Alesmith's Skip Virgilio talks to RateBeer
July 25, 2002
Written by joet
Skip Virgilio is a self-taught brewer as well as the founder and owner of AleSmith
Brewing Company in San Diego. He’s won numerous awards for his English,
Belgian and more traditional style American craft beers. Recently, AleSmith beers
have hit the RateBeer charts running and have caused a beer buzz heard -- and
tasted -- around the world.
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RateBeer: Skip, thanks for talking to RateBeer. We really appreciate your time and
attention. Let’s answer the big question first! Our readers are intensely interested in the future of
AleSmith. Please share what you can about this with us.
Skip Virgilio: Joe, as many of you know, AleSmith is in the process of being sold. The
buyer is Peter Zien, who is also a past president of QUAFF (Quality Ale and
Fermentation Fraternity), which is in its second year as national homebrew
club of the year. Peter is a master beer judge and a recent graduate of the
American Brewers Guild. He has a strong business background and a keen
interest in artisan brewing. As an artist, he will struggle as I did with
balancing the desire to make beers that satisfy RateBeerians and their kind
against the necessity to make beer that will sell enough to generate enough
money to allow him to make the kind of beers he wants to make. It’s tough.
The beauty of making beer at home is that you can make whatever you want and
don’t have to worry about marketing it. However, it’s very satisfying to put
a beer out there and have people enjoy it. Especially with the enthusiasm
that the folks on your website have.
The sale is expected to be complete by the end of July, 2002, and I’ve
committed 30 days to help with the transition.
Best of luck, Skip. Thanks for the scoop. Tell us about where you’re from
and first beer experiences...
I grew up in Tustin, Ca which is in Orange county near Irvine. I went to
Foothill High and then a number of community colleges, before completing a
degree in finance at Cal State Fullerton. I surfed and skateboarded and
played a number of sports including a fairly serious stab at bicycle road
My interest in flavorful beers started in high school. There was a small
German deli called Hansel and Gretel’s in Tustin that was owned by a German
couple who spoke with a thick accent and served excellent sandwiches and
mostly German specialties. My friends and I were able to buy beer from them
and we always tried to seek out different and interesting imported beers.
This was in the days before American craft-brews were available.
As I got older we started frequenting another excellent German deli with a
huge and fine beer selection called <a hrefhttp://www.pubcrawler.com/Template/ReviewWC.cfm?BrewerID=754 target=_blank>Hollingshead’s Deli in the city of
Orange. Hollingshead’s is still there and doing a great business and a great
service to people that are serious about quality beer. They may have been
the first place in Orange county and possibly Southern California to serve
St. Stans and Sierra Nevada and Anchor beers. The St. Stans was sold in 1
liter flip-top bottles and party balls. My friends and I were amazed by
these beers coming out of small breweries, but I had not seen a small
brewery yet, so the light bulb still hadn’t switched on.
In 1989, I took a road trip to visit some friends in Palo Alto and Seattle.
The first stop in Palo Alto was the original Gordon Biersch which stopped me
in my tracks. I was amazed to see a restaurant that brewed fresh beer and
sold it directly to their patrons. Of course, now there are brewpubs
everywhere, thank God, but back then it was a true novelty. Then in Seattle,
friends took me out to a number of multi-tap bars or ale houses and I
experienced flavors that were completely new to me. I don’t recall all the
beers we drank, but I was stunned and exhilarated. That was when I knew I
had to brew. I spend a few hours at the University of Washington bookstore
and purchased several books on homebrewing. When I got home I discovered
that Fun Fermentations [closed in 1997] in the city of Orange was a few blocks from where I
was living. I bought supplies and went to work brewing. Soon after, I hooked
up with a great group of brewers called the Barley Bandits who helped me
hone my skills. I later became involved with the <a hrefhttp://www.maltosefalcons.com/ target=_blank>Maltose Falcons in Los
Angeles and <a hrefhttp://www.softbrew.com/quaff/pg_home.htm target=_blank>QUAFF when I moved to San Diego. I spent a couple of terms as
President of QUAFF as did my original partner, Ted Newcomb and AleSmith’s
Head Brewer, Tod Fitzsimmons.
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And that was 1995. Shortly thereafter you hit your stride and
started pulling in awards for your brewing at the Real Ale Festival in Chicago, the
World Beer Championships and the San Diego Strong Ale Festival as well as at
other competitions. Do you feel that this recognition relates strongly to the quality
of your beer or can you brew a phenomenal beer that some judges just can’t
appreciate? More broadly, what do you think of the beer judges and/or
If you consistently brew quality beer and enter competitions frequently, you
will win some awards, but it is a crap shoot. There are so many variables.
