Interview with Jeff Bagby of Bagby Beer Company

Before the hype, before the trend, before all of that, there was craft beer. In this interview Jeff Bagby, owner and brewer at Bagby Beer Co., pulls you away from all that hype and reminds you that craft beer is a craft with dedicated people who have a passion forged in history. In this wide ranging interview, you’ll get to read about small beers, a westcoast point of view on eastcoast IPAs and running a company.

Which of your beers would you have served beer-hunter Michael Jackson?

Now, with my own brewery, probably the first beer we ever made here. It’s modelled after an English style bitter. I know he was a big fan of that style and I think one of his favorite beers was Fuller’s Chiswick.
I would have served him that to see what he thought about its correctness to the style and what he thought about an English style beer being made in California.
I was lucky enough to meet him and spend some time with him early on in my brewing career. He was quite a guy and amazing to listen to, talking about almost anything. Serving him one of my beers would have been a treat.

Where did you meet him?

First time would have been in Denver at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). I’ve spent some time with him in Seattle, during the World Beer Cup and the Craft Brewers Conference back then; that was about 2010. We went to a nice steak house and I ended up sitting next to him. Also, when I worked for Tomme at Lost Abbey, back when we were still at the Pizza Port in Solana Beach, we’ve done some beers for Michael Jackson’s beer club. So, bits and pieces here and there.

What’s the memory that stands out the most?

That’s easy, because it made me laugh for a long time. We, Michael, Tomme Arthur, and some other beer industry people were sitting in Denver at the Marriott, the place that usually hosted the GABF judging. While we were sitting at this table, a man came down the stairs and he said hello and heard Michael speak. He said something to the effect that he noticed Michael was English. The guy then said, “Oh, I love Boddingtons” and was raving about the beer. Michael’s response was “It’s actually quite shit beer and I don’t care for it at all”. We all just laughed our asses off.

You mentioned your special bitter. Does it have a name?

It’s called Back Garden. That’s the term for a backyard in England. We think it’s a nice beer to enjoy in your back garden and we have a nice garden area here at the brewery.
As I said, it’s the first beer we’ve made. It’s a little beer, just over 4% with English hops with a nice firm bitterness, plus a nice malt character to it. It has enough English hop character and aroma, so you know it’s not an American Pale Ale.

Considering this was the first beer you’ve made, my question “would you have answered the question what to serve Michael the same way a year ago” is redundant. But do you think you’ll give the same answer a year from now?

Maybe. We have some other beers that I would obviously have loved for him to try. One thing that we do is, and only seems to be catching on now in Southern California, we make a lot of low gravity beers. We make a Pils that’s sort of bohemian style and it is under 5%. That beer won us a medal in Denver last year and we’re making more and more of that beer, to have it around all the time. We love to sneak in these smaller beers.
So, I’d give him something completely different to what’s known to be going on in this area.

To play the devil’s advocate: You say you sneak in those European styles, but you just appear to not like US styles.

[Laughs] Well, we make a little bit of everything. We love US-styles as well and I’ve been making those my whole brewing career. But I seem to have come back to these classic, traditional beer styles. We try to make them really well, pay homage to where those styles came from and teach people what those beers are about. At the same time, we are also making Imperial IPAs, Imperial Red Ales, big hoppy stouts and other more aggressive US-style beers.
What we are not making is mixed fermentation beers. We did make a fruit beer, but it wasn’t fermented with a wild yeast.

What’s the reason for you not making mixed fermentation beers?

I didn’t build my brewery to do that. I’ve done a lot of travelling, spent a lot of time in Belgium and spent a lot of time in breweries that do traditional style lambics and geueze, I’ve seen the way it has been made for a hundred plus years. I really have an appreciation for that type of brewing: not pitching yeast, blending beers, using wood. So, I’m not scared of it and have done it before at other breweries, but it wasn’t something I wanted to tackle right away. And if I did, I want to make sure that I’m doing it the correct way.
I see what people are doing in the States and I can appreciate someone being able to turn something around that has the depth and complexity like the ones overseas. But I don’t really care for the kettle sour style beers that a lot of Americans are making. I think you can tell and some of my friends call them yoghurt-beers. While I understand what these brewers are doing and I have had some really good versions of those beers, I’ve had far more of those beers that I did not care for and that I feel were not a representative of any style. They were lacking any kind of depth and complexity.

Is there a style that you still want to tackle?

