SD TapRoom celebrated its tenth anniversary in February. The bar and restaurant was one of the first businesses to champion the charge of craft beer in its home community of Pacific Beach. That area has a big reputation as a party-town fueled by happy hours and discount brews, so trying to adapt mostly young, non-affluent locals and college-age visitors to the glories of a higher-priced but abundantly superior artisan ales was challenging, but fraternal owners Kevin and Kyle Conover stuck with it and gained the respect of the brewing community and the drinkers it caters to in the process. Now, that duo is ready to take things a step further via a new project: TapRoom Beer Company.
Equipped with a seven-barrel brewhouse and 50 taps, this brewpub will be located at 2000 El Cajon Boulevard, on the corner of El Cajon and Florida Street in University Heights. The Conovers have wanted to get into brewing for some time. It took a year to select and secure the spot they have. It was important that they find a location that was right for a brewpub as they were not interested in running a production brewery. The Conovers aim to keep this business true to the spirit of their flagship, citing a focus on community as an attribute that will carry over from PB.
But what about the beer? That will be the charge of local brewing-industry veteran Bill Batten. Batten resigned from his post as head brewer at Miramar’s Mikkeller Brewing San Diego in March. He opened that operation after transitioning over from AleSmith Brewing Company, the interest he worked for from 2002 to 2016. AleSmith owners Peter and Vicky Zien hold a minority ownership stake in Mikkeller SD, so entrusting that business’ brewing operations to Batten was a logical step, making it all the more surprising that he would voluntarily walk away after 15 years of loyalty.
Batten cited creative differences with majority owner Mikkel Borg Bjergsø when announcing his departure, but the likelihood of encountering those at TapRoom Beer seems slim. The Conovers say they are looking forward to Batten unleashing his skill and creativity, and are excited to see the direction he takes their brewpub. According to the team, the venue’s beers will run the gamut from a style standpoint. Classic English-style extra special bitters to San Diego-style hop-bombs and a variety of experimental beers will all be explored, but creating a mix of traditional and innovative ales and lagers is the goal.
Key features of the two-story project include a beer-cellar that will be located on a top-level mezzanine that is visible to customers. Half of the total space’s 5,000 total square feet is outdoors, providing opportunities to enjoy San Diego beer in tandem with its amicable trademark weather. Beers will primarily be available on draft, with occasional releases of bottles and/or cans. TapRoom Brewing is slated for a December 2017 or January 2018 opening.
I remember sitting in the FM 94/9 studio during an edition of the station’s Rock and Roll Happy Hour that brought together members of AleSmith Brewing Company and newly established Mikkeller Brewing San Diego. Long-time AleSmith brewer Bill Batten was on the microphone, professing that he would always be AleSmith at his core, while explaining that he was transitioning to a new role as head brewer for Mikkeller. While he may be AleSmith for life, the same cannot be said for Mikkeller. Batten resigned last week, choosing to move on due to what he describes as creative differences with company co-owner Mikkel Borg Bjergsø.
Batten joined AleSmith in 2002. During his 13 years with the company, he served in both sales and brewing capacites, ending out as senior brewer. When AleSmith owner Peter Zien moved the company to a larger facility in 2015, he formed a creative partnership with Bjergsø to form Mikkeller San Diego, retaining a minority-stake in the business. Batten stayed at the original brewery, becoming a full-time employee of Mikkeller San Diego, heading production and leading an eventual team of brewers.
It’s Batten’s opinion that both he and Mikkeller San Diego will be better off in the long run following his departure. As for his future, it is wide open. When resigning, he did not have another job lined up. Given his tenure and popularity within the industry, matched with the number of operations in town in search of a veteran brewer, he is sure to command a great deal of interest on the open-market.
As for the future of the position Batten vacated, representatives from Mikkeller San Diego had not yet formulated a long-term solution, but cited faith in their remaining brewing team. Brewers Daniel Cady, Chris Gillogly and Jacobo Mendoza will continue to produce the increasingly diverse line of beers Bjergsø conceives from afar. Currently, the brewery’s majority-owner devises concepts for recipes he shares via regular conference-calls and email communications. Those ideas and initial recipes are then adjusted by on-site staff to work with the Miramar brewery’s equipment.
