On the southwest corner of El Cajon Boulevard and Alabama Street sits Live Wire, San Diego’s longest running “craft beer bar” (at least according to the research of this writer).
Established in 1992 and thus currently celebrating its 26th anniversary, the ochre red box of a building is demarcated on one side with a random line of Cypress trees and fronted by a somewhat incongruous Daliesque metal sculpture of a bicycle and associated metal railing. The confirmation that this might be some sort of “dive bar” is given by the retro looking arrow sign above the building, pointing to the door that advertises both the name of the establishment and suggests that “cold beer” and “warm friends” might be found if one follows the direction of said arrow. Over the decades I have found that in this instance, there is truth in advertising.
Inside, Live Wire lives up to its “dive bar” roots. The only window to the place is a porthole-style one in the front facade that, even if unobscured, wouldn’t offer much to distract you from your drinking. This is not an issue, however, as it has long been covered with a sign reminding all those who pass by that the establishment is open every day at 5 p.m.
Inside, there is a long bar down one side of the room with its centerpiece of twenty-four gleaming taps. A line of vinyl-covered bar stools stand sentinel permanently attached to the floor aside said bar that is abruptly ended by a video game, pinball machine, and a corner booth. On the opposite wall sits a row of four vinyl-covered booths with a curated jukebox breaking their ranks; the soundtrack to Live Wire is perhaps just as important as the drinks. The booths lead down to the far end of the bar which is occupied by a pool table.
It is in these comfy confines where I sit down with the three partners who own Live Wire: the bar’s founders Sam Chammas and Joe Austin, and their more recent partner, Thaddeus Robles.
So how you did you guys all meet?
Sam: “It was at State [SDSU] that I gravitated to one of the cool little islands of culture there, and that was the radio station [KCR]… and that’s where Joe and I met. We were DJs and then moved up to management.”
Joe: “At some point we had the same office hours at KCR…”
Sam: “We were there in the mid ’80s.”
Joe: “I majored in Business Management and graduated in ‘88.”
Sam: “Then Joe and I lost track….”
Sam graduated in 1989 with a degree in Industrial Studies specializing in plastics, and went on to work at Medtronic, making specialty parts and plastic tubing for medical devices. By that time, Joe had gone off to Los Angeles to work in the hospitality business.
A few years later, a family friend who was, at the time, the landlord of the building which now houses Live Wire informed Sam that the building had become available. Sam then learned through a mutual friend that Joe had just returned to town in order to study and get his teaching credentials (he is currently a career education specialist in the Poway Unified School District after ten years of teaching high schoolers, and working as principal for another thirteen).
Joe: “I was just done running restaurants and decided that my time would be better spent as a teacher. I ran into Sam who said, ‘Hey, I got this opportunity [for you] to come and manage this bar I want to open.’ I thought, ‘I’d love to help you but that sounds exactly like what I just got out of, but let’s go get some lunch and take a look at the place.’ We came in here and it was nothing.”
The place in question had once been a neighborhood bar called The Old Timer in the 1950s and 1960s, reportedly, and then just prior to Sam taking over the lease it had been operating as The Eagle, a hardcore gay bar. The space had ten tap handles, which was unusual for the time and Joe pitched some “what ifs” to Sam.
Joe: “Like what if it was draft only? And what if it was micros and imports only? And pitchers and pints only? And Sam, who at that point had no experience in the industry was like, ‘Okay.’ He didn’t know what he didn’t know… and I said, ‘How about this, how about instead of managing it, I’ll run it with you – let’s partner on it, I’ll bring the experience and you bring the…’ Well, at the time, it was a ridiculously small amount of money in retrospect.”
Sam: “We opened this place for eighteen thousand dollars!”
Thad: “Wow, I didn’t know that!”
Sam: “That was just to refill it with furniture, toilets, seats, and a cooler, after the previous owners had stripped it of everything.”
Joe: “The place had been stripped empty… this place had been ridden hard and put away wet!”
Sam: “It was still not a sure thing. The previous bar had such a negative reputation – not the clientele – but due to how recklessly it had been run. The ABC told us we had an uphill battle, a 50/50 chance at best.”
