with Jeff Bagby
Pizza Port, Carlsbad
You’ve won Large Brewpub of the Year twice, and you have won Alpha King twice. So what I want to know is, what’s the story with the plaid pants?
That’s a good one. I like that question, right off. In my high school years, some friends of mine used to wear kind of loud pants and jackets and cruise around town, being a general menace. In college, some friends did the same type of thing, but just the loud pants, and we used to call them “party pants.” Now, each year for the GABF I try to find a new pair that’s louder or at least just as loud, so now I’ve got quite a collection. We make a beer here at Carlsbad that won an award a few years back, called Party Pants Pilsner.
I thought it may have come from a long connection with golf outfitters…
Actually, it’s harder and harder to find new ones, or ones that fit me, because I’m tall, and a lot of the clothing made in that style is a lot smaller or a lot plainer.
Well, I’m glad to learn that there’s a connection with beer.
You’re going out for a fun time, but you’re not going out for a high-class evening―that’s when you put on your party pants.
We look forward to seeing you in the next pair of party pants up on the GABF stage next year.
I hope so.
You started this back in high school. That was in the San Diego area, wasn’t it?
Yeah, we call it North County; it’s the northern portion of San Diego County. Encinitas is the city where I grew up, just north of the main San Diego area.
Did you grow up determined to go into brewing?
No, I did not. I got to college and realized there was better beer to drink out there, dabbled in homebrew with a friend, went to festivals, searched for beer with a lot of the people who are making beer here now. I actually had no intention of getting into brewing in college, or even when I left. It just kind of happened. My summer job through most of high school and college was working at a local YMCA.
So it was the YMCA or beer?
Yeah, I bounced back and forth for a while. I got a special license to drive school buses when I was worked at the YMCA. When I graduated college, I thought I might be able to stay there, but they didn’t have a full time position. I needed something immediately, so I looked up driving jobs in the newspaper. Lo and behold, Stone Brewing Co. was hiring a driver. I went to the first ever release of their beer―the first time it was ever poured was at the Solana Beach Pizza Port, oddly enough―and I’d frequented it many times as my beer knowledge and beer desires grew.
I interviewed with Greg [Koch of Stone Brewing] and we spent about five minutes talking about beer and what I knew about it, before he said, “You are so hired.” I drove and delivered for them for about three months, but every time when I’d come back from driving, I’d spend time with the brewers―at the time, it was Lee Chase and Steve Wagner, who is now the president. I’d talk with them and ask questions, and after about three months, Steve said “Hey, we need another person in the brewery, if you want to work there.” Heck, yes―I was overjoyed, of course. My first professional experience was learning production brewing at Stone.
That went on for a little while. I actually left the industry for nine months or so, but I was still very connected to Stone, very connected to Pizza Port and to the general San Diego brewing community. I knew a bunch of people at AleSmith back in the day. I ended up working for White Labs [a yeast supplier] for a little while, sold yeast and worked with the Whites for about a year until I began working with Tomme [Arthur] at Solana Beach Pizza Port.
So your technical training has all been hands-on, with Stone, or White Labs or Pizza Port?
I’ve taken small classes along the way, but no science background, no formal brewing courses. It’s all been by doing, or by listening or talking with other brewers. I know there are a few guys like me out there with that sort of background.
You may be the last wave. Now, young people going into college are aware that craft brewing is a viable career. We may be leaving the age of the homebrewer-turned-pro, and moving into the age when people actually enter higher education to train in brewing studies.
I think you’re right. I get those cats coming out of college who ask me if they can work for us, with a resume that has a lot more educational brewing background than mine does! The craft brewing phenomenon is appealing to a lot younger crowd since I started. I can remember when my friends and I starting going to festivals, we were definitely the youngest people in the crowd. That has changed, especially at our events here in San Diego. I’m starting to feel old!
A lot of those guys and gals are getting the science background, going to Davis, or Siebel or Heriot Watt, and volunteering wherever they can while they try to figure out their careers. That’s exciting for us. It means there’s a core that’s into beer, whether they want a job, or they just love it and they want to continue to support this industry. When I was in college, it was a faddy thing: a lot of people making beer just because they could. Some of the beer was really horrible. And now, the better breweries are still around, and the ones that couldn’t figure it out are gone. What people are making is getting better and better, and there’s solid, steady growth.
There’s still a big difference between book learning and producing great beer. When one of these aspiring applicants comes your way, with a resume full of hard science courses, what do they still have to learn?
I haven’t actually picked up any of these guys. We’ve done a big training-from-within program here―most of our guys have actually thrown pizzas at one time or another. But I’ve met a lot of them, and I admire the sheer ambition and curiosity they have. But you can’t learn everything until you spend time in a brewery. I’ve told some of the guys who come in here “I don’t have any brewing positions, but you can work in our bottle shop for a while. Keep asking other breweries, ‘Can I get paid to clean kegs? Can I work on the bottling line?’ You’ve got to start somewhere.” At least, working in a brewery, they get the day-to-day experience. Hands-on brewing is different from what they’re learning in books―not completely different, but you learn so much from people. I know I have. Where I am in brewing today comes from the people I learned from.
You have a reputation for improvisational brewing at times.
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s true.
