It’s not unusual for an established San Diego brewer to leave to pursue career opportunities outside America’s Finest City. But when the founder and brewmaster of a popular, award-winning brewery heads out-of-state to helm a small-town startup brewpub, beer geeks are left scratching their heads. Such was the case when Travis Smith departed his passion project of more than seven years, Kearny Mesa’s Societe Brewing, and moved to Prescott, Arizona to head fermentation at LazyG Brewhouse. Every aspect of this vocational shift—from locale to the size of the operation to the beers being brewed and the customers being served—equates to drastic change. We caught up with Smith during Arizona Beer Week to see how things have panned out over the past ten months.
What motivated you to look outside San Diego when considering the next chapter of your career?
I loved San Diego, but I saw no path forward for me at that time. While there were several factors in choosing to look outside of San Diego, the main reason is the absurd cost of living. I would never be able to own a home there. All things considered, if I were going to stay in San Diego, something incredible would have had to have fallen in my lap. I cherish my industry friends and the amazing industry connections made in San Diego. Fortunately, many of those friendships are just as strong today. Under the right circumstances, San Diego could have been a permanent home, but when considering all of mine and my family’s life circumstances, San Diego did not look like it was our future.
What drew you to the job opening at LazyG Brewhouse?
I am an outdoorsman. I love hiking, camping, fishing, hunting and exploring, and as most people who have met me know, I am not exactly a people person. So, a smaller, quieter town close to nature was obviously desirable. My search area was expansive, ranging from Prescott at the furthest south, all the way north to Canada and the Mountain West. I had explored Idaho and followed up on a couple of potential opportunities there. I loved Idaho, especially the northern part of the state, but the opportunities did not pan out there. Then, I came out to Prescott to meet with LazyG’s owners, Jim and Jean-Marie Bellington, and they seemed like great people with a desire to make great beer. They offered for me to make the beer that I wanted to create with very little influence or oversight on their behalf. Plus, pub brewing on a brand new system with creative freedom is just about any brewer’s ideal.
Did you feel any anxiety about taking on a new challenge after so many years at Societe?
While anything uncertain causes a bit of anxiety, this particular challenge has been the opposite of pressure and anxiety. Yes, it is new, but between the fantastic ownership and the nature of pub brewing, my overall stress and anxiety are at a lifetime low. I have had far more available time with my family and time for enjoying the great outdoors than before. Also, as a low-stress bonus, I don’t have to drive in Southern California traffic. In fact, I don’t have to drive at all. Weather permitting, I ride my bike to work.
What are some beer styles you brew now that you did not brew while at Societe?
Not every brewery is the same. LazyG Brewhouse is a brewpub, and pub brewing is a completely different game than that of a distributing brewery. While I think a distributing brewery should have an identity, a specialization and also must provide something that sets it apart, pub brewing allows for a much more flexible and varied portfolio, especially in Prescott’s unsaturated market. So I am brewing many styles of beer to not only suit the range of people that come into the pub, but I get to try out new techniques and processes on different styles one small batch at a time. Within the first six batches of beer, I brewed an adjunct lager, a nitrogenated dry stout, a New England IPA and a coffee porter. All of those are things I had not brewed before. It is fun! Brewing is fun again.
How do you balance styles you’ve been brewing for years with more modern styles?
I really don’t think about balancing styles of familiarity versus something new. More so, I am trying to balance the rebrewing of beers that have been well received at LazyG versus continuing to try new recipes. While I have incorporated “modern styles” like the New England-style IPA, HazyG, and have dabbled in some flavored porters, I am, for the most part, still brewing variations of classic styles of beer that tastes like beer. Beer culture is completely different in Prescott versus San Diego. People love good beer here, but in general, the public is not very educated on beer. It is much simpler: make good beer, people drink it, and repeat.
How has it been having many of your San Diego friends and colleagues come visit you?
It has been wonderful having so many people come to visit. Seeing and hosting our friends from San Diego has made the transition here that much easier as our relationships aren’t severed, but they continue to grow. We have had several brewery owners, industry friends and former Societe staff visit and stay with us. [Former Societe brewer and current Russian River Brewing brewer] Adrian Lau even traveled out and we brewed a beer together. That was a lot of fun for me. In addition to visitors, several people have sent out some care packages.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Six-hour drive. That is how long it takes to drive from Prescott to San Diego. And that, Six Hour Drive, is the name of my West Coast-style IPA at LazyG.