Our <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/ShowBeer.asp?BeerID=2492>AleSmith X has done well at the San Diego Real Ale Fest in the People’s
Choice awards, but it has difficulty in competitions with defined style
guidelines. It is too lightly colored and lacks the crystal malt character
that you would expect in an American Pale Ale, yet it’s too hoppy as a blond
or golden ale. I enjoy winning awards, but it is not usually a motivator
when I am developing a new beer. If it wins, great; if not, I can always
count on RateBeerians to enjoy it.
The great thing about critics is that they can spend some time with a beer
and really ponder it and drink a reasonable volume and taste the beer at
different temperatures, as it warms up. We have fared well with critics. I
think we brew the type of beer that critics like. There have been a few
negative comments, but mostly people have expressed complimentary thoughts
to me about AleSmith.
Judging, on the other hand, is a different deal. There are good judges and
bad judges, and good judges have bad days and bad judges have good days. In
judging, you have to sip a few ounces of beer instead of savoring a pint or
a chalice. You have to work quickly, and in many competitions the judges are
overwhelmed by the number of beers they have to deal with.
There was a thread on the <a hrefhttp://www.curezone.com/forums/forum.asp?f=53 target=_blank>IBS Forum a while back on whether BJCP judges
should be used to judge commercial competition. A few folks proposed that
they would rather have their beers judged by their peers rather than a
homebrewer who has been through the BJCP training. I’m from the other school
of thought. I have been involved with the BJCP since 1990 and I believe that
the people that go through the training and pass the test are qualified and
have demonstrated that they are willing to commit personal resources to
develop their palate and study the history and guidelines of the beer
styles. They can be critical and not always right, but I know a number of
homebrewers who are excellent BJCP judges. Just because you brew beer
professionally does not make you a qualified judge.
Those are some great points, Skip. You’re packaging your premium beers in 750ml champagne and magnum size
bottles that give your beer great presentation value as well as make sturdy
containers for bottle conditioning. You also package with wax seals and
foil. Where did you get this idea for kick-ass packaging? Is it costly? Along the same lines,
would you ever offer AleSmith glassware?
I was originally motivated by the Belgian beers in 750’s with straight corks
and crowns, but we felt like we wanted a package that would stand out more
in the market. The first few bottlings were labeled with color copies
printed onto label stock and cut out by hand. The runs were small and
extremely labor intensive. It took forever to get the labels on, but we
figured we had time while the bottles were conditioning. The gold and silver
silk-screening saved us from having to label and they look great, but they
are expensive. The J.P. Gray’s Wee Heavy bottles cost a buck a bottle just
for the silk-screening. As for the sealing wax, it was also pretty
labor-intensive, and we had some complaints from people about getting the
bottles open. In particular, there is one batch of Old Numbskull out there
that’s sealed with such a hard wax, you nearly need a jackhammer to open the
bottles. That can create a negative first impression, which we don’t want,
so we made the change to foil capsules for everyone’s sake.
I have always wanted to have a stemware AleSmith glass, again like the
Belgians, but we never found the right opportunity. We have had pint glasses
in the past and I suspect that Peter will order them again soon. Who knows,
maybe he will print a finer vessel also.
You’ve worked with two former presidents of QUAFF, a San Diego homebrew
club. Coincidence or conspiracy?
I’ve made a lot of terrific friends in QUAFF and other homebrew clubs. I
guess you tend to do stuff with people you know and like. Otherwise, it
would not be as much fun, so it’s probably not a coincidence. Commercial
brewing is just bigger than homebrewing and you use pumps instead of gravity
to move fluid around. And you may have more systems to make controlling the
process easier, unless you’re <a hrefhttp://hbd.org/hollen/RIMSpics.html target=_blank>Dion Hollenbeck. As a professional brewer, you
get more practice, so you get up the learning curve quicker. And you don’t
have to put your system away when you’re done for the day.
Besides your acclaimed English-style ales like Cole’s Porter, Nautical Nut
Brown Ale, and Anvil Ale (ESB), you also brew award-winning Belgian-style
ales like Horny Devil, AleSmith Grand Cru and Stumblin’ Monk. What inspired
you to take on Belgian styles and what were your biggest challenges with
this line? We often hear that Belgians are a tough lot to wrangle.
