract-brewing capabilities, La Jolla Brewing quietly went out of business, leaving its namesake community with a vacant brewpub. That spot was snatched up by Torrance, California-based Absolution Brewing, which reopened the brewhouse-equipped eatery as Absolution by the Sea last month. With San Diego breweries (Ballast Point Brewing, Stone Brewing, Karl Strauss Brewing, Modern Times Beer) having spent the past several years establishing footholds in the City of Angels’ to benefit from the burgeoning nature of its beer scene, it might seem odd for an LA company to come south, but it makes perfect sense for co-founder Steve Farguson. His family is from here and he has called San Diego home since 1995, so he’s happy to start Absolution’s second chapter in America’s Finest City. We sat down with him to find out more about the concept Absolution has installed in The Jewel.
What inspired you to acquire this particular brewpub?
My parents live eight blocks from the facility and we used to go there (when it was La Jolla Brew House) on a nearly-weekly basis. I always liked the vibe and tried to buy it almost six years ago. When I was approached about the opportunity last year, I said “yes.” For the past four years, I have been commuting from Coronado to Torrance, where we established our production brewery. Our facility is now a well-oiled machine and Absolution by the Sea gave me the opportunity to work closer to home. My parents are also getting older, and being here in La Jolla gives me the chance to check in on them more frequently.
What renovations have you done since taking over the space?
The place was really neglected over the past few years. Reading some of the reviews was really eye-opening. We knew we were in for a significant challenge. There was no evidence that sanitation and proper cleaning had taken place anywhere in the facility. Frankly, the brewery, cold-storage and kitchen were in such neglected shape, we had to replace or rebuild nearly everything. We also installed and upgraded many things that made the space even more inviting, including refinishing the pine wood floors and cutting out the wall separating the dining room from the front patio and installing designer glass. We put in marble around the fire pits, changed the awning to blue to match our sea concept, and installed a state-of-the-art lighting and audio systems. We also tore out 90 feet of draft trunk lines and installed a new draft system.
What is the game plan for on-site beer production?
Absolution has really grown over the past year. We recently hired a new vice presidents of sales for California and Texas, respectively, and we are planning other states this year. Our Torrance facility is gearing up to exclusively produce widely-distributed core brands so we can meet wholesaler demand. In La Jolla, we plan to brew our specialty and seasonal products. We also have a SABCO pilot system for test batches. Absolution by the Sea will create beers unique to the San Diego lifestyle and ship many of them to our sister tap rooms north of here, as well.
What are some future plans for Absolution by the Sea?
In a few months, we plan to open our craft-cocktail bar in the back room and start serving barrel-aged beers, as well. That back space is also going to work nicely as a space for private parties. But mostly, I really want this place to be community-centric. We want to be stewards of not just La Jolla, but San Diego as a whole. Our vision is to really engage the community here and it’s taking place even quicker than we’d anticipated. Already, locals have been reaching out and thanking us. It’s really exciting for me and my partners.
How has it been adding a culinary side to the business?
We are a brewery first and we always will be. It is our core and what drives our whole team, however, we now serve food—real food, not pub food. We really want to be known as a place to gather where you can enjoy a hand-crafted ale with culinary experience that takes no shortcuts. It’s funny…our team has worked so hard the past four-and-a-half years, putting in seven days per week more often than not. We have all aged in the process, but it is all about our passion to deliver a unique product we believe in. As tired as it’s made us, Absolution by the Sea has put a huge spring in my step and a smile on my face. My friends tell me I have never seemed so happy. I’m working in beautiful San Diego and that really says it all for me.
Prime geography in San Diego proper nabs the rapidly expanding hospitality empires of the Consortium Holdings and Cohn Restaurant Groups of the world a lot of attention. Meanwhile, 3 Local Brothers Restaurant Group has rather quietly built itself up from a soft-spoken wine-centric neighborhood eatery in Rancho Bernardo to a half-dozen diverse concepts that includes multiple brewpubs, a coffee roaster and one of the largest restaurants in the county. And, oh yeah, they have a combination resto and tasting room launching in Carmel Valley this spring, another restaurant under construction in Baja and a newly established beer distribution company. With all that going on, we sat down with co-founder Grant Tondro to inquire about the latest and greatest in the 3LB universe.
What will the Carmel Valley project entail?
We’ve always wanted to do a second location of our first place, The Barrel Room, but have been pretty busy growing Urge and launching Mason Ale Works the last couple of years. Our new spots will be at 5550 Carmel Mountain Road. The Barrel Room will be about 5,000 square feet, which is about 50% larger than its predecessor with a nice patio that wraps around the dining room. It will have a full liquor license, unlike the first location, and a banquet room. Chef Trevor Chappell will leave his post at the original Barrel Room to helm kitchen operations at the new spot. Attached to the new space will be a Mason Tap Works and Kitchen, a tasting room for all things Mason Ale Works but with a small, streamlined kitchen for patrons. Chef Trevor will be overseeing an in-house charcuterie program inside the space, so we will have some amazing meats and cheeses as well as flatbreads, sandwiches and a few other small, shareable items that pair well with our beers. We were careful to select a location for Tap Works that was far away from accounts that are currently buying our beers. We don’t want to be competition for our supporters, but want to bring awesome craft beer to a beer desert while familiarizing more people with Mason. It will also give us an outlet for more of our small-batch beers that our head brewer Matt Webster has been working on and aging in barrels for the last year.