Joe: “I think it is important in the history of Live Wire to remember that at that time, Sam and I were in our early twenties, mid-twenties, and it felt like every bar we were spending regular amounts of time in prior to Live Wire opening was one that we had sort of commandeered from a generation or two before us. Alibi is the one I always hold up as an example. You’ve got this great bar, man, with a ton of history and kind of a grungy, you know, divey feel to it, and a bunch of old guys, probably vets, all neighborhood guys hanging out trying to enjoy their Big Dipper… and then in comes this twentysomething crowd on their Italian motorcycles. My real desire was to open a place where we weren’t crowding anybody out of it.”
We then moved on to discuss how the staffing for Live Wire is a little unusual compared to most bars.
Joe: “We’ve done a really good job at staffing this bar and giving a sense of ownership to the people that run it. I think one of the guiding principles of this place has always been that this place won’t be anybody’s only thing [job], so we opened with seven night shifts and maybe seven door shifts, but we didn’t hire two bartenders and two doormen to cover seven nights. We opened with eight bartenders and three doormen, and when we expanded to happy hour, no one had two happy hour shifts. To this day, twenty-six years later, we don’t have anybody whose only source of income is Live Wire. So you come and work here one Thursday night a week and this place stays fresh, and your approach to this place stays fresh, and so for Sam and I both, since our grand opening when I was still a student teacher… I’ve always had a day job; this is the treat to me.”
Joe: “Sam and I had a conversation that this is a guy [Thad] who has been running the place for thirteen of the last twenty years, and this place would not be where it’s at, and may have jumped the shark several years before, if it was not for Thad’s diligence… it was an easy decision for us earlier this year to bring him on as a partner and make that sense of ownership actual for him.”
Although Thad functions predominantly in the capacity of the day-to-day manager at Live Wire, he is also a guitar specialist and tours with bands in various capacities as a tech/stage crew member and/or tour manager.
Joe: “I think the community piece is the part I love the most. Both Sam and Thad are far more regular and way more recognizable than me, but for me to come in here, even when I don’t know anybody in this bar… the sense of community, the role that a place that you helped create – providing that space for people – is what has always been the most important part for me.”
Sam: “I think early on we realized that this is a pretty cool business. Even though Joe and I were doing different things, we loved this, it was our hobby. Then when I got laid off from the plastics business this became my one and only.”
Since then, Sam has opened the Whistle Stop Bar as well as Station Tavern, both located in South Park.
The Park Boulevard end of El Cajon Boulevard near where Lire Wire is situated is now undergoing a rejuvenation, and like the surrounding area, an ongoing gentrification. However, back when Live Wire opened its doors in 1992, “The BLVD” – as it is referred to by locals – was a very different place. There was no lack of prostitutes cruising that section of El Cajon Boulevard, both day and night, and no lack of carjackings or shootings in the area either. During their renovation stage of approximately ten months, there were, shall we say, some issues.
Joe: “We used to have a daily battle. We used to buy disposable cameras and keep them on the shelf inside the [front] door… you’d just say, ‘Ladies, got to move along, can’t hang out here,’ and they’d be like, ‘Go fuck yourself!’ Then you’d come out with the disposable camera, and the next thing you know they’re hightailing it out of here… it was touch-and-go at best.”
The guys also got rid of a bank of three pay phones in front of the building. It cost them a little revenue at the time, but ultimately helped solve the loitering issue, as the ladies of the night (and day!) eventually chose to move to another locale.
Sam: “We opened at 8 p.m. back then as the Boulevard was so intense. We had signs up in those first three years: ‘DON’T WALK TO RED FOX ROOM ALONE.’ We had customers being mugged, and one of our favorite customers was even held up at gunpoint.”
Joe: “We were trying to change the dynamics out in front of our place, so we didn’t want to open and be a day-drinking bar for some of the clientele that had been natives to the Boulevard for a long time. We wanted to change it.”
Let’s talk about the beers…
Joe: “You were lucky if you could find three good [tap] handles at a bar, so the novelty of being able to pick ten handles felt like an opportunity to overdo it from the get-go. Ten taps was a ton at the time. I think we then went from ten to fourteen and then eventually remodeled and got it to twenty-four.”
A quick and important aside about the current draft system at Live Wire: Lee Chase (brewer and direct draw guru from Automatic Brewing, Blind Lady Ale House, Tiger! Tiger!, and Panama 66) helped design the direct (short) draw system. The stainless steel taps and components, as well as the beer lines, are all cleaned on a regular basis.
