photos by David Mulvihill
Most seasoned Southern California craft brewing fans are familiar with Pizza Port, one of the early pioneers that began in San Diego County’s Solana Beach. The pizza place taken over by Gina and Vince Marsaglia in 1987 added Vince’s onsite crafted beer to its menu in 1992 and their brewpub was born. Lots of history and story could be added at this point: about how Tomme Arthur took over for Vince as head brewer in 1997; about the growing recognition and numerous awards; and Pizza Port’s expansion to five locations, first to Carlsbad in 1997, then to San Clemente in 2003. There are numerous accounts about each Pizza Port brewpub and the spinoff breweries and labels (Port Brewing, The Lost Abbey, The Hop Concept, and Pizza Port’s Bressi Ranch production facility). In addition to Tomme Arthur, Pizza Port’s award-winning brewers have included additional San Diego pioneers of craft brewing Jeff Bagby (Bagby Beer Co), Tom Nickel (Nickel Beer) and Kirk McHale (Melvin Brewing), and the many since-decorated well-trained and vocationally-driven to the craft disciples that followed.
Today’s focus is on Pizza Port San Clemente, primarily as an introduction to its newest head brewer, Jon Eckelberger. But we can’t venture there without first speaking a bit about the brewing lineage of Port SC.
Pizza Port San Clemente was Pizza Port’s first and only to-date venture outside of San Diego County. Upon opening, Kirk McHale split brewing duties between his Carlsbad home-base and the new South OC brewery for a few years. Port SC garnered three Great American Beer Festival (GABF) and one World Beer Cup (WBC) medals during that time. Noah Regnery (Artisanal Brewers Collective) followed as head brewer, with four GABF (2009, 2010 and 2011) and one WBC (2010) honors. He also received the coveted Small Brewpub Brewer/Brewery of the Year award in 2010. Upon Noah’s exit, the brewhouse mash paddle was handed to Ryan Fields (Wild Fields Brewhouse). Ryan was honored with two GABF and three WBC awards in 2012. With Ryan’s move to Beachwood Blendery, Siebel & Doemens-trained Trevor Walls (Brewery X) took his turn. His GABF medal would come in 2016, prior to his leaving Pizza Port, for Anaheim’s new Brewery X. Kane Christensen, who had previously turned in his pizza slinging apron to become Ryan Fields’ assistant and had also become Trevor’s assistant for a time prior to furthering his training at Pizza Port Bressi Ranch’s production facility, assumed the head brewer role. Christensen has since left to join brewery-in-planning Station Craft. This finally brings us to the current Eckelberger reign.
Jon’s Pizza Port SC connection actually began during Ryan Fields’ tenure. As an avid homebrewer of almost 20 years and fan of Pizza Port, Jon and Ryan would talk beer and brewing, and share some homebrew. English nitro beer was a favorite style Jon liked brewing at home. After enjoying one at the Eckelberger residence, Ryan invited him to come brew one with him at Pizza Port. Additional brewing sessions followed.
Although an interest in brewing professionally existed, Jon was hesitant to step from his outside career to become an assistant brewer for just any brewery, unless that brewery was Pizza Port. An opportunity presented itself when Kane Christensen transferred to Bressi Ranch. Jon proceeded to season his craft professionally, first with Walls, then with Christensen.
This reporter ventured south to San Clemente in late May to visit with Eckelberger, try some of his latest beer and converse about his new role as head brewer. He was busy brewing. His plan in preparing for some anticipated time off was to brew a few successive batches of lager (German-style lager, a pilsner and Claudie’s Lager, an India pale lager [IPL]), which could condition while he was away. Jon’s wife and fellow Pizza Port team member Shannon Murphy-Eckelberger was expecting their second child in June.
Beers I tried during my visit included Duffield’s ESB, The Phelper and Dank Bank IPA. Duffield’s is a 5.5% ABV nitro-infused ESB: easy drinking, with a delicious British-style profile. The Phelper, a Cascade dry-hopped lager, was brewed to honor Jake Phelps, the editor in chief of Thrasher magazine (skateboarding). Jon and his friend Jordan crafted the beer a couple of days before Phelps’ recent passing. The lightness of the lager coupled with the dry-hopping made for a refreshing citrus-floral experience. Dank Bank, as well as the others, were verifying examples of Jon’s emphasis on assuring beers are properly attenuated and finished before being tapped.
Jon shared that his primary focus upon taking over as head brewer has been to produce the best beer possible, beer that will garner full acceptance, remarkability and support by new and long term patrons, fellow brewers and others in the industry. He really cares about assuring that folks continue to have a reason to keep coming in. Jon’s two assistants, Haven Lerman and Jared Terry, are helping him with this effort.
Working with a great team of people at Pizza Port, coupled with the tremendous sense of accomplishment that comes with each successive batch brewed, continues to stimulate his drive for making better beer.
Jon and Pizza Port San Clemente will be participating in brewing this year’s Brew Ha Ha Craft Beer Festival collaboration beer, along with Docent Brewing’s Bryan Giesen and Riip Beer Co.’s Ian McCall. It will likely be brewed at Docent and see distribution around Brew Ha Ha time (early Sept.) in cans and on draft.