While I’m a little more hesitant to get into lactobacillus and pedeococus, I’m interested in using brettanomyces. Maybe not in a 100% brett beer, but finish one with it. I really enjoy those flavors. I have another friend in Belgium who’s been brewing for a long time and he does that and his beers are some of my favorites. It creates such unique flavors. It has the tendency to be more gentle, to have that dry character more than tart or sour and is not going to take over my brewery. If I’d take a step outside a traditional lager or ale yeast, it’d be towards brettanomyces.
Other than that, we do some barrel aging with Imperial Stouts. I’ve made a couple of wine contacts in California and if I can get my hands on some nice grapes; I’d like to do some wine grape/beer blends. Some of our higher gravity Belgium beers would be really neat, not just in a wine barrel, but with actual wine grape as part of the fermentation – so as a sugar source. It’s not traditional, but I really like those flavor combinations.

Now all the hype is on the New England style IPAs.

Personally, I don’t really like the style.
When someone hands me something that looks like a glass of orange juice, I give it a chance, of course. And some of them smell fantastic. However, a lot of them seem to have the same similar taste and texture. What I just can’t get over are the ones that are so thick and have such a huge amount of yeast or trube or flour or whatever is left in there. It just bothers me.
Doesn’t mean I’m against unfiltered beer: I make all kinds of unfiltered beers and have been making unfiltered IPAs for 16 to 17 years. But I fine it a lot of the times and I wait for it to be relatively bright, before I serve it. It’s really, really hard, especially when you dry-hop heavily, to get all of that hop matter and hop haze out and get the beers bright again. It takes time and some talent and technique to figure out the best way to do that with different types of hop varieties, different hop harvests, different grain harvests, different gravities of beer. It’s kind of a mess actually.
Maybe these brewers are being creative and making a new style. But on the other hand, to me, there’s a laziness about it. It’s almost disrespectful to brewers who have for years worked to bring those same hoppy flavors, aromas, and hop character into beers that are still bright, or relatively bright.
I do know some brewers here in California who are making that style, some of them making more, let’s say, unfiltered versions of them. But they are still on a way brighter side than some that to me look like thick orange juice – they are just so soupy looking that it is not attractive to me. I guess, I just don’t get it.
But you know, to each their own. If that’s what the public is liking now, then great. I don’t really believe that it’s a style that’s going to last; I just don’t see the long term appeal of something like that, pouring soup out of a can and drinking it – which is kind of what I equate some of these to. I don’t believe it has got mass appeal. Maybe not yet, I don’t know?

I have had some amazing murky IPAs that I really, really enjoyed. However, as you said, judging from the ones that I’ve had, there seems to be less variety between them, then with other IPA styles.

I’ve talked to brewers who make them, some of them who are my friends for years. I hear things like: “Well, I can turn an IPA a lot faster. I can use less hops. It sells out very quickly at a high price”. There are all sorts of reasons. But I can’t see, hear, or feel any passion in it.
And passion is why I make the beer that I make: the styles, the flavors, the components or the whole process of making that beer. And I haven’t heard anybody describe a murky IPA with any sort of passion. Nobody has said to me about hazy beer, “I’ve tried to channel this. Can you taste this or that part?” It’s more like hops on hops with a weird texture.
Some of the newer hop varieties that are landing in a lot of these beers, there’s still a lot of guessing to it. With some of these newer hop varieties, you get these really dramatic, intense and tropical aromas, but you also get the negative side to them: extremely harsh and extremely unpleasant aromas, flavors and bitterness qualities. And I don’t think everyone really knows completely how to use some of these hop varieties to get the “good part” of them without the “bad part.”
That is something I noticed even before this whole hazy beer trend started. I had IPAs and thought that while they might be really good aromatically, I could only have half a glass of it. Some of them are too mean and too harsh.
While an IPA should be bitter, it should also be pleasant. You should finish a glass and then want another one. The haze is probably helping to balance some of those more negative flavors and some of that harshness. I don’t know. I don’t know enough about it. You know, I’m an old school brewer and I don’t like all of the new hops [laughs].

That is something I noticed, that in several of the hazy beers I’ve had, towards the end you get an immense harshness as if eating pieces of a hop pellet. That’s not a pleasant flavor.

[laughs] No, it’s not inviting or comforting.

Sometimes these New England style IPAs are also called modern, which then would make a West Coast style IPA old or rustic. But is there something new that you’ve learnt, say a new trick, that you’re using when brewing and that you’re really excited about?