This weekend, long-awaited international collaborative project Mikkeller Brewing San Diego opened its doors. The place was mobbed, both by everyday customers stopping in for a taste of the numerous beers in the tasting room, and next-level beer geeks assembling in the lot behind the brewery for a beer-festival that included various local interests as well as hard-to-get beers from cult-favorite brewing companies outside San Diego. When the dust cleared, I was left with a sated palate, a bunch of notes and some photos to share with West Coaster readers. Before we get started, skeptics, haters and trolls will be glad to know that I’m leaving my opinions on beer aroma, flavor and quality out of this. It’s only right. While I do not work for Mikkeller Brewing San Diego, I do work for AleSmith Brewing Company, the founder and CEO of which also has a substantial ownership stake in MBSD. So, I’ll share the basics so you know what to expect going in. But I’ll also share a bit of insight from behind this operation, because there are some fun little items that I’m sure San Diego beer enthusiasts will be interested in.
For those who somehow haven’t heard the story of how Mikkeller SD (as we affectionately refer to it) came to be, here’s the basics. After 19 years of brewing in a small, off-the-beaten-path set of business suites on Cabot Drive in Miramar, AleSmith owner Peter Zien signed on the dotted-line for a 105,500-square-foot facility two blocks away on Empire Street (which the City of San Diego later renamed AleSmith Court). That left Zien to decide what to do with AleSmith’s original facility. A number of companies (even those many craft-beer fans would politely refer to as “unsavory”) came knocking, but instead of entertaining the highest-bidder, Zien pursued an idea based on a nearly decade-old friendship with Danish gypsy-brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergso.
Prior to starting the business he would dub Mikkeller, Bjergso reached out to Zien as a homebrewer to a pro and asked for tips on integrating coffee into an oatmeal stout that, after this question was answered, would go on to be Mikkeller Beer Geek Breakfast. That beer made a name for Mikkeller, which has since gone on to become an international force worldwide…despite the fact Bjergso has never had a brewery to call his own. Looking to hand over his spot, turnkey-style, he reached out to Bjergso to see if he had any interest in a brick-and-mortar. The answer is yes and the rest is 15 months of history that consists solely of the duo and the recently assembled Mikkeller SD staff working hard to bring this project to life.
Though installed in the same spot as AleSmith’s former tasting room, Mikkeller’s recognizably quirky artistic stamp is all over the place. The floors have been painted turquoise, a mural featuring two very basic (and very flexible), iconic illustrated characters takes up the west wall of the sampling space with additional print art adorning the walls. AleSmith’s curved orange wall has been replaced with contemporary wooden slats that, when matched with modern light-fixtures, are a bit reminiscent of some of MIkkeller’s bars and bottle-shops, of which there are more than a dozen sprinkled across the globe. Best of all, the smallish space has been added to, care of the conversion of some of AleSmith’s former office-space into an overflow seating area just off the main entrance.
The opening-weekend tap-list consisted of 18 beers. It was important to the team at Mikkeller SD to offer a wide array of beers and styles, but I can say from witnessing what into it that it wasn’t easy. Delayed licensing and permitting alone made for a tough row to hoe, but we’re talking 18 beers here. That’s more than many breweries have to offer after having been open for months. And then one must consider the process of getting these beers dialed in to where Bjergso, who spent the majority of his time 10,000 kilometers away in Denmark but came up with base ideas and recipes for the Mikkeller SD beers, was comfortable with them. Beers would be brewed, fermented, then shipped to Denmark. Three of those initial beers—an American pale ale, India pale ale and porter—went through several iterations and were on at AleSmith’s current tap-room over a span of several months. They took a great deal of time and consideration, leaving a mere 15 beers to be brewed before last weekend’s opening—about six weeks down the road.
