Ratebeer Gets Inside Jeff Bagby’s Head
Interview with Jeff Babgy of Oggi’s in Vista, CA
May 27, 2004
Written by rodolito
Jeff Bagby started as the new brewer at Oggi’s in Vista in late 2003 and is off to a fast start brewing some great beers. Oggi’s won the Small Brewing Company award at the 2004 World Beer Cup, where Jeff’s Sunset Amber won the gold medal in the American-Style Amber/Red Ale category and his Caber Tossed Wee Heavy won the silver medal in the Strong Scotch Ale category. His Goodtimes Barleywine took second at the 2004 Toronado Barlywine Festival and first in the state of California for the 2004 United States Beverage Testing Championship. He also won a bronze medal in the German-style Hefeweizen category at the 2003 GABF with his Sweet Spot Hefeweizen.
Tell me a little bit about your background in brewing and what inspired you.
I came across good beer when I was 18-19 years old. One of my friends and I were asked to join some older friends at a brew pub. They bought us a couple of pitchers of beer. It was kind of a smash introduction to beer. At the end of my freshman year in college I started drinking Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams, Guinness, New Castle, Red Hook, and Bass (all the beers that cost more). We liked that beer a lot better and started reading and asking a lot of questions. Then I started home brewing in college with a friend with plastic fermenters and rudimentary bottling. It was fun and that is where the love started.
I graduated from UCSB [Ed: University of California- Santa Barbara] in 1997 with a degree in communications and didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t think of brewing as an option for a career and went back to a summer job I had working for the YMCA in Encinitas. When the summer was over, I went to Stone Brewing, interviewed with Greg Koch and started working there as a driver. At the time there were only 10 or 11 people working there. After a few months, help was needed in the brewery, so another driver was hired and I started training in the brewhouse. It was fun to learn from Steve Wagner, who had worked at Pyramid, and Lee Chase, who had worked at just about every little pub and brewery in town. My experience at Stone was great.
I left Stone to go back to the YMCA because I was offered a higher position job. I decided to leave the brewing industry. I had a great opportunity to basically build a career and get paid a little more. I didn’t want to leave beer behind and forget about it. So I left the industry for about a year and a half but still did work in the industry, went to the GABF and several other festivals every year, and stayed in touch with all my friends in the industry.
Next, I became a sales consultant and brewery trouble shooter for White Labs Inc. I sold yeast and answered brewer’s questions on the telephone. I did that job for a while. I learned a lot about yeast from Dr. White, Lisa White, and from working there for a while. It was neat to be a part of that company and watch them grow. I continue to use their yeast. My father actually works for the company now!
After several months of talking to brewers all the time, I had an itching to get back into brewing. One of my best friends, Tomme Arthur, needed some help brewing at Pizza Port Solana Beach, so I took the job. It was a blast working there. He was able to give me insight into pub brewing and I was able to give some insight into production brewing. We brewed dozens of new brews together and won several medals.
After a few years of working with Tomme, I learned of a new head brewing position in San Diego. I thought about it for a while and then decided I would take a job at Oggi’s. It has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. The people and the location are great. Getting paid a little, being able to do some different things, and being on my own have also been good.
You brew all of the beers by yourself at the Oggi’s in Vista. What does this involve and do you have a method that makes this a smooth process?
Well, I do brew all the beers in Vista by myself. When I got there I was told I would have to make 6-7 house beers and keep them on tap regularly. So, I went over whatever brewing notes were left behind and asked Tom Nickel and John Wilson (two other Oggi’s brewers) what they do with the house recipes. I took what I had already known and went at it. After a few beers, I was pretty confident that I could at least crank out what I needed to. It wasn’t too difficult to whip the place into shape. I did have to get the bulk grain silo filled, fix some problems the glycol systems had, and get the mill working correctly. I had experience with a 7BBL system at Pizza Port so I had some idea of what different amounts of grain and hops would result in. The rest was learning by doing. Any system that you first start out on takes a while to get working the way you want it. My first couple of brews took a lot longer than they do now. After a while I was able to learn how to work efficiently. I still learn on a daily basis, in and out of the brewery. I also continue to try different things with the system to make sure I continue to make the best beer I can.
One wouldn’t expect a pizza place to have amazing beers. Yet Pizza Port and Oggi’s have great beers and tasty pizzas. How do the average customers react to the beers?
