Skip Virgilio has had a front row seat to much of what has transpired in San Diego craft beer’s “New Brew Wave” from 1987 to the present day. One of a nascent group of homebrewers in San Diego in the 1990s, Virgilio went on to brew professionally at PB Brewhouse and then to later co-found AleSmith Brewing Company with fellow homebrewer Ted Newcomb in 1995.
In 2002, Skip sold AleSmith to Peter Zien and returned to his original gig as a mortgage broker, and back into the world of homebrewing. After a seventeen year absence from the pro ranks, he has now returned to run the brewery at Whisknladle Hospitality group’s new Sorrento Valley eatery and brewery, Gravity Heights.
I recently had a chance to sit down with Skip at Gravity Heights to discuss his new venture and touch on some of his previous adventures in the local craft beer scene.
SK: First off, congratulations on Gravity Heights (GH)! Can you tell me about how this project came about, and your involvement in it?
SV: I think it was about five years ago when we met at Ryan Trim’s house. Ryan has these bottle shares every month or two, and I got invited by one of my friends who I surf with, Danny Singley. Arturo (Kassel, the managing partner and co-founder of the Whisknladle Hospitality group) lives on the same cul-de-sac as Ryan and he was there too. I always brought some homebrew and some old beers from AleSmith to those “shares.” Arturo suggested that perhaps we do something together. At the time, I think Arturo had just had his third child and was opening another restaurant, so it (the GH project) got put on the back burner for a while. A couple of years later, he got back in touch and we met at Solana (Beach) Pizza Port for a beer and discussed how it might look, and after that we started poking around for real estate and did some business planning.
SK: How were you guys able to raise capital for the GH project?
SV: There are five of us who were in on the ground floor at Ryan’s house, including Arturo, Ryan, Chris Maulik, a dentist, and Mike Sherman, another dentist, and me. Chris and Mike didn’t have a lot of time to devote to the project, so they are a smaller piece of the five (founding partners). We raised the money mostly through friends and family, and folks that had invested in some of Arturo’s other restaurants.
SK: What do you think about the craft beer market both locally and nationally, and how it’s shifted from the time that you guys decided to start the project some years ago up until GH’s opening?
SV: When we first started talking about this or getting serious, maybe three years ago, you know there was certainly talk about when the bubble is going to burst, or when things are going to soften up in San Diego for the craft beer market. I always felt that if you had a restaurant with a great location and a great product, and added a brewery to that, then that could work. I think it is getting more and more difficult to compete for shelf space and for tap handles in bars, and I really didn’t want to go in that direction. So I felt like for our project, timing wasn’t as critical.
SK: For now is the goal to have Gravity Heights beers only available here at this location, or are there some possibilities of limited distribution?
SV: We’d like to serve most of the beer over the bar to our guests here, but we do have a little extra capacity in the brewery, and so we are starting to talk to select draft accounts. So I think we’ll be on tap at some places around town.
SK: So no packaged product at this juncture?
SV: Right now we are doing crowlers and growlers, and we hope to do cans at some point.
SK: So earlier on, before we started the formal part of this interview, we were catching up with some of what I’ve been up to recently, and I showed you some video which included a picture of British beer historian Michael Jackson, and you mentioned something interesting…
SV: It had never occurred to me until seeing your Ron Pattinson video that the Michael Jackson book The World Guide to Beer was an early influence for me. One of my closest high school friends and neighbor had the book on a coffee table. I used to flip through it and read about all the wonderful beers Michael Jackson featured. Later, when I started homebrewing and reading everything I could get a hold of, I remembered the book, and it became one of the early additions to my brewing library.
SK: So what actually got you started on the craft beer trail? What was your motivation to become a brewer?
SV: I had always been interested in beer other than Bud, Miller, Coors — not that I didn’t drink my fair share of those too! I was always seeking out other beers, at the time that there was no craft (beer), but there were import beers and things like that. I was in the mortgage business for a number of years, and a couple of my friends from Orange County had moved to Palo Alto, and some other friends lived in Seattle. I’d just kind of gotten burnt out on the mortgage business and decided to take a road trip, so I drove to Palo Alto and my friends Ed and Dave Miner took me to Gordon Biersch’s (first) brewpub in Palo Alto.