This is where the story gets pretty cool and the “creative-partnership” between AleSmith and Mikkeller that this new business is labeled became just that. Zien, who has been instrumental in early recipe-refinement (nobody knows the brewery like the man who built it and worked it up from the day’s when it was comprised solely of dairy equipment), pulled out some homebrew recipes and methodologies. Members of AleSmith’s brewing team collaboratively assisted, most notably on Mikkeller SD’s first bottled beer, an English-style old ale dubbed Ny Verden. Other beers that made it in time for the opening were a Belgian-style blonde ale, saison, trippel and dark strong ale, several more IPAs (including a Brettanomyces-spiked offering that I really enjoyed FWIW), a Berliner weisse, a pilsner (and a version of that beer with blood orange), an imperial stout and numerous members of the Beer Geek family of coffee beers.
Overseeing all of this work and brewing all of these beers (with the help of his crew, of course) was head brewer Bill Batten. After well over a decade with AleSmith, he knows the Cabot Drive system like the back of his hand, so when Mikkeller SD was set to become a reality, both he and Zien knew it made sense for this industrious and adventurous brewer to transfer himself, and with him a ton of history and knowhow, to the new business. While I can’t get too opinionated here, I can share that we at AleSmith are extremely proud of Batten, who went as far as roasting some of the coffee for the Beer Geek beers at his own residence. He is the glue that held together a rapidly developing project with the eyes of beer-obsessed people all over the planet.
And the fact he got by with a little help from his friends just makes the story all that much more San Diego in nature. Such camaraderie and willingness to do whatever it takes to make great beer is what this culture is all about, and it’s a big reason why Bjergso was excited to plunk down his first full-time brewery in America’s Finest City. Kudos to a good decision, cheers to a local beer landmark staying that way via a new identity, and props to the beer-lovers who have made and continue to make San Diego the very special place that it is.
This is the second of a four-part series assessing the most hopeful of San Diego’s in-progress brewery projects. Last week, I looked at upcoming businesses in North County. Today is all about the western expanses of the region. Additionally, I’m taking a look back at how some other brewery-owned venues I thought had promise actually turned out over the past three years.
Mikkeller Brewing San Diego, Miramar: Uber beer geeks are excited to see what outlandish gypsy brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergso does with this brick-and-mortar (a creative partnership with AleSmith Brewing Company owner Peter Zien) and they’ll find out on April 16, when the tasting room opens to the public with a beer-festival featuring standout locals and some of Bjergso’s far-flung friends. Fans who remember when the business housed AleSmith’s original tasting room won’t recognize the joint…or the beers.
Amplified Ale Works, Miramar: The quality of this Pacific Beach-based brewpub’s beers has gained it a nice following, but there’s nothing quite so disappointing as driving there only to find the nano-kebabery is out of house-beer. Opening a production operation in one of H.G. Fenton’s ready-to-brew Brewery Igniter suites in the heart of “Beeramar” should fix that and allow this business to get to the next level and bring beers like Electrocution IPA to an inland clientele.
OB Brewery, Ocean Beach: It’s been years in the making, but the skeleton of this three-story brewery, bar and restaurant at the end of Newport Avenue looks darn good. OB’s in the midst of a massive influx of brewery tasting rooms (Culture Brewing Company and Mike Hess Brewing Company with Belching Beaver Brewery and two small Kearny Mesa ops on the way), but a new brewery hasn’t touched down since Pizza Port set up shop in 2010. The time is right for this project, so long as the beer is of good quality.
Past Promising Projects: West
2013: Benchmark Brewing Company (Grantville; Grade—A; to-style “beer-flavored beer” and a delightful sampling space); Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens—Liberty Station (Point Loma; Grade—A; the best Stone beers are coming from this beautiful brewpub’s 10-barrel system); Modern Times Beer (Lomaland; Grade—B; beers don’t wow, but are defect-free, biggest points earned for tasting-room and can décor); Saint Archer Brewery (Miramar; Grade—C; they figured out how to make good beer just in time to sell out, but never figured out how to develop heart or soul)
2014: AleSmith Brewing Company (Miramar; Grade—A; from 20,000SF to 105,500SF with no quality collapse and county’s largest tasting room), Bitter Brothers Brewing Company (Bay Ho; Grade—B; brewing by-committee an interesting MO, but initial beers are solid); Duck Foot Brewing Company (Miramar; Grade—B; went beyond all-gluten-free angle to just-plain-good beer, gluten or no)
Having seen the undeniable impact and growth of the local brewing industry, local colleges have developed craft beer curriculums covering the science and business of opening a brewery. The first to do so was the University of California, San Diego with the UCSD Extension Brewing Certificate program, and the first graduate to open his own brewery was Ed O’Sullivan with the 2014 debut of O’Sullivan Bros. Brewing Company in Scripps Ranch. A year into the business of brewing, O’Sullivan has put much of his instructors’ teachings to use and even joined the faculty fold. We dropped in on him to find out more about the program and what it—and his brewery—have to offer the beer curious masses.
