Portrait of a Brewer: Skip Virgilio, Gravity Heights

Get to know Gravity Heights' head man and one of the founding fathers of SD beer

Image Name Alt

There are hundreds of hard-working brewing professionals giving their all to help maintain the storied reputation San Diego’s brewing scene has earned over the past several decades. Some have risen to great fame among industry pros and craft-beer enthusiasts. Some ply their trade in obscurity (and are more than happy to do so). Some are Instagram famous, trendsetters with cult followings that would rival social-media influencers. And while they share plenty of similarities, each is their own unique person with their own likes, dislikes, methods, techniques, inspirations, interests and philosophies. The goal of San Diego Beer NewsPortrait of a Brewer series is to not only introduce you to local brewers, but to have some fun delving into the aforementioned areas so you can get to know them a little better and appreciate them and their contributions to the county’s standout brewing culture. All that plus stellar portraits from brewery lifestyle photographer extraordinaire Matt Furman.

Today’s featured brewer is…

Skip Virgilio

of Gravity Heights

Skip Virgilio

What is your current title? 

Brew Master

Where did you grow up? 

I was born in Florida. My parents moved us to West Hollywood when I was two, to the City of Orange at five-years-old, and then to a house my dad built in Tustin when I was eight. I lived there through high school and college.

What brought you to San Diego

I was working for a mortgage company and was transferred from Orange County to manage a branch office in Vista in 1990. I rented an apartment over a garage in the Carlsbad Village area, just around the corner from what would become Pizza Port Carlsbad.

What was the first beer and/or alcoholic beverage you ever had? 

Probably Brew 102, Busch or something like that when I was a kid. My dad developed a taste for craft beer later, but he drank the cheap stuff in the early days.

What was your a-ha moment that turned you on to craft beer? 

As early as high school, my friends and I had a taste for more flavorful beers. There was a German deli in Tustin where we got European, mostly German beers from. Hofbrau Oktoberfest was our favorite back then. Later, the Hollingshead Deli in Orange carried Party Balls of St. Stan’s Brewery beers from Modesto. We would buy those for parties. The a-ha moment was when friends took me to Gordon Biersch’s first brewpub in Palo Alto in 1989. Seeing a small commercial brewing operation for the first time and enjoying the fresh, tasty beer sparked my interest in brewing.

What led you to consider a career in brewing? 

It’s one of those things that happens to most homebrewers after their first brewing experience.

Where did you first apply for a brewing job and where did you get your first brewing/brewery position? 

I met Phil Faraci, one of the owners of the Pacific Beach Brewhouse via Rich Link at one of the first couple Southern California Homebrewers Festivals that took place at Vinnie Cilurzo’s home and his family’s winery, Cilurzo Winery. Phil was looking for a brewer. Rich, Phil and I tasted some of my homebrewed beers and Phil was impressed enough to offer me the position. 

What breweries have you worked for over your career and in what roles? 

PB Brewhouse: Brewer, AleSmith Brewing: Co-founder (along with Ted Newcomb, RIP) and Brew Master, Pizza Port: filled in as Co-brewer with Tom Nickel after Kirk McHale left and before Jeff Bagby started.

Who have been the individuals that have helped you the most to learn and advance in your career, and how? 

Fal Allen, Dick Cantwell, Paul Holborn and Tomme Arthur. There are countless authors and podcasters like Michael Jackson, Mitch Steele, Jamil Zanasheff and others that I learned from, but Fal, Dick, Paul and Tomme were all face-to-face. Early on, I visited the Pike Place Brewery in Seattle. Fal, Dick and their team invited me in to observe them brewing. That was educational, and I checked in with them from time to time with brewing questions and, of course, read their books. Paul Holborn was the first modern brewer in San Diego to have a strong passion and a vision of what craft beer could be. His beers were insanely hoppy for the period…even styles that were traditionally malt-driven. Tomme entered craft beer a few years after me. He was a fast learner and has always been super passionate about beer. We spent a lot of time discussing beer, brewing together and both tasting and drinking beers from all over the world. He, Tom Nickel and I would often meet at AleSmith after hours with a ton of bottles to drink and discuss. When Tomme was the brewer at Pizza Port Solana Beach, we would sometimes mash-in, surf one of the local breaks, then return in time to complete the brew session.

What singular piece of advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a professional brewer? 

Figure out if you want to be a brewer or an owner. It’s possible to combine the two, but many owner-brewers get pulled from what they really love–making beer–into mostly business or managerial roles, which can be great too, but may not be what you want. Figure out what aspect of brewing is most important to you.

What ultimate career goal would you like to achieve? 

My goal was to partner with an outstanding restaurateur and create a space with a brewery and lots of outdoor seating. I believe we’ve done that with Gravity Heights. The goal now is to add new locations starting with Mission Valley early in 2024.

What is your favorite beer you’ve ever brewed, be it on a professional or amateur level? 

There is no such thing as a favorite beer for me, but one of the most fun experiences I’ve had brewing beer was brewing Blarney Stoned, a hemp steinbeir at AleSmith with Tomme Arthur and Tom Nickel. Peter Rowe covered the brew day in the San Diego Union Tribune and it’s worth looking up his article.