Sam: “When we opened we were crazy busy; there was pent-up demand. People were like, ‘Wow, this place has Redhook ESB, Anderson Valley, Sierra Nevada…’”
Joe: “We had ‘the Anchors’ (Liberty, Porter and Steam), Guinness, Harp, Bass, Newcastle, Redhook, Sierra Nevada, Watney’s Red Barrel, Pete’s Wicked Ale, Heineken, and Pilsner Urquell.”
Vinnie Cilurzo (co-founder of Blind Pig Brewing and Russian River Brewing Co) mentioned to me that you were his first Blind Pig account.
Sam: “Dennis [Borlek] (former roommate of Vinnie and current proprietor of Fathom Bistro Bait & Tackle) was a mutual friend, and so when Vinnie started brewing [at Blind Pig] Dennis said, ‘My friend Vinnie loves your bar, and when he brews his first beer, would you bring it in?’ and I was like, ‘Heck, yeah!’”
Joe: “I remember serving it [Blind Pig IPA] when it first got on. It was almost like a trick, you know what I mean? Like, hey, pull my finger… people would order the beer and you’d watch their faces just kind of pucker, and then ultimately you’d see a light bulb go on. I remember thinking to myself that this was distinctively different; either you love the first glass or you’re never going to get it.”
Sam: “We got a lot of people saying, ‘This beer is bad, there is something wrong with this, it’s turned, it’s got too much of a bite.’ It didn’t take off initially, and they were a little higher priced then, and there were other ones that didn’t take off. I remember bringing in Racer 5 [IPA by Bear Republic] and that beer didn’t fly off… the IPAs took like a year to find their market. We had to then shrink down to one or two IPAs, and we always tried to keep Blind Pig on as long as we could while Vinnie was at that company.”
Thad: “When I came in, Speedway [Stout] was my jam, ‘cause that shit was gnarly back then.”
Joe: “That’s when Charlie [Upham], one of our regulars who lived up the street brewed it, before he sold it.” Editor’s Note: Visit the bottom of this post to learn more about that beer.
Sam: “That beer actually took on a following! Another early strong one that we wax poetic about was Pete’s Wicked Ale and Pete’s Wicked Winter Berry Ale. The other one, it was so rad, was Celebration by Sierra Nevada. We were the first San Diego account to get that, and people would start calling in November, ‘Is Celebration in yet? When is Celebration arriving?’”
Joe: “It was the Pliny the Younger of its time!”
Sam: “There was a winter beer that also came out from Saxer (who would later merge with Portland Brewing Co)… they made Three Fingered Jack, and for winter they doubled it and they would give you this mitten to put over the Three Fingered Jack tap handle, so people would come in and say, ‘Give me the glove, give me the glove!’”
Sam: “People loved getting craft here because they knew the beer was always flowing; a keg rarely sat here.”
Let’s talk about the original, live music scene at Live Wire, which went away in 2004 as a condition of getting a full liquor license.
Sam: “The beers were big and strong and the bands were big and strong, loud and rockin’!”
Joe: “Looking back over those 10 years, those shows weren’t every week, they were mostly monthly, episodic at best. We had a band that wanted to play in the ‘living room’ of our bar.”
Thad: “Also, the music scene at that point was blowing up…”
In that regard I mention, along with some others, a former local band of that era of some repute: Rocket From The Crypt.
Thad: “Half of Rocket worked here! Pete, the bass player from Rocket, got me the job here!”
Joe: “There are places that are venues that happen to have booze, and Live Wire was kind of a place that had booze that happened to have shows. You came for the booze and stayed for the music!”
Sam: “When the lull happened, it was the music scene, both the musicians that drank here and the fans, that kept Live Wire going until the next revival.”
Brewery satellite tasting rooms: a help or a hindrance?
Joe: “Any reason for people to go out is good. I get the argument [by other publicans] that they’ve worked harder to create what they have, and how can someone have a ‘pop-up’ tasting room with no investment and bypass the whole ABC’s, you know, cavity search? I get it, and yet I disagree. I think there is too much protesting about it; I think it is probably a cycle that’s going to fade away. I like tasting rooms and I am not afraid of them coming and taking business away from us. If anything, they are hoping that people develop a taste for the type of beers that we have been serving for the last 26 years. I would advise bar owners to just not panic.”
Thad: “I think sixteen ounces is kind of a big taste!”