To be honest, I haven’t really changed the way I make IPAs in probably 15 years. I guess we are using a couple of the newer hop varieties in small amounts here and there. We’ve contracted hops before we opened the brewery and we didn’t know what our production will be like and what we would need. Therefore, we are going through the hops we purchased four years ago.
The IPAs we are making were the thing seven to eight years ago. After that people added higher levels of wheat, no crystal malt and all these newer and more aggressive hops. We didn’t do that but instead stuck with what I was doing before I opened my own brewery. I was in Copenhagen this year and someone told me I make “old-school IPA.” Or “classic IPA,” that’s another one I’ve heard. Okay. I guess that’s fine. They sell like crazy and are our biggest seller at the brewery.
I don’t feel the huge need to do something completely different. I’m sure we’ll do at some point and we’ll find some newer hop varieties that we want to try. While there’s always room to try something new, I think we’ll stick to our bright style, 7 to 7.5 percent, light crystal malt base of an IPA. We’ll probably always going to have classic Northwest hops in it, some C-hops and things like that. Because that’s what we love.

I’ve commented before that there’s a certain tendency for group-think, where the hype jumps from one fad to the next.

I see that a little bit. I’ve been at several beer events and noticing what the crowd is like demographically and what questions they are asking. While it’s still pretty broad, I do notice that there’s a lot of things I’ve found out about this year that I’ve never heard of before.
Somebody mentioned “that was a ticker”. I asked “What the fuck’s a ticker?” They were people that only asked for half an ounce of each beer. They don’t really pay attention to the beer, they just want to write down that they had it and move on.
While I get it and I think that’s just a small portion of the beer drinking population and therefore it is kind of not relevant to the business side. But those tickers are the people that write about beer, blogging and posting on Facebook and Instagram, tagging you on all those things. What makes it interesting to think about: Do we jump into that pool and start participating with them on some sort of level, try to grab more of that publicity? Or do we stay our course and keep to our style and keep on teaching people about what we’re doing?
Because, we get a lot of good response too. At the Firestone Walker Invitational, people loved our pilsner. And we’ve had a Black Lager on, that Paste magazine rated as one of the 16 best beers at the festival. People are still paying attention to these other styles of beer. And that makes me feel good. It makes me feel that maybe this more traditional side of brewing and beers is coming back to the craft side, even in the beer geek side. While they are also drinking their crazy sour wild thing with strange ingredients in them, they are recognizing both sides. That is something I’m really happy to see and I hope it continues.

You’ve mentioned your brewery. As much as I understood, you’ve had to also open a restaurant in order to open a brewery downtown?
That’s an interesting question.

The short answer is: No, we didn’t. The full answer is: When we settled on a location in Oceanside, the city didn’t have anything in their code that applied to beer brewing or even wine making or distilling. So, they didn’t really know what to do with us. There were provisions about manufacturing and the location was in a commercial zone, so we didn’t have to go through any process to get a Conditional Use Permit approved from the city. Which was nice, because we’re only three blocks from the ocean. And there’s this thing in California called the Coastal Commission. And if you take on a property that’s not already zoned for your intended use, you also have to apply to the coastal commission. And that can take a couple of years to get through the process.
We always had plans to have a restaurant component to our brewery. We have a strong cocktail and spirit program, plus we are very into food. We obviously believe that it goes well with beer and we can bring in more people to enjoy the beer and the food, if the people that are with them that don’t enjoy beer, can have a cocktail or a glass of wine. That was always part of our plan, it just so happened to work out really well with the city: They really wanted us to come to town so the city figured that the brewery would be considered as ancillary to the restaurant. This meant that we would not have to apply for any use permits or go through any city hearings.
Now since then, Oceanside is looking into the zoning, because breweries are popular, so are wine tasting rooms, wineries, and distilleries. Of course, they get feedback and opposition from people that do not drink alcohol or are against alcohol establishments of any kind because they think it will cause crime. The city now says that anyone opening in the area we are in would have to have a restaurant component to it. That was new, after we had opened.
So, to get back to your question: Today we would have to open with a restaurant. Before we probably could have opened without a restaurant, but would have had to go through a conditional use permit process. However, it wasn’t an issue as we always wanted to open with a restaurant.

Why did you chose your last name as the name of the brewery?

That’s a very good question and came up lately with a few of our friends. We had a huge list of brewery names and ideas and thoughts. I talked to some other brewery owners, brewers and friends, including Jean van Roy of Cantillon, who is an old friend and great guy. When I mentioned to him that I am going to open my own brewery, his response was: “Whatever you do, don’t name it such and such city beer company.”
I took it to heart and I talked to some of my other friends in Europe and they agreed: “The brewery is you. It’s not the city.” Nevertheless, I was hesitant, because it is my name, my family’s name. Is that what we really want? It’s still interesting to drive up to the brewery and see my name, see people working there wearing my name on their shirt. Sometimes it’s just like: Ah, yeah, my name is everywhere. [laughs]
But in the end, it made sense: What we were going to build with the restaurant component and the size of the place, the beers we’re going to do, the cocktail program and everything else is Bagby. It’s not something else. What we are offering is an experience that you can’t really get anywhere else. It’s unique and it’s us. Therefore it’s really good that it’s called Bagby.