We have a pretty good range of customers. We have a lot of regulars and I have been told by some of them that they are excited that I came in. There are also a lot of customers that don’t drink beer at all. As far as the pizza and beer, I think that it kind of goes without saying that it is an American thing. They go well together. Several of the best brewpubs in America are pizza and brew based restaurants. Great beer goes even better with great pizza! I can usually find at least one of my beers that a customer will think is a great beer, even if they won’t drink a whole pint.
With the awards and attention your beers are beginning to get, do you have any plans to release your beers in bottles?
I would love to release beers in bottles. Any brewer would. It is just that bottles are time consuming and a pain in the butt. And there is a whole slew of licensing, time, and space involved. The owner, the ATF, and several other people have to become involved with things like label design and approval. Bottling is a difficult thing for one person to take on. The only beer that is sold off premise is to customers that want to buy a keg and festivals. I just don’t have a lot to spare. Someday I might be able to sneak in a special batch that could be bottled and sold only at the pub. But I think that may be a long way off. The Oggi’s production facility up in San Clemente needs to supply the other Oggi’s that do not have brewing systems, as well as Petco Ballpark. There are no immediate plans to bottle. They definitely have the capacity to bottle but it will be some time before you see bottles coming out of there.
You are obviously a big fan of hops. What is your philosophy behind brewing hoppy beers?
I am a big fan of hops. Growing up in this town and the west coast in particular, I watched the progression of west coast beers go from fairly hoppy to outrageously over-the-top hoppy. I think it’s cool. There are many people in the industry that don’t really understand it, but are beginning to learn and experiment with hopping beers to a massive level.
My philosophy – that depends. It depends on what the overall goal is. The first time I brewed my double IPA (Ding Ding) at Oggi’s, it was the longest brew I ever had. I pushed the limits of my system and just about everything else (alcohol, IBUs, style guidelines). I don’t think there is really anything you can do too much of with hops. From the beers I have seen people drink over the years, I think you can make just about anything and people will drink it. Unless of course it is immensely flawed in some way.
I am a big believer in pushing style guidelines while still making a beer that is drinkable. I am starting to think that it is pretty hard to overhop a beer. There is a lot of stuff that we don’t know about the actual chemical processes and physical possibilities of infusing sugar water with lupulin. There is research that has been done that indicates there are only a certain number of IBUs that you can get into a beer at a certain alcohol level. The amount of IBUs that a beer can hold goes up with the level of alcohol in the beer. Even though a lot of us don’t really know a lot about hop thresholds in beer, we are experimenting with it on an art level. It’s fun but someday somebody will research and publish the science behind it. We’ll probably look back and laugh! There is a lot more experimenting to be done. The possibilities seem to be endless at this point.
What would you say are your favorite beer styles? Any new beers that you are thinking of brewing?
That’s tough. I do have some styles that I like better than others but I like drinking all styles of beer. I brew a lot of aggressive styles of beer. Our Scottish export-style beer is one of our most popular sellers. I branched off and decided to do a strong scotch and it turned out really well. I always loved Skullsplitter when I was growing up. I also like to have a pint of Oggi’s California Gold sometimes, which is a California interpretation of an American cream ale or lager. I also love Belgian-style ales, and a whole slew of other styles. I don’t want to say I have a favorite style of beer.
I have only made one Belgian-style of beer at Oggi’s in Vista. I love the diversity of those beers and want to get into making some more of those. The trouble is the average person doesn’t drink them in the fashion that beer fans do. I’d like to make a new IPA that is not so over-the-top. Maybe more of an American Strong Pale Ale. Something different from the IPA I am already making. I have also always wanted to brew my own recipe of an imperial stout. There is a new category called imperial or double red that I have thought about brewing. My mind is always turning trying to come up with new and exciting beers to make.
I would like to see people experiment with the maltier beers. The whole idea when we made Old Viscosity at Pizza Port was to make a black barleywine. We wanted to make it strong (12% or upwards) and make something that wasn’t so much of an imperial stout, but black in color. It had a nice hop aroma and fairly nice hop character, but not a bunch of roasted malt or astringency. I think we did an ok job. I’ve described the beer as a cross between an imperial stout and a barleywine because it has such a high alcohol feel and a barleywine’s mouthfeel and somewhat of a hop character. I wish there was more hop character in that beer. The last bottle I opened was still pretty nice. The beer seems to be different almost every time I taste it. What the hell kind of style it actually is I don’t know. I would love to brew it again.
One of the guys that is now helping out Tomme, whose name is also Jeff, came up with the idea to brew the Hefe de Hefe de Hefe, or call it whatever you want to, but a real strong German style Hefeweizen. We discussed that we don’t want it to be a Weizenbock. Something stronger and with more of a regular Hefeweizen flavor. We want to see how much we could get it to taste like a regular hefeweizen even though it is an extremely high alcohol beer. We’ll see when and where we actually get to try it.
