Walter Mencken 11 a.m., Nov. 27
Pizza Port Solana Beach: The next generation
The new brewer (wo)manning one of San Diego’s classic brewhouses
One of the county’s eldest brewhouses resides below-ground in an inauspicious picnic-tabled pizza joint—Pizza Port Solana Beach (135 North Highway 101). The first of the Southern California chain’s locations, it’s been turning out craft beer since 1992. Over the years, the seven-barrel system at Pizza Port Solana Beach has served as the launching pad for numerous brewers who’ve gone on to become big names both within and beyond the pie-in-the-sky empire.
Among Pizza Port Solana Beach’s esteemed alums are Port Brewing/The Lost Abbey director of brewery operations Tomme Arthur, renowned beer award machine Jeff Bagby (who is currently working on opening his Bagby Beer brewpub in Oceanside), former Oggi’s Pizza & Brewing head brewer (and owner of Julian’s work-in-progress Nickel Beer Company) Tom Nickel, and most recently, brewer Sean Farrell, who recently made the move to Carlsbad where he’ll work with the brewer who earned Pizza Port Ocean Beach "Best Small Brewpub in the U.S." honors in 2011, Yiga Miyashiro, to open the business’ massive upcoming Bressi Ranch brewery, canning, storage, and restaurant facility.
Farrell’s transfer left the need to fill his shoes. As is often the case with Pizza Port, they looked within the organization when doing so, tapping The Lost Abbey and Pizza Port OB veteran, Devon Randall to take over. I recently sat down with Randall to get the skinny on her career to this point, how it feels taking over such a historically rich brewing apparatus, the beers she intends to brew, and what it’s like being a woman in a male-dominated profession.
Randall’s journey toward craft beer fitting began at the age of 21 when she worked in Berkeley at the since-burned-down Raleigh’s Bar & Grill. “It was the place to go for good beer and probably had the most taps in town,” recalls Randall. It was there she fell for her first craft beer love, Moose Drool, a brown ale from Montana’s Big Sky Brewing Company. That brew swore her off macrobeer for good, but it was getting her feet wet in the manufacture of quality suds, when helping an ex-boyfriend homebrew after moving to Los Angeles, that really sealed the deal. The relationship didn’t last, but her love of brewing did. After the two parted ways, she bought her own kit, advanced from extract to all-grain brewing, and joined a homebrew club called Pacific Gravity.
“I came to a point in my life where I was single, my lease was up, and my job in real estate marketing was dying down, and suddenly I found myself thinking, why don’t I get a brewing job doing something I really like?” says Randall. At the time, she was living in Los Angeles. She inquired with several breweries in San Diego and L.A., but many were wary of hiring her on for one reason or another. After a few rejections, she ventured to Port Brewing/The Lost Abbey, where they told her, “come back tomorrow with boots.”
“The first day there, we brewed Devotion Ale, which is nicknamed Devo. That’s my nickname, too, so it seemed like fate,” says Randall. “We also brewed Road To Helles, a beer made with approximately 2,000 pounds of specialty malt that has to be added one 55-pound bag at a time. I figured that was a pretty good test, having to lift those bags over my head over and over, but still wanting to be a brewer after I was done.”
Randall stuck around, doing everything they’d let her from filling kegs and cleaning bright tanks to sweeping and taking out the trash. Two months in, she was given an official position working in the warehouse. “I wasn’t the best at moving heavy kegs around. Most of the guys who do that work are big and burly, but I did my best. It actually helped that I was small, because I could get between the palettes.”
It was when one such big, burly guy running the bottling line was injured that she was able to show her versatility, taking over the line (a temperamental cork-and-cage operation) for a short while. Still, she wasn’t interested in going the packaging route. Her goal was to get into brewing. The next step in her advancement was assisting Arthur with the barrel program, a big deal at a company where barrel-aged beers are their bread-and-butter. After excelling there, she received a call from Miyashiro telling her about an open brewer position at Pizza Port OB. She grasped that gold ring and trained under Miyashiro for six months before getting the call to move up to Solana Beach where the show is all hers, but she’s not completely alone and can still lean on her contemporaries when needed.
“There have been various times where I thought things weren’t happening fast enough and asked, ‘why am I not brewing already?’ Now, I’m glad that Sean is still around to ask him questions. Everything’s right on time,” says Randall. “Right now, I’m really interested in proving myself and making great beer. I’ve been under instruction for the beginning of my career. Now, it’s time to take off on my own.”
While interviewing Randall, I had the chance to sample one of her first beers, Ponto Pale Ale, a highly botanic 5.8% thirst quencher heavy with Mosaic, a relatively new variety of hop sourced from Yakima, Washington. For now, she’s mostly getting the feel for recreating Pizza Port classics like Swami’s IPA and Dawn Patrol dark mild ale, but also had a rye pale ale fermenting away during our sit-down. Once she has a firm feel for her new digs, she hopes to add her own twists to mainstays while also reinstating the barrel program originally introduced by Arthur, which formed the humble foundation for The Lost Abbey.
“This being Tomme’s brewery not that long ago, and seeing what he’s done for the industry and The Lost Abbey, it’s very cool knowing I’m brewing on same system as he did. It may not be as shiny and pretty as the brewery in Ocean Beach, but it definitely has character.”
As for being a woman in the brewing industry, she says, “Well, there are fewer of us for sure. It’s definitely harder for us because, generally, we’re not as big. You can’t mind getting dirty or the physical labor, but I think it’s pretty damn fun. It’s physical and you get to be a part of the magic that is fermentation.”
Randall names Tonya Cornett of Bend, Oregon’s 10 Barrel Brewing Company, brewer-at-large and founder of female brewing industry group The Pink Boots Society Teri Fahrendorf, Kim Lutz from San Diego’s soon-to-open Saint Archer Brewery, and Pizza Port owner Gina Marsaglia as inspirations. “Women look at things from a different perspective. We have a different way of organizing things and running a brewhouse.”
In the end, a good brewer is a good brewer and good beer is good beer. Randall’s Ponto Pale Ale is a good beer. Here’s to more of that at this venerable San Diego brewing landmark.
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