This is absolutely fascinating that there’s a connection to Belgium, because I’ve met a brewer from Belgium who told me how saddened he was that he couldn’t pick his last name for a brewery name, because that was already taken. And another brewer was proud that the brewery was bearing the family name since 1500something.

Which then begs the question: What do you do when you don’t have a child or a relative that wants to continue the brewery?
My wife and I don’t have children, so that’s not an option. But in the business planning, we thought about that. What is the end game? What do we do, when we can’t do it anymore? Or when you need to move on?
My brewery is brand new. I don’t have a hundred plus year’s legacy. Plus we have silent investors, it’s not all us. While we run and operate the business, we couldn’t have done it without those people. Our thinking was that after running the business for say twenty plus years, along the way we’d have younger people working for us that are very passionate about what we’ve done and do and somehow pass on part of the ownership to them, so they can own and operate the business. It does not have to be family, but it can be someone we get to know through the business. And we try to operate our staff like a family and a team. We try to take care of each other and foster an environment that keeps people around for a long time. And I hope that in ten, fifteen years there’ll be a few people that are ready to take on that responsibility for us. So that eventually we won’t have to handle the day-to-day operations.

Is there anything you know now that you would have liked to know before you opened?

I don’t think so. Obviously, we’ve learned a lot and there was plenty of frustration along the way, along with the excitement and good parts. If anything, I wish I would have known a little bit more about back-of-house operations. That’s been a very difficult thing for my wife and I.
We knew that we’d have difficulties at times and that it would be a mountain of work. It’s a giant restaurant and brewery, it’s not going to go perfect. So if I’d had a little more experience or knowledge about back-of-house culture, and just how kitchens work and what to really, really look for in a leadership person for the back-of-house, that would have saved us a lot more anxiety and stress and worry over the last couple of years.
Our new chef, who has been on board for about six months, has been a great help in getting things in line again with our kitchen. Front-of-house runs very well. We have two people who are doing an amazing job in that area.

When you learn how to run a company, you learn that a company needs a mission, a vision to define a culture. Do you have anything like that?

We have a mission statement that is nothing glamorous. It speaks to serving and creating world-class beer in a friendly and relaxed environment. So it’s not something we look to every day and ask ourselves if we are on track.
We are trying to build something that is unique in its own way. The sum of which is larger than its parts. Maybe not all of our beers are unique, maybe not all of our offerings are different and fantastically new, but what we do, we want to do well. Quality was something we always talked about when we were building this project. It would pain us if something that was going out in food, drink, or service was not of quality. That is very important to us and our staff knows that.

You don’t bottle and you don’t can.

No. But we talked about it and start looking into getting a crowler machine. We are doing some research with some of our brewery friends on how long the beer lasts in crowlers. But it definitely lasts a lot longer than in a growler. We may package someday.

In one article I read that you are one of the most awarded brewers in the US.

I don’t know if anybody has ever got down to the nitty-gritty on that and tallied up all of the awards. I definitely had some real luck when I was at Pizza Port at the GABF and the World Beer Cup. I won several metals in my years there and even before at some of the other breweries I worked for. But it was mostly Pizza Port.

But you mentioned that you won one last year.

Yeah, we got a Bronze at the GABF in 2014 and a Gold at the GABF just last year, in 2016. The gold was for our pilsner and the bronze was for an Irish-style dry stout.

Do you plan on winning more awards?

[laughs] I hope so. The GABF has changed a little bit for the breweries. Back when I was at Pizza Port we could enter a lot more beers than you can today. More entries obviously give you a higher probability of winning. For the last couple of years, it’s been limited to five beers per brewery.
And the timing is difficult. We are not making a ton of beer. Our yeast’s cycles and the availability of the beers that we feel would do really well in a competition, is not as easy to time out as it used to be when I was at Pizza Port and I had more of a regular brew schedule going.
Registration for GABF is open and we are looking at timing and what beers we want to send. And we’ll see what happens.

You mentioned a few breweries you’ve worked at. Can you give us a quick recap of your brewing career?

I’ve worked at Stone Brewing Company, White Labs, Pizza Port, Oggi’s, while I was still working for Pizza Port, and now my own place

Are you at the end or at the start of the hop-highway?

Well, highway 78 is what some people refer to as the hop-highway, with Stone and some of the other Escondido breweries being on one end and myself and others on the west end or the beach side of the highway. But it could start or end on either side. [laughs]

What made the difference so that San Diego or the area of Southern California became this mecca for beer?

