This is the last post in a four-part series examining work-in-progress brewery projects throughout San Diego County. Our last stop finds us in the western expanses, a region with strong and varied interests in the works. Check them out and, if you missed any of our other tours, take a look at upcoming projects in the south, north and east regions.
Gravity Heights | 9920 Pacific Heights Boulevard, Sorrento Mesa: It will take the better part of a year to get this brewpub project built, but it has some star power behind it. The project belongs to Arturo Kassel, the restaurateur behind Whisknladle and the Prepkitchen eateries, and figures to be smart, stylish and sustainable. When searching for someone to mastermind brewing operations he went straight to Skip Virgilio, the original owner of AleSmith Brewing who devised many of that company’s award-winning recipes. This should prove a solid opportunity for a return to the local beer scene.
Latchkey Brewing Company | 1795 Hancock Street, Five Points: Headed by a brother-in-law duo bit by the brewing bug, this will be the sixth business to give brewing at Mission Brewery Plaza post-Prohibition a go after taking over the existing production facility and tasting room from Carlsbad-bound Acoustic Ales Brewing Experiment. The factor of this interest that inspires the most hope is the fact a brewer with experience garnered at Ballast Point Brewing will be heading the ale-and-lager making. Look for this biz to debut in spring of next year.
Attitude Brewing Company | 1985 National Avenue, Barrio Logan: Many are the beer businesses aiding in Barrio Logan’s renaissance. To date, they’ve been existing companies, but this will be the first to debut there. Its headquarters will be a combination brewery and eatery offering gourmet wraps, burgers and more. The ultimate goal is for house beers to eventually be distributed throughout San Diego as well as across the border in Mexico. It’s a lofty aspiration, but one that’s time has come with cross-border beer-appreciation at an all-time high.
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.
For over a year, a film crew headed by director and producer Sheldon Kaplan has quietly moved throughout the San Diego brewing industry. Now, the film, titled “Suds County USA”, is in post production. I was lucky enough to be among the first to get a sneak peak at a MCA-I Mixer event on Wednesday August 24th at Mission Brewery. Along with tremendous amounts of professional skill, the full feature on our hometown brews has had its fair share of luck. I met Sheldon after sparking up a conversation with Mission’s Director of Sales & Marketing Mike Mellow. He joined our conversation and I was able to garnish an incredible amount of information on the upcoming film.
Speaking through a clear but foreign accent, Sheldon is a South African native and a self-described Hollywood burnout. He found himself in San Diego for a friends wedding during the mid 90s. His wife-to-be was present only to chauffeur another wedding goer, and the two met by chance while the reception concluded. He’s been in town ever since, opting to work at Seau’s cigar room as a change of pace from the Los Angeles lifestyle. His interest in local beer started when he met Skip Virgilio delivering a keg of AleSmith’s beer to Seau’s in 1996.
After months of dedicated research, Sheldon is an expert on our local beer community. He considers himself a historian on San Diego Beer, and with excited eyes he describes the luck of timing with his movie in regards to modern local beer history. Referring to the start of 2011, “We started filming at a time of rapid expansion in the local industry,” he explains. “As we got deeper into this, we realized that there was a real chance of losing some of this San Diegan history if someone didn’t start documenting. I felt a strong sense of responsibility.”
Also by chance, Sheldon met Mission Brewery owner Dan Selis just as he was picking up the keys for the then-undeveloped L St. location. In this, Sheldon saw opportunity, and collected time lapse photos that document the evolution of the East Village brewery over the months of construction.
Throughout this entire process, the crew of Suds County USA has grown twice. I asked Sheldon if he felt overwhelmed to the point of breaking. “Never. I’m a tenacious mother****er.”
Switching gears, I asked a deceptively tough question: What is the essence of a craft brewery? Mike chimes in, “Putting beer first, above profits.” Good answer.
Next question, poised to Mike and Sheldon: What’s the essence of a San Diegan craft brewery? “Homebrewers are the key to craft brewing in general” Mike stated. He emphasized the close connection between homebrewers and pro brewers in regards to the success of the local brewing community. “It’s much easier to be creative and perfect a recipe with five gallon batches.” He continues, “when you homebrew for fun, you can try anything.” Indeed, many professional San Diegan brewers have ties to local homebrew clubs. For example, AleSmith’s Peter Zien was president of QUAFF; North County Homebrewers Association’s founder Rob Esposito is now helping revive the historic Aztec Brewing Company; and CHUG, a new homebrew club, now fields Derek Freese as brewer at the very new Monkey Paw brewpub in Downtown.
After much discussion, it was time for the presentation to begin. Seats were arranged to the East of Mission’s brewhouse, between palates of kegs and boxes of Mission beer on one side, and the fermentation tanks on the other. A projector was aimed at a screen, and in front of it Sheldon took his place after a brief introduction by MCA-I. In about half an hour, Sheldon explained San Diegan brewing history from the late 1800s to modern times. Then, the dimming of the lights announced what we all came for: the first look at Suds.
I was impressed with what I saw. The production quality was top notch, and the clip was a preview-style hodgepodge of various interviews and moments captured by Sheldon and his team. Things moved quickly, but I saw Chuck Silva, Skip Virgilio, Chris Cramer, Greg Koch, Tom Nickel, Vince Marsaglia, Vinnie Cilurzio, and more. The narrative weaved by the interviews was strictly San Diegan. To say it left me wanting more is an understatement. I estimate that the preview was around 90 seconds. The movie is still, after all, on the editing table.
Suds County USA was filmed by an all-volunteer film crew, and the narration of the movie is by Kevin Murphy (of MST3K fame). Suds will be released to DVD, and Sheldon describes that “this movie was made for the small screen.” We’ll keep you posted as we hear more.