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Posts Tagged Skip Virgilio

Voices of San Diego Beer

Sep 5

Suds County, USA will be shown at White Labs’ tasting room Friday night starting at 6 p.m. Here are four voices from San Diego’s early beer scene that appear in the film.

Rich Link was one of the first homebrewers in San Diego, president of QUAFF in the early 90s and a long-time local contributor to Celebrator. His view on the early days of homebrewing in the 1980s:

“At that time ninety-percent of the people were brewing beer with three pounds of extract and four pounds of corn sugar. It was cheap and easy and truly not all that great.”

Paul Holborn was another early homebrewer who founded Bolt Brewing in Fallbrook in 1987. In 1985 he went to raise capital for a brewpub in the then-redeveloping downtown Gaslamp area, but did not receive a positive response from potential investors:

“The first question out of their mouths was, ‘Is that legal? Can you actually do that? What do you use, bath tubs?’”

Troy Hojel, former pro brewer at Cervecería La Cruda, established in 1996 at 4th and Island Downtown, reflects on the process of opening the establishment:

“I lived above the brewery on 4th Street and at the time it wasn’t the nicest of streets. I arrived under the impression that I was going to have some resources to help build this brewery, and once I realized (there’d be no help), we were jack-hammering concrete, doing everything!”

Skip Virgilio was perhaps the first person to start brewing Belgian-style beers in San Diego. As head brewer at the now long defunct PB Brewhouse (closed Oct. ’95), Virgilio’s Belgian Strong Ale won the first GABF gold medal for any San Diego beer in 1994. That beer became the foundation for AleSmith’s Horny Devil when Skip and fellow QUAFF member Ted Newcomb opened AleSmith in 1995/1996 (construction/first batch). His reaction to the first AleSmith batch:

“Ted and I were standing and looking at this tank and Ted said, ‘Wow, we did it…’ and I was like, ‘Holy crap, we got to sell this stuff. Who are we going to sell it to?’ It was a pretty tough sell. There were places like O’Brien’s and Pizza Port where we were friendly with those folks and they were going to take it from us whether it was good or bad. But then we got outside that small group of folks and we had to start knocking on doors and talking to people who had no idea what craft brew was and certainly didn’t care.”

Screen grabs courtesy of Sheldon Kaplan (Director/Producer) and Jeff Troeber (Assistant Editor)

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First Look: Suds County USA

Aug 26

Portrait of Sheldon Kaplan owner of Ibhayi Media and producer of "Suds" (Photo: Tim Stahl,

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.”

Mike Mellow, left, of Mission Brewery

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.

Sheldon Kaplan, speaking left of projector screen, orating the history and evolution of the San Diego beer industry.

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.

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