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.
Dustin Hauck has had a hand in a great many local brewery projects, more than possibly any single consultant in San Diego County. That level of experience has many coming his way for advice, both here at home and outside the region. Though it wasn’t easy to find much time on his busy schedule, we managed to corral him from the day-to-day long enough to ask him about the services he provides for brewery clients, how he got started and where the local brewing industry is headed.
What services does Hauck Architecture provide to brewery owners?
We provide complete architectural, structural, mechanical, plumbing and electrical engineering services for our clients. This is everything they need to get their building in shape for their brewing equipment. We also handle all the plans necessary for building permits along with most other construction-related permits that apply to brewery projects. Many brewers understand their brewing equipment but may not understand the building codes, fire codes and ADA issues they will face when building out their brewery. We close that gap, working with the client and any consultants they may have such as brewery equipment suppliers, contractors and installers. We can even provide steam, glycol, grain conveyance and other process piping design on an as-needed basis. What separates us from other architects is that we specialize in brewery projects. We understand the unique requirements of a brewery and the complications of adding a tasting room or restaurant to a manufacturing facility. We also understand the brewery equipment. There is no learning curve to explain what a mash tun is or why a room is needed for a future whirlpool tank as production grows over time.
What are some of the first projects you worked on?
Two of our first brewery projects were Plan 9 Alehouse in Escondido and Benchmark Brewing Company in the Grantville area of San Diego. Since then, we have worked on over 35 brewery projects and multiple craft beer-related bars, tasting rooms and restaurants.
What are some exciting work-in-progress projects that you’re currently involved with?
Right now, I have to say one of our most exciting projects is North Park Beer Co. There is a lot of deserved anticipation for Kelsey McNair and this project. We are very excited to be collaborating with acclaimed designer Paul Basile and are looking forward to this project coming to fruition.
What regions do you serve?
Most of our brewery work is in the San Diego region, with several projects in other parts of California such as Los Angeles, Ventura and San Leandro. We are expanding our service area outside of California with a brewery in Woodinville, Washington and Carlisle, Pennsylvania. So we can work anywhere. We are even talking to a potential client about a brewery in Italy.
How have you helped brewery owners?
We have been called in on a few projects where owners hired someone not familiar with brewery projects. They ran into issues such as waste water, air pollution, hazardous materials and zoning regulations they were not familiar with or how to deal with them. We are our client’s advocate, even names as their consigliere by one past client, acting in their best interest when dealing with authorities having jurisdiction over their brewery.
What are some potential obstacles you foresee for people looking to get into the craft brewing industry?
A lack of awareness of what it takes to open a brewery. There are myriad building code issues that have to be dealt with. The barrier to entry can be quite high when you consider all that is necessary. We see too many clients getting locked into leases before they have done their due diligence by talking with us early to assess the feasibility of a site and potential issues.
What are some candidates to be the next “it thing” within the brewing industry?
The high cost barrier to entry is something I see as being mitigated, to some extent, by an incubator model. We are currently working on a project called Brewery Igniter that intends to lower this barrier by providing turnkey production breweries that are ready to brew. The rent is higher but the start-up cost is much less. This allows for someone to come in and test their business to find out if they have what it takes to make it. I think this is an exciting model. We are also seeing growth in similar fermented beverage industries such as mead, cider and distilled spirits. Expect this trend to continue as we rise from the suppression that was caused by Prohibition. It took the U.S. a long time but American palates are evolving and there is an entire world of flavors out there to be explored.