What do you enjoy about brewing in a more free-form style that Pizza Ports allows?
We’re lucky that we have the owners we do. Part of why I go that route is the atmosphere: we don’t have to be regimented. We’re consistent in the beers we make over and over again, but there are things that are fun about being looser. Last Friday, we made a Christmas beer, which we’ve never done. We had some lager yeast from Party Pants, so we were thinking about a traditional märzen, and it evolved into a sort of Christmas bock with spices and some darker malts. It happened on the fly; I sent guys to our organic foods store to get the spices when the beer was already mashed in. Things like that are fun; they make it exciting.
People ask how I formulate recipes. “Do you make pilot batches?” Well, no, our pilot batch is a15-barrel batch; we don’t really experiment until we’re making a whole batch of beer. I’ve been in this position at this brewhouse for five years now, and for every batch of beer I can look back at all the temperatures, all the grain, all the hops, all the timing―I’ll either have a note, or I’ll remember what came out in the beer. That’s what we use to move forward. One of our head brewers, in his bio on our website, his motto is “Just eyeball it.”
Back in the history of brewing, before devices were invented to measure the beer, part of the skill of a brewer must have been to know the smell and the texture of the right stage of the process, doing that in a tactile way. “Just eyeball it” could turn out to be pretty accurate.
I agree. When we were putting the spices in the Christmas beer, we’d never used those spices before in the brewhouse. We didn’t want them to overpower, so how much do we add? We’d add it to hot water and steep it, or add it to a beer that was already on draft and see what happened. There’s a lot of rough science, I guess you’d call it, that gets us where we want to be.
I visited Pizza Port about ten years ago. I was astonished that, first of all, the place is well named: it was a pizza joint. I had expected a temple to beer, but we sat on a bench eating pizza along with people who were just there because they’re from the neighborhood and they like the place. They were stunned when they learned we’d come all the way from the East Coast for the beer.
My recollection is that all the brewing equipment was in a little hole under the bar. Am I crazy?
That would be Solana Beach, our first and original location. The brewhouse was in a kind of pit behind the bar, and the cellar for that location really is in the basement. Here at Carlsbad, in 2000, the owners used an option to lease a property next door, and they got more fermentation equipment and expanded the cellar. About three years ago, I opened the bottle shop here with about 600 to 700 bottles. It’s doing very well.
Fine beer from all sources?
Yes, from all over the world, whatever we can get our hands on, but obviously California craft.
The layout is kind of the same in all the pubs, the brewhouse is visible from most of the seats. It’s open, and when the brewer is making beer, people can come up and ask questions. We’re not behind a wall. This location has the biggest capacity: right now, I think we have 20 house beers on tap. With the cellar we have here, I think the average is 15 or 16. We also carry guest beers, which is different; a lot of brewpubs only pour their own beers. We’re firm believers in presenting as many styles and breweries as we can to the public. We showcase our friends and show off their beers as well as our own.
What’s the relationship between the four Pizza Ports?
All the Pizza Ports are owned by a brother and sister, and Gina Marsaglia. I head up brewing operations for all four, and I’m the head brewer at Carlsbad. The head brewers at the three other pubs and all the assistants are under me. We also control the bar, so the bar managers are under me. It’s still a pizza joint, but we can maintain a high-quality beer profile, right through to the person who’s handing you your beer.
It gets confusing, because there’s a production brewery, Port Brewing/Lost Abbey that has almost nothing to do with the Pizza Port side. There’s a different ownership group over there: the brother and sister team, but there are other owners as well. The brewers don’t cross over; it’s not that we’re not friends, but the companies are different, and there’s no shared employment. There are beers that started at Solana Beach back when Tomme was working there, even some of the stuff he and I worked on back in the day, that have spawned some of the beers they brew over there.
Are there agreed-upon recipes for beers that all Pizza Ports make, or is each different in its brewing decisions?
That’s a good question. All the guys who are head brewers were assistants of mine, so we approach making beer in the same way. It’s really easy for us to talk. We have house beers we make at all four locations, but it’s not as if I call and say “OK, we’re going to all make Shark Bite Red this week.” They know we have a handful of beers that unify all the Pizza Ports. The rest is wide-open to them: everyone has their own IPA―or IPAs I should say―and stouts and browns and German styles. They’re free to do what they want, but they all came out of here, so the way they approach brewing probably comes from here. It’s all pretty relaxed, but the only thing I hold them to is keeping a wide range of styles on, something for everybody. If you don’t have it on the house side, have it on the guest side.
What do you do when you’re not brewing?
In this industry, your life style and your career and your hobby and your fun time are all kind of related to each other. My fiancé and I bought a house last year, and we have three dogs. We try to travel, but a lot of that is beer events.
Is there music played in the Carlsbad brewhouse?
In the morning, we’re here before anyone else. Then, around 10 or 10:30, the house jukebox comes on. It draws music from another source and it’s horribly repetitive, so that’s a source of frustration, because we hear it every day. It’s pretty bad. My music tastes are almost as wide as my beer tastes, I’d say.
I was planning on hooking up a little stereo so we could play our own iPods in the morning before people got there, but it’s difficult to keep personal equipment intact. Now we kind of enjoy our silence in the morning.
Julie Johnson is the technical editor of All About Beer Magazine.