There were a couple of other craft beers that I had sampled before: Sierra Nevada, Saint Stan’s, and Anchor, but that was about it before I took that trip out of Orange County. I pressed on to Seattle to visit some other friends there. They introduced me to ale houses that might have had ten different beers from ten different breweries that I’d never heard of or knew existed. The beers were different and flavorful. I got really excited about it (brewing) and I decided at that time I was going to learn to make beer, so I went to the University of Washington bookstore and poked around over there and found some books on homebrewing. I bought two or three of them, and then headed back home, to the City of Orange at the time, and when I got back home I found that there was a homebrew store within a mile of where I was living called Fun Fermentations. Then I joined the homebrew club that was based out of there called Barley Bandits. I later moved to Valencia, California, and at that time I joined the Maltose Falcons (homebrew club).
SK: So then the move to San Diego, right?
SV: That was in the spring of 1990. I was living in an apartment over a garage in the Village of Carlsbad and homebrewing there for about a year and a half. I think I joined QUAFF (Quality Ale and Fermentation Fraternity homebrew club) in 1990 or 1991. There were times when there were only four or five of us meeting at the old Callahan’s in Mira Mesa. (Author’s note: QUAFF now has more than 330 members, and monthly meetings with more than 50 in attendance are not uncommon).
SK: I don’t know if the local casual craft drinker understands the strong connection between home and pro brewers in San Diego. Care to comment?
SV: Yeah, it’s kind of interesting… sometimes it seems like there’s a disconnect between homebrewers and craft (pro) brewers, which I never really understood, and I think it is really more on the craft (pro) brewers side… you know, thinking that homebrewers are amateurs and whatever, and that they don’t really get it. But the reality for me is that homebrewers are the ones doing all the innovation, and that is moving into the craft (pro) beer side. I have a tremendous amount of respect for homebrewers and all the clubs that I was a member of, and other clubs in the area that I am aware of. They are just really enthusiastic and committed to their hobby, and the amount of research that they do and the exchange of ideas is really amazing.
SK: I am not sure if many people, especially the younger folk, are aware that in 1994 you were the very first winner of a Great American Beer Festival (GABF) medal in San Diego County, and a gold one to boot. Share a little about that adventure.
SV: I was at the PB Brewhouse (now defunct; where the Skechers shoe store is currently located) from October of ‘92. I took over from Clint Stromberg, who was the brewer there prior to me. I brewed there until closing day, which was Halloween 1995. I got interested in Belgian styles from brewing them with a friend, Dale Gates, in Orange County, so I decided to give it a shot at the PB Brewhouse. I think it (a Belgian golden strong) was the first commercially brewed Belgian-style beer in San Diego. We went to the GABF with a number of beers entered, and the awards had been called for all the other beers except for the Belgian strong ale category, and I was thinking, ‘well, it’s not going to happen this year,’ so they call the bronze and the silver and I’m thinking, ‘I guess I’m going home-empty handed,’ and then they called PB Brewhouse (for the gold)… I was completely blown away, I was so excited.
SK: When I interviewed Rich Link for SUDS COUNTY, USA he said that your GABF win got a whole lot of the local homebrewing community interested in brewing Belgian styles, and Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River said about your win that “to me, that was a huge deal, that was such a giant thing to see Skip win a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival,” so clearly you helped inspire some local brewers and the impact was beyond just winning a medal.
SV: I’d never heard that before… it’s an honor that I inspired Vinnie to do anything!
SK: That said, you have also mentioned in prior interviews that the GABF gold medal “did not make the cash register ring,” and a year or so later PB Brewhouse closed for good. Take us back to running and trying to sustain a craft (or then, “micro”) brewery in San Diego in those days.
SV: It was tough. There was a small group of really enthusiastic folks that were interested in craft beer, but it was pretty tight-knit and small, and by no means mainstream like it is today. So even though we won that medal, and got some press interested, and some new visitors that were interested in checking us out…
SK: But obviously not enough business to sustain the brewpub and keep the investors happy, which as mentioned led to its closing in October of 1995, and then led you to co-found AleSmith with Ted Newcomb. Let’s talk about the beers you brewed at AleSmith when you and Ted started the brewery in ‘95.
SV: Well, the first beer that we brewed was AleSmith ESB, or Anvil Ale, and that was because Ted just loved Fuller’s ESB. The (personal) focus for me was more West Coast-style beers, with the exception of the Belgian strong ale. I loved the West Coast-style beers, but it felt like time to do something else, and that people will be interested in having another angle to their beer arsenal, so we decided to focus more on European-ish beers like ESB and Belgian stuff, and we planned on doing some Continental-style beers. We soon found out that all anybody wanted at that time was West Coast-style IPAs and other West Coast-style beers. So I was completely wrong on that! But we had committed to making the ESB as our first beer and it was a tough sell. We kept plugging away at it; it was the only beer we made for the first six months, and then we started introducing other styles.
