A Craft Beer Pioneer Returns to the Scene
AleSmith founder Skip Virgilio emerges from brewing seclusion to create beer for Gravity Heights
Skip Virgilio, founder of AleSmith, has returned to the brewing scene as part of the Gravity Heights brewpub
He’d basically been out of the San Diego pro brewing scene for more than sixteen years before he decided to come back and get involved in a new venture. Skip Virgilio, award-winning brewer and founder of AleSmith, was lured back by two major factors: First, he wanted to be part of some kind of brewpub endeavor, feeling that too many local breweries had relied on the warehouse-space-and-food-truck model recently and the time was ripe for something bigger and bolder. Second, he fell prey to the persuasive power of Arturo Kassel, the “entrée-preneur” who heads up Whisknladle Hospitality Group, one of San Diego’s most popular restaurant developers.
“I’d been looking at opportunities for many years,” Skip says, “actually, since I left AleSmith. I had always wanted to do something with food and I was really impressed by Arturo, who I met at Ryan Trim’s house over beers.” Arturo’s group created the highly regarded Whisknladle, Prep Kitchen (sold in 2017), and Catania restaurants, all of which were craft-beverage focused, but none of which had an on-site brewing operation.
The Gravity Heights space is a 12,000-square-foot, artfully designed mix of comfortable, inviting environments that includes an outdoor beer garden, a covered lounge, indoor tables, and pillowed booths. A large bar with plenty of seating of its own features 17 house beers that provide a nice range of classic, crowd-pleasing styles that are accessible and easy to drink. Developed and brewed by Skip and Head Brewer Tommy Kreamer (formerly of Lost Abbey), all the beers are expertly made (no surprise there), balanced, and highly flavorful, and many address the trends and tastes of today’s beer drinkers without pandering.
The beer list is organized by the basics of flavor and offers numerous options for lager lovers, hop heads, and malt fans alike. Among the “crisp and bright” beers, Beach Day Kölsch is especially satisfying for its extra-hoppy bite and clean, refreshing finish. Daybreak IPA and June Gloom Hazy IPA are two perfectly executed beers from opposite ends of the hoppy spectrum; the former is dank and piney with a rich mouthfeel and a bitter bite, and the latter is big and juicy with intense citrus aromas and a wonderfully dry finish. Describing the creation of June Gloom, Skip admits that he wasn’t initially on board for doing a hazy. “I’m not much of a trend person when it comes to beer,” he says. “Some of the trends seem a little unusual to me, but I try to keep an open mind. It was hard at first for me with hazys; I just didn’t embrace them. But after I had a few of the really good ones, they opened my eyes.” If initial customer feedback and sales are indicative of anything, this hoppy-hazy brew will be one of the top sellers at Gravity Heights. I guess keeping an open mind pays off in the long run.
One other beer to note: When you visit, don’t miss the Ctrl-Alt Bier, which is an old-style German amber with light body, delicate malt and caramel flavors, and excellent crispness. It’s one of San Diego’s lesser-done styles, which is a shame because a good one will pair beautifully with almost anything on a food menu—guaranteed.
Speaking of the menu, Gravity Heights offers a variety of elevated pub fare, developed by Executive Chef and Whisknladle Hospitality Partner Ryan Johnston. Interesting riffs on wood-fired pizzas, burgers, tacos, salads, and sandwiches make the food choices straightforward and unfussy without being boring and predictable—and they’re perfect for pairing with beer, which must make the brewing team especially happy.
Back in the mid-90s, Skip witnessed and was part of the earliest days of San Diego’s nascent craft beer industry. After he sold AleSmith to Peter Zien in 2002, he saw the brewing scene explode. He remained in contact with many of the other “originals” from the day—Tom Nickel, Tomme Arthur, Paul Segura—but by and large he was on the sidelines while Stone, Lost Abbey, Karl Strauss, AleSmith, and many others grew into big, successful companies and became major players in the craft beer world.
More and more these days, the folks who are opening breweries and brewpubs in San Diego seem to come out of nowhere. They’re not well known by the established brew community, and some have only recently moved into town. Skip, however, has the distinct advantage of coming to his new project with deep relationships, a long history in San Diego, scads of brewing experience, and tons of street cred (as does Arturo). His connection to the local scene has generated lots of peer support for Gravity Heights; he’s already completed collaborations with old friends like Tom Nickel (Nickel Beer), Peter Zien (AleSmith), Tomme Arthur (Lost Abbey), Kelsey McNair (North Park Beer), and Paul Sangster (Rip Current). “I’ve also gotten to know some new folks who have been awesome,” says Skip, “like Nate and Clayton from Eppig and Rawley from Rouleur, so I’m looking forward to reuniting with old friends, but also meeting and working with new brewers I either haven’t known or haven’t brewed with. That experience is really satisfying, especially on the learning front. I love exchanging ideas and forming friendships. People have been very welcoming and supportive, and every time we’ve reached out we’ve gotten positive results.”