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.
Though the business has been in the works since 2013, Division 23 Brewery has flown under the radar of most beer enthusiasts. That’s been helpful for co-founders Allen Hampton and Kellen Smith as they’ve had lots to do to get their nanobrewery up and ready to join the dense Miramar beer-making population. That goal will be achieved when Division 23 opens its doors, noon on Saturday, May 16.
Affiliated through their work in the HVAC niche of the Southern California construction industry for a decade, Hampton and Smith have homebrewed since becoming coworkers at local interest DMG in 2011. While they were capable of handling much of the design, building, permitting and other non-brewing aspects of the business, they knew that in order to be successful they would need to enlist the services of a professional brewer with pedigree. For that, they turned to Kevin Dougherty, a fermentationist who comes to San Diego after years spent working at Bear Republic Brewing Company and Widmer Brothers Brewing.
Dougherty moved to San Diego, confident that with its 100-plus operating brewhouses, he would have no trouble finding a position where he would be able to go beyond straightforward production brewing and exercise his own creative approach to recipe development. This is exactly what he has been afforded courtesy of Hampton and Smith, who allow Dougherty to own the brewing process. But that’s not to say they have no input. Several of the eight beers that will be on tap opening day stem from the co-founders’ homebrew recipes.
Division 23’s octet of inaugural beers will include a biscuity English-style pale ale brewed with Kent Golding and Marris Otter, a saison, a hefeweizen and a highly drinkable stout infused with a blend of Hawaiian beans from Pannikin Coffee and Tea. Two India pale ales will also be offered—an old school IPA bittered with Chinook and dry-hopped with Cascade, Centennial and Amarillo called Bitter Foreman; and a decidedly West Coast number dubbed Freight Damage that’s far fruitier care of Citra, El Dorado, Lemon Drop and Nuggetzilla hops. An American adjunct lager (“Shower Beer”) incorporating corn in its grain bill, and a glaringly acidic Berliner weisse provide low-alcohol options, the latter of which can be customized with a variety of flavored syrups ranging from raspberry to mango.
Most of the beers are produced on the brewery’s new three-barrel system from Oregon-based Stout Tanks and Kettles, but the trio also rely on a smaller Brew-Magic rig from Ohio’s SABCO when working on more out-there, experimental beers.
The machinery and cellar vessels take up a small portion of the facility, leaving roughly 1,600 square feet of space for a tasting room with serious recreational appeal. A 16-seat L-shaped bar bookended by a popcorn machine gives way to a large room with comfy modernist couches, shuffleboard, a ping-pong table and three embedded flat-screens for viewing multiple sporting events. Throw in sconces and hanging light fixtures fashioned from kegs and it just may be the ultimate man cave.
Division 23 Brewery is located at 7408 Trade Street. Its initial hours of operation will be noon to 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, with plans to be open Thursdays and Fridays in the near future.