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.
When Stone Brewing decided to take over the lease for the Escondido farm formerly operated as La Milpa Organica in March of 2011, its officers were open about the fact they had zero idea of how to run such a property. All they knew was that they wanted to preserve a local resource for wholesome, organic produce. While surprising, the acquisition fit perfectly with the company’s vocal devotion to the Slow Food movement and its Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens eatery’s commitment to sustainable food production. So, they took on the 19-acre agricultural project—only five acres of which are tillable—dubbed it Stone Farms and did everything in their power to make it a success.
Stone Farms’ fruits, vegetables, herbs and other edibles accounted for 26% of the product utilized at Stone’s various San Diego County restaurants (Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens in Escondido and San Diego International Airport, plus the East Village’s Stone Brewing Tap Room). The fields’ yields could be customized based on seasonality and the needs of those venues. Still, turning a profit proved impossible for the operation. Thus, after half-a-decade in the red, Stone has made the painful but necessary decision to close the farm permanently come March.
Having been one of the Stone employees who worked hard to market the venue, I can personally attest to the effort that went into turning Stone Farms into a viable profit center. Many were the dedicated individuals who went outside the box to offer amenities and programs that would appeal to locals and make a destination out of Stone’s small but rather cool patch of fruitful soil. Over the years, live music performances, movie nights, farm tours, a CSA program, various workshops and other public events as well as private events, large and small, helped keep the place going.
To be fair, it worked surprisingly well—about as well as anything could when located on the furthest northern outskirts of San Diego County with no other big draws around it to piggy-back off of. Despite being only several hundred yards from Interstate 15, it was completely hidden from view and getting to the farm meant taking a marked, but decrepit road barely wide enough to accommodate traffic headed in opposing directions. But once there, it really was impressive. Not only did it have its very own tasting room stocked with interesting Stone beers (the newest brews plus vintage ales and rarities), but over the years Stone installed a music stage with plentiful seating, pizza-oven, waterfall, enhanced lighting, horseshoe pits, a patio amongst over-arching passion fruit vines, a bocce ball area and increased parking. Visitors were allowed to stroll about at-will to discover what was being grown and check out various livestock from quails, chickens to peacocks, goats and more.
When compiling independent scores from local beer enthusiasts and brewing industry professionals for the 2014 and 2015 editions of my Complete Guide to San Diego Breweries, I was never surprised to see Stone Farms rank as high as it did. In last year’s edition, Stone Farms came in as the fourth-best out of more than 130 brewery-owned venues in the county to have a beer on the back of being ranked as number-one for best service and number-two for best setting (behind Karl Strauss Brewing Company’s Sorrento Mesa Brewery Gardens restaurant). It was a unique and glorious place that I will personally miss—and there’s nothing like it to take its place. But business is business, and unfortunately, not enough business got done during Stone Farms’ five-year run.
That said, roughly 100,000 fans visited Stone Farms since it opened to the public in June of 2013. That’s impressive, but it simply wasn’t enough. Throw in the fact the farm closed during the winter and it simply wasn’t sustainable for a company like Stone to continue running it. Truth be told, many small farms are struggling these days. Says Stone director of hospitality Steve Robbins, rising labor and water prices made for an uphill battle, especially as larger farms that are able to charge less money based on sales volume crowd the market. Producing as little as it did on an annual basis off just five acres of farmland made it impossible to be as competitive as was necessary.
Stone is currently working with the land owner to find a suitable tenant to take over the lease and maintain the property. Back at its restaurants, Stone will continue to source produce from smaller, local, organic farmers—perhaps even the purveyor that rises from the ashes of the heartfelt and hard-fought but ultimately unviable passion-project that was Stone Farms.