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.
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.
Last month, Joe Lisica resigned from his post heading fermentation operations for Miramar-based Little Miss Brewing. He cited an amicable parting of ways with owners Greg and Jade Malkin, who brought him on as the company’s first-ever brewmaster and a partner (though goals that would have triggered part-ownership were not reached prior to Lisica leaving). The Malkins wanted to go one direction with the beers they produced, while Lisica favored an altogether different creative trajectory.
Lisica departed without a plan for his next step. He said he was actually looking forward to enjoying a little down-time after spending the past year-plus planning, hammering together and running a brand-new brewery. A life of rest and refueling must not have agreed with him, because he went back to work yesterday after being hired by Mikkeller Brewing San Diego to serve as its head brewer. Lisica worked at Green Flash Brewing Company in Mira Mesa before moving on to move up with Little Miss. Here, he will be responsible for the manufacture of many more styles than he tackled at his last place of employ, filling a beer-board 19 strong and crafting weekly new releases.
This will be the Miramar-based brewery’s second head brewer. Initially, the company—the brick-and-mortar overseas interest of Copenhagen, Denmark-based entrepreneur Mikkel Borg Bjergso—brought veteran brewer Bill Batten over from sister-company AleSmith Brewing Company to lead brewery operations. Batten resigned in March and has gone on to consult for several San Diego County brewing companies while waiting to take the reins at his eventual home, TapRoom Beer Company, which is currently being birthed in North Park by the owners of Pacific Beach bar SD TapRoom.
Back at Mikkeller San Diego, the company maintains a cult following, but appears to be struggling with the inherent difficulties of having an owner that spends the majority of his time away from the business while guiding brewery decisions from afar. In other Mikkeller San Diego news, the company has removed the anvil that was formerly a component of its logo meant to communicate its partnership with AleSmith. AleSmith owner Peter Zien says that, although he sold stocks in 2016 to give control of Mikkeller San Diego to Bjergso, he remains a partner from an artistic and financial perspective until Mikkeller San Diego’s lease expiration, at which time Zien will transition to a point where he is no longer a financial principal.
Author’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect facts presented following its initial posting.
Earlier this year, Bear Roots Brewing owner Terry Little enthusiastically shared his plans to graduate from the nano-brewing ranks by installing a six-barrel system at his Vista combo brewery and homebrew shop in order to increase production and begin self-distributing beers around San Diego County. He also filled me in on his other job as chief operating officer and head brewer for Oceanside’s Black Plague Brewing Company. When reconnecting with Little last week, he shared that he had stepped down from his second job and since decided to keep Bear Roots small, investing would-be expansion dollars on different aspects of his business. When asked about his change of heart, he cited the state of the industry and where it appears to be going.
What made you decide to stay small?
Looking at the business model we have and lessons learned over the last 12 months, I thought instead of working on exterior market expansion it was smarter to focus resources internally and put capital into leaner, more efficient systems to maximize production with lower overhead on the same slightly-upgraded equipment, with a few major cellar upgrades. We are still looking at expanding our cold storage and dry storage with heavy future focus on specialty small batch, while maintaining our core line-up of 16 beers. Personally, we have always focused our brewery on giving back to the local community and relied on a heavy tasting-room model for gross sales. That being said, even being small with minimum overhead and, in essence, two business models with our homebrew store, we have had modest revenue and seen slower growth. This is a new industry to me, personally, and I got into the business because of my passion and perseverance. It was never easy and yet always rewarding. We have just worked too hard to get where we are today. I felt it too risky with the number of breweries opening—at a rate of 2.25-per-month since we opened our doors in December 2015—with a plan similar to the one we had for expansion last summer. Maybe I’m preparing for a storm that won’t hit, but we have decided to hunker down for the next 12 months and keep investing in our current model, continuing to run our business on a givers gain philosophy.
What improvements did you re-appropriate funds toward?
We were able to upgrade our branding and define our marketing strategy, which I’m very happy with. We designed and built the Bear Roots van with an A-Team vibe, again with a lean concept for easy break-down and set-up, with the ability to pour right out the side of the van. I think the best upgrade was focusing on our tasting room layout and maximizing the space, by learning what we didn’t need and implementing new things. We have added multiple TVs, a pool table, and have focused events on what the community would like. Two major improvements are the taco truck we have contracted with for service seven-days-a-week, and the new patio space, which will be open to the public this fall.
What happened to your involvement with Black Plague?
I stepped down in July. It was a great opportunity to be part of an exciting team and be involved with a complete build-out of the 20-barrel brewery from the ground up. It was also nice to put my capital-expansion hat on again and help facilitate the opening. Opportunities like that don’t happen often and I’m glad I was able to take advantage of it. I have a strong belief in what craft beer is and what it can do for a community, and I feel Bear Roots is the best way forward for me to stay focused on my core and why I originally got into craft. I was taxed for time and Black Plague is just starting up. That requires a lot of work. It’s nice to focus my energy with my family and Roots. Fortunately, Black Plague has a great leadership team and (ex-AleSmith Brewing Company and Mikkeller Brewing San Diego brewer) Bill Batten is brewing for them. I wish them huge success and am still here for them when needed as a partner.
Where do you see the industry going and what businesses are best insulated from obstacles?
The industry is still growing at a remarkable rate and I’m not sure the market share can sustain. I feel any organic-growth business model is always a little protected, but with that said, uncertainty is in the air. I think focusing on quality and camaraderie is a good business practice for quarter four and moving forward into next year. From my personal experience, no business is ever protected from failure, but perseverance, good leadership and a strong staff who believes in the company is key.
What are some exciting things on the horizon for Bear Roots?
We are excited to keep adding to our barrel-aging program, and we’ll be releasing a barrel-aged double IPA called Deeply Rooted during San Diego Beer Week. We will start bottling in October and plan to have our chocolate peanut butter stout Bear Cookie be our first — available exclusively in our tasting room. We also have our monthly charity event the first Friday of every month. The next one will focus on Operation Hope, a women and family homeless shelter that is doing great work here in North County.