How was the UCSD program helpful in founding and operating your brewery?
Ed O’Sullivan: I think we’re the ultimate experiment because we studied under the masters of the craft and implemented what was taught in the program. I mean, I was a sponge for knowledge and we were quite literal in putting things in place that they recommended. I didn’t have commercial brewing experience coming into the program, so it was extremely helpful to have the advice and counsel of experts who could assist me in the planning, construction and operational start-up phases of the brewery. As a molecular biologist, I was able to understand a lot of science behind brewing and fermentation, but I had no experience with HVAC, filtration, PLC controls, tanks and pressures, CIP, cleaning chemicals and so on. But the feedback I got was very relevant and succinct. I put everything I learned into practice from the layout of the brewery to our brewing fermentation equipment to our lab, quality control program and more. Our beer is being well received and, after just nine months of operation, we were awarded two silver medals at this summer’s San Diego International Beer Competition. I owe a lot of our success to what the instructors passed on.
Who were some of the instructors you learned from?
EOS: The cool thing is that the instructors I learned from were Mitch Steele (brewmaster, Stone Brewing Co.), Lee Chase (brewmaster, Automatic Brewing Co.), Chris White (owner, White Labs), Gwen Conley (QA director, Port Brewing/The Lost Abbey/The Hop Concept), Peter Zien (brewmaster, AleSmith Brewing Co.), Yuseff Cherney (brewmaster, Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits), Arlan Arnsten (former sales VP, Stone), Tomme Arthur (director of brewery operations, Port/Lost Abbey/Hop Concept), Patrick Rue (brewmaster, The Bruery), Matt Brynildson (brewmaster, Firestone Walker Brewing Co.) and a host of other great instructors. I remember Yuseff telling me, “It’s not fair. It took me 20 years to figure some of this stuff out and you guys are getting it all in a few months.” I bristle with pride whenever I get a visit from one of the instructors.
And now you’re one of those instructors, right?
EOS: After I got the brewery up and running, the folks at UCSD asked me if I might be interested in teaching a class based on my experiences building a new brewery. Now I teach a class called The Brewery Start Up, which is one segment of a three-part class called The Business of Craft Beer. Peter Zien and Candace Moon (the Craft Beer Attorney) teach the other two segments. It seems like the program has now gone full-circle.
Who are some other graduates of note from the program?
EOS: You’ll see a lot of UCSD brewing graduates at many of the larger local breweries. Ballast Point, Stone and The Lost Abbey scooped up a lot of my classmates. O’Sullivan Bros. has also been fortunate to attract a number of graduates of the program. Currently, four out of six of us either graduated or are in the process of completing their Professional Brewers Certificate at the brewery today. We’ve been hosting interns from the program as well. We are on our third at the moment. I think our brewery tends to be attractive to graduates, especially if they are technical or science-oriented (aka, beer nerds). We not only have the brewery, but the lab with a bunch of equipment for testing and experimenting. We also have seven fermenters, so we can make a lot of different beers and keep everyone’s interest piqued for new brews, so there’s something for everyone.
What’s new with O’Sullivan Bros. and what’s next for the business?
EOS: We just finished our first year. It was a heck of a year and the result was 16 new beers, two silver medals, 60-plus retailers and a bunch of great tasting room customers. We just released our first lager, a nice California common called Steady Lad, that’s about to be followed by a new Bohemian Pilsner called Tooraloo (Irish lullaby). The brewery is nearing its maximum capacity and at our current size we’re only able to supply a select few. So, we are seriously looking at ways we can expand to keep up with growing demand.