What is your least-favorite beer you’ve ever brewed on any level? 

The PB Brewhouse had a line of extract-flavored beers when I started there. I didn’t like the idea or flavor of beers with chemical extracts, but they were all popular choices with our guests, so I didn’t have a lot of say in the matter. There was a raspberry-flavored beer, a jalapeno-flavored beer and a few others, but the one that drew the most attention was a chocolate-mint stout based on our Over The Line Stout base beer.

What are your favorite and least-favorite hop varietals at present? 

Most commercially available hops have their time and place and can be wonderful in the right beer assuming they make it to the brewhouse or cellar in good form. Sorachi Ace is one I’ve only used a few times and haven’t been excited by. There are so many favorite hops. Nelson Sauvin is one of them. At Gravity Heights we brew Score Some Nelson, which is dry and crisp, and when it’s at its prime, the Nelson hops express nicely on a canvas of pilsner malt. 

If you weren’t a brewer, what do you think you would do for a living? 

I’ve had a dual career for many years as a brewer and a mortgage loan officer, so I guess I would/will continue to do what I do.

In your opinion, what non-brewing position is of great importance at a craft-beer company but often gets overlooked or less credit than those making the beer? 

The marketing, branding and social-media folks often make a big difference between a brewery succeeding or struggling.

What is your favorite beer style (you only get to pick one, though if you have to do a two-way tie, we’ll accept it)? 

I love all beer styles…almost. I’ve been drinking a lot of lagers lately. Czech Pils and West Coast IPA are go-to styles. Or real ale…or lambic…or…

If you could wipe one style of beer off the face of the Earth, what would it be? 

Back in the day I was turned-off by “American Hefeweizen”. To me, it’s a bastardization of a beautiful beer style, German Weissbier.

What single brewing company’s beers and/or ethos/style has been most influential on your style? 

Independence is important to me. Ask my friends. So many breweries that grow have decision-makers who choose to no longer be independent and/or diminish the quality of their product in exchange for growth. From what I can see, Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada has remained family-owned, has grown impressively and hasn’t given an inch of quality in exchange for growth. In fact, the quality of the Sierra Nevada beers has improved as they have gotten bigger. Our styles are different, but I like Ken’s ethos and I hear he rides mountain bikes! 

What is your favorite San Diego County brewing company? 

Sorry, I can’t. I’m super proud of what Tomme at The Lost Abbey has built, the Mcilhenney family, Eppig Brewing, Burgeon Beer Co., Craft Coast, North Park Beer Co., and on and on. Bagby Beer served four or five beers at the 2022 Guild Fest and I really enjoyed them. 

What is your favorite brewing company outside of San Diego? 

Again, I don’t have one. However, I recently experienced fresh Pilsner Urquell in Prague and Pilsen. I was impressed by how rich, balanced, complex and delicious it is. It and about 100 others are desert-island beers for sure.

What three breweries that you haven’t yet visited—local or elsewhere—are on your current must-see bucket list? 

I’m curious to check out GOAL. Brewing and Prey Brewing, and a number of Orange County breweries including Docent Brewing.

What are your favorite local beer events? 

Tomme Arthur, Jeff Bagby and Tom Nickel put on my favorite San Diego beer festivals at Pizza Port, the Real Ale Fest, Strong Ale Fest and Belgian Beer Party. My favorite was the early days of the Real Ale Festival. Many of the brewers did their best to send a classic real-ale style beer and there were many that were excellent. Over time, it became an IPA fest and lost its charm for me. Recently, I enjoyed the Guild Fest at the new Del Mar Polo Fields location. I’m sorry to have missed the Bagby Lager Fest and Burgeon’s Anniversary Invitational. They are on my list for next year. 

If you were to leave San Diego, where would be the next-best place you’d want to brew? 

Somewhere underserved with waves and mountains to ride.

Which musical genre or artists are on your brew-day soundtrack/playlist? 

Our brewing team rules the brew-day playlist. Thankfully, we have similar tastes in music and beer!

What motto rules the way you brew and approach brewing in a professional brewhouse? 

Start with the end in mind, ponder, add, subtract, substitute, sleep on it, and then stay focused on brew day through delivering the beer to the guest.

When you’re not at work, what do you like to do for fun? 

Surf, ride mountain bikes, travel and drink beer.

Where do you like to drink off-the-clock? 

Local (to where I am) independent breweries and often at home with friends or at friend’s homes.

What is your favorite beer-and-food pairing of all time? 

I love well-made food and great beer, but don’t have a go-to favorite pairing. One of the joys of beer is there is almost always a nice pairing to be found.

If you could somehow plan your last beer dinner before dying, what would you drink and eat, and who would you invite to join you? 

It’s going to be a long night! Family, friends, ribeye, lobster tail, real ale, Czech pale lager, West Coast IPA and too many Belgian ales to name. 

Who do you think you are (a purposely broad question)? 

Someone who cares about the roots and trajectory of this movement.

If you’re a brewer at a San Diego brewing company and would like to be featured in our Portrait of a Brewer series, drop us a line at [email protected].

Back to top button