What will the Carmel Valley tasting room look like and when is its projected opening time frame?
A lot of the design will be inspired by the San Marcos Urge Common House location—industrial with rolled steel and rivets, Edison bulbs, some white subway tile and some of my favorites like black walnut table tops from North Carolina and these hand-hammered, distressed yellow table bases for a pop of color. There will be 20 taps of core and specialty beers as well as plenty of one-off beers to go. It’s projected to open in late March or early April.
What led 3LB to start a distribution company and open a bar across the border?
Mexico is a fascinating market and I will be the first to admit that I was skeptical. It was really my business partner, Zak Higson, who was banging the drum in the beginning of 2017 to get things going. There is a very underrepresented segment of the market down there that is thirsty for craft beer, and some great up-and-coming breweries that are responding to that demand. That being said, there are some challenges with starting a craft brewery in Mexico and quality assurance can be a challenge. We’d already had a few bars bring our beer south the old-fashioned way, so we felt like starting a distributorship was the next logical step. Once we were working on that, the conversation led to the types of things we would have liked to have seen from a distributor in the US, and a spinoff conversation started around doing a tap room to show off the brands in our portfolio. That, in true 3LB fashion, grew to what is currently under construction, which is a full restaurant with 20 taps.
Including your own distribution company’s territory, where all is Mason available now?
We are currently distributed throughout Southern California, Arizona and Mexico—predominantly Baja for now. We just launched Colorado and Northern California, and are planning on adding Idaho and Nevada distribution by the third quarter of this year. We’ve had conversations about additional states, but we are probably in a wait-and-see mode after this additional pickup.
It sounds odd to ask, but is there anything else exciting going on?
This year will be about growing our selections, both in-house and for distribution. Each month in 2018, Mason Ale Works will release one new beer into the general market and one new beer each week into our restaurants. The barrel-aged beers and sours will start to come out in April. We are working on getting our retail license in San Marcos as well so that we can do brewery releases, too.
Don’t look now, but an area as old and sleepy as the antique shops that line it is getting really cool really quick. La Mesa’s old town Village Area—mostly known for fun only when Oktoberfest rolls around—has benefited from a big influx of modern and, dare we say, trendy eateries. And soon it will welcome its first-ever brewpub, Fourpenny House. Headed by a passionate owner who recently secured the services of a former brewer from San Bernardino’s Brew Rebellion, it will not only bring hyper-local beer to the area, but a Scottish theme, making it unlike any other fermentation operation in the county. We sat down with owner Peter Soutowood to get a better idea of what to expect.
What led you to establish a Scottish thematic for the brewpub?
My background is Scottish and I fell in love with the country, people and music the first time I went with my grandparents. Over the years I have made multiple trips, learned to play the bagpipes and visited the small towns of my ancestors. As a life-long baker and, more recently, a brewer, I was spending every spare moment in the past few years in the kitchen. Combined with my architecture career and a passion for creating spaces, I began to cast a critical eye at the restaurants and brewery tastings rooms in the area and knew I could make a truly unique space combining my love of flavor, my heritage and my design sense.
Other than beer and food, how will the Scottish concept be conveyed?
The walls will be lined with photos of my ancestors along with their stories of triumph and tragedy. Beside a hand-laid stone wall in the front of our space is a place for musicians, which will include Scottish and Irish sessions. On any random night you might find me playing my Scottish smallpipes or whistles there, as well! Our tartan pillows were hand-sewn by my mother, and our space will be filled with antiques and items of mine that represent the honest craftsmanship of a Scottish farmhouse. Our cocktail list includes Scottish-inspired drinks created by our Irish general manager, and even our beer utilizes a Scottish yeast strain. While we won’t have televisions, we will bring in a projector to show Scottish soccer and rugby. The team’s also looking for other ways to convey the brand, from Scottish afternoon tea to a whiskey trolley. We are all in for Scotland!
Where did you meet your head brewer?
I met Davey Landers at a Cicerone event in North Park in 2016. Over subsequent brewing sessions I began to see his incredible sense for flavors and creativity with beer. He has truly taken to heart the concept and key flavors of three of our flagship beers, and added a fourth unique creation which dovetails in neatly with our commitment to harvest.
What do you feel are the biggest opportunities and challenges to opening in La Mesa?
I see nothing but opportunities. La Mesa has quickly become the most desirable hip new scene in San Diego because of its quaint, walkable downtown, proximity to just about everything in the metro area within 15 minutes, and sunny mornings during June gloom! The other breweries in town have been able to keep locals who want good beer close, and the exploding food and drink scene in the La Mesa Village is good for everyone–customers and businesses alike.