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.
Shortly before the ball dropped in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, a Vista-based brewery announced it was closing its doors forever. Earlier in the day, SpecHops Brewing Company (an operation reviewed by West Coaster just three weeks ago) announced via social media that December 31 would be its last day in business. That post cited the company had been active since 2010, however, it wasn’t until last spring that it opened its location at 1280 Activity Drive. Though the operation aimed to pay homage to military veterans as well as public-service professionals, the web-based platform it set up for that purpose is inactive. SpecHops opened with an impressive brewhouse that will surely be coveted by current and aspiring brewery owners.
SpecHops’ departure came less than a week after another North County fermentation interest announced its farewell. Charles Perkins posted a Facebook message communicating his decision to close his Kuracali Beer & Sake Brewery. Based in San Marcos, that business opened roughly three years ago and was San Diego County’s first-ever sake producer.
Perkins started building Kuracali in 2012. It took him two years to complete the dual brewing components and he opened his doors in 2014. He says it was an enjoyable and rewarding experience serving people and turning them on to sake, but in the end, his location was off the beaten path. This led to insufficient patronage and lack of required revenue to stay in the black. When his lease expired last month and it was time to resign or vacate, he chose the latter. Perkins says he hopes to reopen at a more strategically situated location sometime in the future, but that it will require investment from an outside party. Interested parties can reach Perkins here.
SpecHops and Kuracali both closing the final week of 2017 punctuate something of a new normal. For a decade, new breweries have opened in San Diego County in increasingly large droves, but few closed. A total of eight local breweries closed last year. While most had been open for years, such as Offbeat Brewing, On The Tracks Brewery, La Jolla Brewing, The Beer Co. (which indicated it will reopen) and Magnetic Brewing, one, Wiseguy Brewing, has something in common with SpecHops. It was open less than a year before shuttering. Additionally, several are for sale, most notably Helm’s Brewing, Intergalactic Brewing and Finest Made Ales.
Multiple sources indicate that the Sorrento Valley facility secured for installation of the Fightertown Brewing concept is back on the market. This would be the latest indication that this business—an offshoot from the owners of La Jolla Brewing Company—is either struggling to get going or dead in the water altogether.
I first reported on Fightertown last June after attaining investor-related materials and contacting ownership for additional information. The goal was to convert a 41,900-square-foot industrial structure located at 5995 Pacific Center Boulevard into a brewing facility that, in addition to manufacturing beers for La Jolla Brewing, would be utilized for contract-brewing. Prospective contract clientele would consist of local breweries lacking capacity to meet demand or expand, or larger out-of-town brewing companies looking to gain entrance into the San Diego market. In addition to the brewhouse and cellar, the facility was to include a tasting-room serving beers from La Jolla Brewing as well as Fightertown’s contract clients.
Over the past several months, numerous brewery owners have cited attempts to enter into contracts with Fightertown as well as deal-breaking circumstances that incited them to pull out and pursue other production-increasing avenues. During that span, I have attempted to contact members of Fightertown’s ownership, but no inquiries have been returned, another potential indication that Fightertown has attained never-was status.
A quartet that seems well-fitted for erecting and operating a successful brewery is looking to do just that in Barrio Logan. Currently in planning, that business will go by the name Alta Brewing Company and be located in the Bread and Salt building on Julian Avenue just east of the Interstate 5 freeway. That venue is being converted into an art-centric hub for the fast-gentrifying neighborhood. Three of the aforementioned founders will be putting their skills to use on this project—John Bull, owner of general contractor Blueprint Contracting, Josh Gliko of structural engineering firm Shop Engineering, and Branded Woodworks co-owner and operator Mike Franck. But who will do the brewing? Answer: Brett Stampf.
Stampf started his brewing career 20 years ago and has the likes of Stone Brewing, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery and Green Flash Brewing Company on his résumé, as well as a stint as the opening head-brewer for La Jolla Brewing Company. Since departing the latter, Stampf has focused his attention on the Alta project. As such, the game-plan for that brewery, which aims to be open by spring of 2017, is more developed than most in-progress brewing interests.
Stampf expects to brew five core-beers capable of satisfying a wide-ranging array of palates—a golden ale brewed with English yeast, a dry-hopped brown ale, San Diego-style pale ale with “old-school” hops, an India pale ale and a dry Irish-style stout. Armed with a five-barrel system, the goal will not be to flood the market with these beers via distribution, but rather supply the on-site tasting room while ramping up to service future satellite, sampling-only venues. Stampf estimates he can keep up to two such spots in beer with his system, and his team has identified North Park and Chula Vista as particularly attractive communities.
Originally, the founders considered pursuing the traditional craft-brewery model—a 15-barrel brewhouse with 30- and 60-barrel fermenters and distribution as a primary revenue-source. In the end, following the footsteps of Stampf’s previous employers (including La Jolla Brewing, which is attempting to graduate to greater distribution) wasn’t what they wanted. So they are opting to stay ultra-local. The financial risk is lower, as is the stress-level for Stampf.
Time flies when you’re drinking beer. It feels like only yesterday I broke news about La Jolla Brewing Company’s owners’ initiative to open a contract-brewing facility in Sorrento Valley’s QUALCOMM campus called Fightertown Brewing Company. But a check of the calendar shows it was a full 11 months ago. Clearly, it’s time for an update on this project, so I went to the source and have the following to share, courtesy of one of the owners and the group’s director of marketing, Eden Algie.
What was the impetus for the new venture?
Fightertown Brewing Company originated out of need to expand the production of La Jolla Brewing Company (LJBC), and a desire to incubate and partner with other breweries looking to expand. Fightertown was purposely built to enhance the artisan craft-beer market and address the lack of capacity of many San Diego brewers. We are also excited to produce our own exciting beers under the Fightertown label and have an incredible ‘flight deck’ tasting room for people, local and from far, to enjoy rotating tap handles and great service.
What is the expected split between beers being produced for LJBC and those brewed for outside interests?
Fightertown’s estimate for LJBC beer-output is about 15% of total production in the first year. Fightertown is a unique and separate entity from LJBC, and has exclusive rights to produce, market and distribute LJBC-branded products as well as others. We have several committed contracts in place (including LJBC), already totaling 2,400 barrels as soon as we open the facility.
When will Fightertown open and what can visitors expect?
We expect to produce beer and open to the public in the fourth quarter of 2016, just in time for the holidays! The Fightertown tasting room will be unlike the tasting-room stereotype. We will be creating a real user sense experience in a warm and educational space. The décor will contrast brewing elements with entertainment. There will be elements and design that pay homage to the Fightertown legend, Topgun and U.S. Navy and Marine Corps flight operations that are so dear to us, and the city and heritage of San Diego. The space will be warm and the beer will be cold to complement the fast-casual dining service. We also have a 3,000-square-foot outdoor patio already nicknamed “the runway” for people to enjoy laughs and libations.
Will beer from contract partners be available in the tasting room?
We will offer every one of our contract-brewing partners the opportunity to pour in the Fightertown tasting room. We want to celebrate and support brands from barrel-to-bar.
This project’s been a while in the making. Have there been delays?
As with any business-growth, the challenges have been a combination between finding the right combination of space and ideas, and ensuring we hone the unique approach to a multiple business-stream model. We are excited to bring Fightertown to San Diego and pour some great memories. (And) we can most certainly see potential to roll Fightertown out across the U.S. It has a San Diego heart and an American beat.