Sam: “When the tasting room wave began, I thought it was so cool. They have created a whole new category of bar and were given so many perks by the ABC. You can have one-year-olds to one-hundred-and-one-year-olds; their audience is so much bigger. You can consume it there or you can have it be to-go, and then even when they started doing the sixteen ounces, I was like, ‘Well, I heard it was supposed to be just tastes, but okay, if this is going to help you survive, great.’ But the city and the ABC need to be real careful and make sure that bars, stand-alone 21-and-up bars still have a lot of unique things to offer, meaning later hours and liquor, and that there needs to be some limits on the tasting rooms to keep them from becoming bars. There needs to be uniqueness in both.”
What are the best and worst parts of being a publican?
Thad: “I love it all… the true testament of why I have been here so long is how rad these guys are! That pretty much is what I like the best.”
Sam: “For me I felt it from the first year, I feel it now: I love hearing stories of people that hook up here for a night or who hook up here for a lifetime. The other thing I am super grateful for is that young people love this bar, it is still a great ‘starter bar’ and that’s what fuels Live Wire.”
150+ brewhouses in San Diego and…
Sam: “Make each one a bit different than the one next to it. I hate copy cats. Give each one a little different feel than the other one, then they’re all busy.”
Joe: “Societe is one of my favorites, because everything they do they do well; they are not just one type of beer. That’s a ‘Lee Chase learning’ for me.”
At one point, Lee was surprised that Joe only seemed to be drinking IPAs and was further surprised that someone who had been around the bar business, and in this case craft beer, had a seemingly narrow band of beers. Lee then gave Joe some saison that he had brewed utilizing ginger…
Joe: “It was something amazingly delicate and complex and it just blew my mind. I think he did that not to say like, ‘Look, what a rad brewer [I am]’ – that’s sort of a given – he did it because he wanted to illustrate the point that there is more to be done out there than seeing what the vertical limit on hops is. I like to celebrate the ones that are good at what they do, but as Sam put it, there’s the diversity of types, right? So, one-hundred-and-fifty of them, and fifteen probably are worth celebrating for that reason. The rest of them are some sort of knockoff of the top fifteen.”
Thad: “I like what they all said. It’s kind of rad because it makes people up the ante; you have to brew good beer in this town. You can’t brew shitty beer and expect to be around… that’s what I like about it – make better beer, make it rad, be different, make a different beer. I like that part of it.”
The Origins of Speedway Stout:
AleSmith’s Speedway Stout has become an iconic beer, both in San Diego and also well beyond our fair shores. Beer fans have over the years enjoyed both the “standard” version of the coffee-infused Imperial Stout as well as the numerous iterations of its barrel-aged sibling.
Like many of the iconic San Diego brews over the years, Speedway Stout originally started out life in essence as a homebrew. It was conceived by one Charlie Upham, who brewed the original commercial version (an extract-only brew) from 1997 to approximately 1999 at the now long-defunct Murphy’s Custom Brewing, a brew-on-premises operation.
Around November or December of 1998, Charlie approached then owner of AleSmith, Skip Virgilio, with the malt extract recipe and asked Skip if AleSmith would brew it for him (Murphy’s Custom Brewing was going out of business), so Charlie could continue to market his Speedway Stout.
Skip agreed and converted the recipe to an all-grain version and scaled it with some minor modifications. According to Skip, “we brewed a total of two batches, first in December of 1998 and again in March of 1999. The ABV was 8.5% both times. It was a very tasty beer, but the AleSmith Speedway Stout was not the same recipe and it wasn’t inspired by Charlie’s recipe. Not that Charlie’s recipe wasn’t great…”
After the initial two AleSmith Speedway batches were brewed, Charlie decided to move on to other things and gave up on marketing Speedway Stout. He offered Skip (AleSmith) the name and the recipe and asked Skip if he would give him beer from time to time. There was no buyout per se.
More than two and a half years later, Skip attended the 2001 Pizza Port Strong Ale Festival and tasted an Imperial Stout that got him thinking that it was time for AleSmith to brew one. “I had brewed and encountered several as a homebrewer and it was always a favorite style,” says Virgilio. “It wasn’t initially intended to be a coffee stout, but the Speedway Stout name was hard to beat, so coffee was incorporated in the recipe that became AleSmith’s Speedway Stout.”