I used to homebrew with a friend, Dale Gates who is now deceased. Dale loved
big beers and started experimenting with Belgian-style ales. He introduced
me to them and I invited him down to the Pacific Beach Brewhouse, where I
was working at the time, to help me brew one. That was the Belgian Strong
Ale which later became Horny Devil. At the time, it was the only
commercially brewed Belgian-style ale on the west coast and there was no
convenient source of candi sugar, so I caramelized sucrose, which was a
challenge. I can’t recall the amount, but it must have been 50 to 100 lbs.
Once you figure out what flavor you want, brewing Belgian style beers is not
so difficult. It can be time consuming. Most of the ones we have brewed have
been in the 9-11% range, so they tend to appeal to the most serious beer
drinkers, but not the mainstream. This makes them a tough sell. I would like
to brew a lot more, but it’s difficult in a microbrewery vs. a brewpub in a
town that drinks an enormous volume of Coors Light. The nice thing about the
750 ml bottles is that we can park strong beers in them and wait for them to
sell. Most of them get better with age.
If you could change anything about the beer market in America what would it
Unrestricted direct interstate shipments would be a good start. We get calls
frequently from folks that want our beer and if they are in a restricted
state, we can’t ship their order. It’s mind boggling to me that if I ship a
case of beer to a guy in Texas, I’ve committed a felony. That doesn’t sound
like a free market.
I would also like to see at least one distributor in every state that
selected beers to distribute based on the flavor and quality of the beer. If
the people managing these companies had the same passion for craft beer that
the folks posting to ratebeer.com have, the United States would be a better
place for craft beer drinkers. I’m sure there are a number of areas in the
US where the beer choice is very limited.
I can hear all the "heck yeahs!" coming from all over the RateBeer world.
Imagine a market ruled by love of beer?
So where did it come from for you, Skip and why do you keep the love of beer going?
The seed was planted on that trip to Northern California and Seattle. I
became fascinated with learning everything I could about traditional beer
styles and brewing and I could not satisfy my need to brew enough to get to
where I wanted to be with homebrewing. I didn’t have enough time to brew
frequently enough. I figured if I made it my job, I could brew every day and
explore brewing’s finer points and move up the learning curve quicker. Rich
Link, who is an amazing home brewer and friend introduced me to Phil Faraci,
who owned the Pacific Beach Brewhouse. Phil gave me my first brewing job and
the freedom to experiment with many different ingredients and styles. He
loves beer and was pleased with what I was producing, so it worked out well.
Unfortunately, the business was not doing well and eventually closed. I
still had a lot of passion and beers left in me, so I got together with Ted
Newcomb and built AleSmith from a vacant warehouse space. That was 7 years
ago. I still have a lot of passion and beers in me, but the task of running
a business and the fact that we are a microbrewery, not a brewpub has slowed
me down a little.
I have stayed partly because I can’t give up and partly because I love going
to work every day. I love tanks and pumps and yeast, malt and hops and the
magic of fermentation and the people that come to the brewery to taste or
drink our beers and their stories. I guess these are also the things that
make me happy in the business. Seeing our beers in the rankings at
ratebeer.com and the e-mails and phone calls that I get from you, the
subscribers has been very rewarding to me. I guess the ultimate satisfaction
is making a fine product and having people appreciate and derive joy from
So what’s next? Do you have plans, hopes and dreams for your future and the
future of AleSmith?
I’m not sure what’s next. I still have a few weeks to help Peter with the
transition before I become unemployed. After that I spend a week in
Connecticut with my family and then come home to ponder the big question. I
would like to do some surfing in Baja and beer drinking in Belgium, but I
don’t have firm plans yet. I would love to stay in the craft beer industry
if I can find a way to support my family. When I started there were no kids,
now we have two, so my responsibilities are evolving and costs are rising.
The biggest shortcoming to a career in brewing is the pay is limited. There
are a number of intangible rewards, but you gotta pay the bills.
I believe that I have brought AleSmith to a point where with wisely-chosen
application of resources, the brewery can flourish. I would like to see the
Vintage Ale line of 750 ml bottles distributed throughout the US. The beers
in the line are all strong and designed to be cellared, so they should ship
and store well. Lighter beer styles survive better close to home, so I have
mixed feelings about national distribution, but the draft and 22 oz. lines
should do well in a few neighboring states. Peter purchased a 12 oz. filler
from Stone Brewing, which I think is a good move. I would love to see Horny
Devil in a six pack. That one’s got wings.
I can’t wait to get my hands on it. Thanks for your time, Skip. Best of luck to you.
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