Fifteen to twenty years ago, there was a small group of brewers – maybe ten if that – and a lot of people in communities around San Diego that really liked their beers. All the brewers knew each other. They were all friends, they would all collaborate, hang out and drink beer. Back then Vinnie from Russian River was still down here brewing at Blind Pig in Temecula, you had Pizza Port and Ballast Point and all these guys were making beers that were a little more aggressive and their IPAs had a bit more alcohol than in the rest of the country. And their IPAs had more hops and some brewers were starting to dry-hop their beers. This was twenty years ago.
When you have a bunch of brewers that talk to each other, they will share their experiences and thoughts on beer with each other. There was and there still is a very strong homebrewer community. These people were going to these breweries and were trying these really hoppy beers and then in turn tried to make them at home. Some of those homebrewers over time have become professional brewers. It’s not a one-upmanship. When brewers like something, they may want to try to make their own version, with a different combination of hops or a different way to dry-hop or by changing the malt bill. So it just kept kind of building.
The public just responded in spades to their beers and loved them. This started kids growing up with parents that were homebrewing or going and buying these beers. Those kids became hop-heads by the time they were of legal age to be drinking beer and buying it. So it kind of grew and fed itself.
Eventually these beers got recognized in competitions, which helped to get more and more people interested in the beers. With people now travelling for the beer and wanting more of this type of beer, it all just kept getting bigger and bigger. .
We’re at the point now that if you’re brewing in San Diego and you’re not brewing an IPA, people get mad at you.

Why was LA so late to catch up?

That’s a good question. I think part of it is that LA is just so big and vast and has so many people, there wasn’t a close connection between the brewers that were making beer back then in LA. There wasn’t a lot of these little neighborhoods or cities, where there was two or three breweries that were making craft beer at any level. It just took time for that to happen.
Now, it’s like the wild west in LA. There is breweries popping up all over with people making great beer.

Which makes it somewhat interesting that one of Inbev’s earlier purchases was Golden Road.

A lot of us in the brewing industry, when we saw Golden Road get going, we looked at it like that brewery was built to sell. They didn’t go about their brewing and their release of their product to the market like most other smaller breweries: they immediately packaged beer and immediately went after being available in grocery stores, rather than smaller craft beer bars. Which is fine. But it seemed that it was more about growth than quality. That kind of gave them a stigma.
So nobody in the beer community was surprised at all. AB Inbev wrote them a big ol’ check and that was probably an offer they couldn’t refuse.
It’s also a shame, because I thought that Golden Road had the potential to be a real leader in LA craft beer, in the same way Stone and Ballast Point – at one time – were in San Diego: concentrating on the local market, and educating the people about what great beer is.

What would be an offer that you couldn’t refuse?

Everybody has a point. When someone walks up and has a checkbook in hand, with more zeros than you’ve ever seen before, it is hard not to pay attention. I don’t know what ours would be. But the biggest thing that we’ve kind of come to is that we probably wouldn’t ever be willing to sell our name. We wouldn’t want somebody else to have control over the quality of any of our products. Our name, what it stands for, and what it means to people, is very important to us.
So we may be willing at some point to sell our business, but someone would have to pay an awful lot of money for it and there would probably be restrictions on that. Just because it would drive me insane for the rest of my life, if I’d see someone else have control over my name, beer, and products.
We’ve had some people approach us about partnering and we are always presented with offers to open more locations.
Right now we are just concentrating on our location here in Oceanside. We are a young business and we’ve got a lot of growing to do. I don’t think we are attractive enough to a big chain or an AB Inbev or anybody that’d would come along and write us a big enough check that would make us go: “Yeah, we can’t refuse that.”

As you know, Chris of Three Floyds told us to talk to you. When we ask brewers who we should talk to next, we also give them the chance to ask a question. So Chris has the following question for you: What’s it like being so tall?

[laughs] Ah, that’s awesome. That’s so Chris. Ah, let’s see. Well, first, because I’ve been tall for a long time, you start not to notice that you really aren’t that much taller than most people. You can reach things real easy that are on high shelves or that might be out of reach for others. That’s always nice. But you also, or at least I do, you bang your head on things all the time. So being tall can be painful.

Now our last question is one we ask everybody: What five beers should we drink, before we die?

First two that come to mind are Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Orval.
Cantillon Classic Geueze.
Russian River Blind Pig
It’s hard to not pick a German beer but I’ll have to leave those beers off the list this time. Just because I love the beer and could drink it all day: De la Senne Taras Boulba.

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