San Diego has long been an incubator for great brewing talent and a center of innovation when it comes to great American craft beer. From early pioneers who pushed the lupulin beyond then-tested limits to ambitious wild and sour programs to imperial stouts of all kinds, local drinkers have never needed to travel far, and beer travelers regularly make trips to this Southern California city.
Amid all the forward-looking, boundary-pushing, seeking-to-do-the next-big-thing breweries in the city, Bagby Beer Company is a welcome respite. Founded by Jeff Bagby, a longtime brewer in San Diego who cut his teeth and honed his skills at some of the best-known breweries in the area, the brewery, restaurant, and event space that opened 4 years ago is a return to simpler times, offering balanced beers done to style and without too much fuss.
“We didn’t even launch with an IPA when we opened,” Bagby says. Although the brewery does serve one now, it’s clean, bright, hops-forward, and bitter. Bagby doesn’t do haze, yet customers still pack his place every night.
“Tradition is something we believe in, and we liked the idea of bringing classic styles to people while combining our experience brewing them and what we’ve learned while traveling and tasting traditional recipes at the source,” Bagby says. “We wanted to bring our example of that to the table and try to teach along the way. We don’t need to be too adventurous because if you follow the foundations of brewing, my feeling is that a lot of it has been done before, but you can still have innovation and be creative.”
A Student of San Diego
Bagby was hired by Stone Brewing in 1997 as a delivery-truck driver. Soon enough, however, a brewing position opened up, and Bagby, who had been homebrewing, jumped at the chance to work with Steve Wagner and Lee Chase. In that first year, he visited the Great American Beer Festival for the first time and was able to taste beers from around the country and taste both the good and the bad on the marketplace.
It was a crystalizing moment for him, even as he retells the story more than 20 years later. Seeing that there were beers with flaws making their way into pint glasses, he wanted to ensure that the beer he made from that day on never fell into that bucket. While at Stone, Bagby helped create and shepherd along a number of beers that remain popular today, and he then went to White Labs as a brewer and then to Pizza Port, where he worked with Tomme Arthur. While at Pizza Port, he was able to expand his brewing repertoire into German styles and English classics and to experiment with hoppy beers, barrel aging, and—of course—Belgian-inspired beers.
From there it was a hop to Oggi’s, a brewpub where he was solo in the brewery, and as long as he made the set styles of beer that the owner wanted on the menu, he was free to experiment and hone his own recipes, and he was able to get instant feedback from customers.
All along, he remembers homebrewers coming into the professional breweries where he was working and announcing that after just a few months or brief years of amateur brewing, they were going to make a go of it professionally. He was often asked when he might do the same and open his own brewery, but he knew that he wanted to get his skills and recipes to a place where he was fully confident because often brewers have only one shot at going it on their own. His time came in 2011 when he finally decided to start to get a business plan together. After going through several different name ideas, he and his wife decided to put the family name on the brewery—as an easy way for locals to identify the beer but also as a commitment to the beers that they would make.
In opening Bagby Beer, the couple looked at all the various options available to them and decided to go with the brewpub model. The majority of breweries for which Bagby worked had restaurants attached to them, and he liked the relationship between beer and food. Also, even 6 years ago when he was formulating the business plan, the taproom as we know it today wasn’t nearly as prevalent or profitable.
“Having a one-stop shop helps fulfill all of our goals and showcase what we’ve learned and what’s good quality when it comes to beer and to food,” he says. “Both help bring people to the brewery.”
So from top to bottom, they wanted to make sure that everything was a reflection of their attitude and respect toward tradition and quality. “From the way the space looked to the way the food was presented to the cocktails, wine, and spirits, we wanted everything to be on the same level as the beer.”
They spent a while trying to find the right space. Ideally it would be able to house a brewery that would be able to accommodate all the customers onsite, and anything else that was left over could head out to distribution. They found a sprawling lot in Oceanside, north of San Diego just 8 blocks from the Pacific, with a multi-story building that was once a BMW dealership.
“At first, we wondered whether it was too big, and we questioned why we did it, but this was always the goal, and we’re still excited about it. It’s been difficult, sure, but we knew it would be.”
Bagby is quick to remind one that brewing and running a business is, first and foremost, hard work. There’s a lot of fun with recipe development, the actual brewing of beer, and watching customers get excited, but without focusing on the business—even the less-than-fun parts such as paperwork—nothing is able to survive too long.
“One thing I learned after the first year is that nothing surprises me anymore. Most of that is related to staffing, but there are also things in maintenance, contractors, equipment, all of the millions of little things that come up daily or weekly; you need to get hardened to the challenges.”
Routinely, Bagby reminds himself to go back to basics, to apply the lessons learned along the way, especially “the ones that sucked” and apply them to the original goal and mission. It helps keep him and the staff grounded and able to move forward in a meaningful way.
“We’re here and keeping in check with what we do, and we won’t change that much at all,” he says.
Bridging the Generation Gap
Bagby is quick to point out that he’s not a big fan of hazy IPA. He still favors the traditional West Coast versions, and that’s what his brewery serves. Same with Pilsners, a red ale, weizenbock, English pale ales, and a brown ale. Looking at his beer menu is like a throwback to simpler times in beer.
Longtime beer drinkers love coming to his place because they can find skill and nuance in each glass and choose from a variety of styles. Some of the newer craft drinkers struggle a bit when they don’t see New England–style beers on offer or notice that the barrel-aged beers don’t contain adjuncts. But they stay, Bagby says, and expand their horizons and are able to become better-educated beer drinkers—his goal all along.
“Make the beers you want to make and educate the consumer,” he says. “A sustainable business model is to make a lot of different beers for a very long time. You need to create a solid foundation and build upon it. It might be frustrating for some that we’re not following the trends or fads, but we know who we are and what we like, and we’re finding success through that.”