SK: I am aware that one of your first AleSmith employees, Tod Fitzsimmons, who is still employed at AleSmith, named one of the early AleSmith IPAs the Irie Pirate Ale. It was one of the early commercially available local IPAs. Tell us how that went down.
SV: We started with YuleSmith — that was our Christmas beer — which started off as an English double IPA and then over time became a West Coast-style single IPA. I can’t remember if we called it AleSmith IPA or at that time Irie Pirate Ale, a name that Tod Fitzsimmons came up with — kind of a fun name. So we were running with that until I got a cease and desist letter from Global Beer Network, who were importing Piraat, a Belgian strong pale ale, and a few other beers at the time. They said that Irie Pirate Ale was too close to Piraat, but we didn’t have the money to fight it, and so that became the AleSmith IPA.
SK: Interestingly, Pat McIlhenney started up Alpine Beer Company at AleSmith.
SV: I guess I originally met Pat through QUAFF. He was thinking about starting a brewery but still working as a firefighter. He started doing some volunteer work for us and he was a really hard worker; he really, really helped us out a lot. Then we started talking about how he wanted to make Alpine Beer Co “real” and he didn’t have a brewery in Alpine, but he wanted to start making this beer so we agreed to let him use our equipment when it was idle. I think he had his own fermenters and secondaries (tanks). So he would come in and use our brewhouse, produce his wort and ferment it on our premises, but it was really his deal, a little different from a typical contract brew. Pat was doing all the work and producing his beer at our facility, then he would load up his truck and take it to accounts. O’Brien’s was one of his great accounts. It was mostly Pure Hoppiness and also McIlhenney’s Irish Red Ale.
SK: As I understand it, your co-founder at AleSmith was bought out fairly early in the game, and you sold the business to Peter Zien in 2002.
SV: Ted said he wanted out about a year and a half after we started AleSmith if I recall correctly. One of my oldest and dearest friends, Dave Miner, and his parents (R.I.P.), who own and operate the Miner Family Winery in the Oakville area of the Napa Valley, bought Ted’s interest in AleSmith, so I was the sole operator, but not the sole owner. The business side of AleSmith was a struggle from day one. We had a few glimpses of the break-even line, but every time we got close, more equipment was needed to fuel our slow growth. I was often more focused on minimizing losses until we could find a direction that would lead to sustainability, instead of financing growth.
On the personal side, my wife Merry and I had two young kids who were often asleep when I left for, and returned from, work. It was difficult to throw in the towel, but Peter and his team have done a wonderful job with AleSmith, including expanding on the beer ethos Ted and I founded the company on. I’m thankful that it didn’t fail outright and it was bought by someone who is committed to making excellent craft beer.
SK: Let’s talk newer styles. What’s your take on hazy IPAs, milkshake IPAs, and brut IPAs?
SV: Well, we brew a couple of hazies here — a hazy IPA and a hazy pale (ale). I was very resistant to the idea at first, especially when I saw the video of Heady Topper (John Kimmich) making an argument for drinking IPA out of a can… (said with a chuckle). I think that was a setback for me in my willingness to consider hazy IPAs worthy of brewing and drinking, but then my partner Ryan Trim (influenced me), and another friend, James Lombard, well he started bringing me hazies from the East Coast — some of the nicer ones from Treehouse, Trillium, and Hill Farmstead — and so I got exposed to some good and fresh ones, and it turned me around. I tend to drink more West Coast-style IPAs, maybe 10 to 1 versus hazies, but the hazy IPA has grown on me, so yeah, I really got turned around on those. I have an open mind on milkshake IPA and brut IPA, but I haven’t had one of either one of those yet that made me feel like I need to brew one, or come back and have the same beer again. I’m a little skeptical, but willing to be proven wrong.
SK: These days, which of the newer local breweries do you find interesting and have helped inspire you to get back in the “game”?
SV: The guys at Societe, Burning Beard, Eppig, and Burgeon are making great beers. I am sure there are more that I am missing, but that’s a start anyway.
SK: One last question. Given what you have observed in the San Diego craft beer scene over the decades, what is your advice to homebrewers thinking of turning pro and/or hanging out their own shingle?
SV: Location, business model, and entrepreneurial talent are becoming more and more important as the market for craft beer becomes more competitive. I’m as guilty as the next successful homebrewer of the “build it and they will come” mindset. Make sure your business model works for your market, you pick a good location, and you either possess or partner with someone with strong business skills and talent.