Brewing the beers is the best part about working at a pub. You have the authority to do that (brew new beers) and if you make a beer that isn’t contaminated or God awful, people are going to drink it. It might take a long time. You are pretty much guaranteed that if you go through the process correctly and you don’t really get something really off, then it will get drunk.
You and Tomme Arthur have brewed some great beers (Cuvee de Tomme, Hop 15, Old Viscosity, SPF 45, etc.) together while you were at the Pizza Port Solana Beach. Do you have any plans for future beer collaborations?
Definitely. Tomme and I are always talking about beer and collaborating. He still invites me over there. I’ve covered for him when he has been out of town and I still bartend in Solana Beach once or twice a week. Pizza Port is a lot better for brewing those one time collaborative beers. The multiple tap handle environment plus the ability to keg off beer and store it in the cold box helps for that. I’m sure we’ll make some more crazy beers together someday.
There are more numbers left for the SPF beers.
Yes there are! That has definitely not been exhausted. There are several beers in that line that we have talked about and not made yet.
Together with Tomme Arthur and Tom Nickel, you have thrown some amazing beer festivals at the Pizza Port in Carlsbad. This is obviously a lot of work for you guys. What is involved with putting together a festival with so many beers?
We’ve been lucky enough that after throwing so many we have a basic system down. The hard part comes into gathering up beer and the sheer time it takes to contact all these people. The vendors that we use, all the breweries and brewers that we get beer from, it all adds up to a ton of phone and conversation time. A lot of the brewers have been coming to the festivals for so long that they are ready to enter something when the time comes. Some of them even time special beers so they can have them ready for the festivals. Brewers are great promoters too. They tell their friends and their friends tell their friends—you get the point. The brewing community is very tight like that. People get wind of our festivals and will call us up asking to send their beer. It’s exciting but it is very time consuming. We have to figure out how to ship all the beers, how to tap them all, how to get a program together that resembles the beer list before the public shows up, get glasses, security, porta potties, and tickets. We have done it so many times that we are getting pretty good at it.
I still say that the Real Ale Festival is the most difficult one, given the cellaring of all the firkins, tapping them all, and getting them all pouring. That is a humungous undertaking. One year we tapped 69 different casks that were almost all on beer engines. It was an absolute nightmare. We have since adjusted that festival so that brewers only send one beer, but send enough casks of that beer to last the entire weekend. We now end up with about 40 different beers. It is a little easier to do.
If you were to start a new festival, what would it be?
Let’s see. There is a possibility of doing a lager festival. It doesn’t sound very exciting to me and it would be difficult to get enough beer to make it successful. I’d be interested in seeing another southern California festival. It would be nice to try and do another bigger festival in San Diego. We have the San Diego Festival of Beer and it is a great festival. It is one night and kind of goes pretty quick. I think a little of it is still focused on the party atmosphere, rather than on the actual beer that is being presented. Of course there is nothing wrong with that, it just seems like most brewers are just showing up with their basic beers instead of trying to be a little more exotic and different.
It would be nice to see another San Diego festival that is either one or two days. . It is difficult because we already do three festivals up in Carlsbad and we attend so many other events throughout the year. We have reached our capacity up there. But I think it would be great to see another festival that was into the thousands of people in San Diego. Something that was thrown by brewers and/or industry people. I think in the future there is a weekend, somewhere in the year that would work. We have such great weather in this town there has to be a weekend to throw something else. Maybe a music festival or a beach event or an Over the Line event.
I understand that you are a big fan of tequila. Have you ever considered distilling tequila or adding agave to a beer?
Yes I have! There is agave nectar, which is kind of like honey. I have thought about using that in a beer. Distilling? Heck yeah! I’m very into distilling and learning more about it. I have some friends in the industry that are doing it. I really want to learn what is involved and how easy or not it is to get going on something like that. Distilling tequila would be amazing, although it is probably one of the most difficult things to distill. I have some friends that are doing stuff with whiskey, vodka, and gin. All of which I would be interested in learning but tequila would be the most exciting. That will probably be much later. I seem to be so busy already I don’t know when I’ll be able to make time to learn or experiment with distilling.
Thanks for taking the time to sit down, have a few beers, and answer these questions. Looking forward to seeing you at the Real Ale Festival in Carlsbad on June 11 and 12!
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came up with the idea to brew the Hefe de Hefe de Hefe, or call it whatever you want to, but a real strong German style Hefeweizen.
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