A Beer Lover's Dream Job?
What if you managed a pub that gave you first access to some of the greatest and most limited beers out there, plus a daily opportunity to taste your way through San Diego’s entire craft beer scene? Welcome to Tyson Blake’s world.
Tyson Blake | Photo by Bruce Glassman
Since the mid-1990s, O’Brien’s Pub has been touted as one of San Diego’s best craft beer bars. Not only did it support and feature San Diego beers long before they became “cool,” O’Brien’s built personal relationships with brewers early on and played a key role in bringing quality beers to a thirsty public.
Today, O’Brien’s enjoys a privileged position in the world of craft beer, one that enables it to get special releases that are not available to most other bars. (Hamilton’s, Churchill’s, and Toronado also enjoy this special status.) Overseeing this somewhat unique beer program is a complicated and increasingly difficult task for owner Tom Nickel and General Manager Tyson Blake. In short: There are so many great beers, and too few taps (even though O’Brien’s has 28!).
Tyson has been at O’Brien’s for five years, and during that time, he’s been lucky to have first-hand access to an amazing variety of brews. “It’s pretty awesome to have the availability we have and to drink the range of beer we have,” Tyson says. “We get the heavily allocated items that only certain accounts get, where there’s only a few kegs from a certain brewery. I am always looking for things that are on the limited side, so getting those beers makes someone like me geek out!” What “geeks” him out the most? “Well, definitely the Russian River stuff,” Tyson admits. “Vinnie [Cilurzo] is a good friend of the pub’s and he hooks us up with an awesome supply of Russian River draft beer. We even do an event every January, when we celebrate our anniversary, where we’ll have about 16 to 20 Russian River draft beers on tap. Zero other places can do that, except for Russian River, of course.” Tyson also gets jazzed by the great variety of gueuzes, sours, and lambics that come through his doors. These beers are often very limited, in high demand, and tend to be, as Tyson puts it, selections that hard-core beer fans “totally geek out over.”
Because O’Brien’s has been around for so long (Jim O’Brien opened the pub on January 1, 1994) it has more “street cred” than most bars in San Diego. Within the brewing community, O’Brien’s is regarded as one of the nation’s best beer showcases—for brewers, it’s kind of like the Carnegie Hall of beer bars. “It’s a treat to be regarded as a place where people want to launch their portfolios, either from around the country or specifically from San Diego,” Tyson says. “Often we get the chance to have the first sips of rare releases or beers that are just entering the San Diego market.”
Special beer events that are unique to O’Brien’s have also helped to separate this pub from the crowd. Every October, O’Brien’s celebrates the Yakima Valley hop harvest by doing a special wet-hop fest that features once-a-year specialty beers made by brewers who have scrambled to get fresh hops (which have to be used within 48 hours of being picked). O’Brien’s features about 50 wet-hop beers for their event, a collection that—as Tyson proudly points out—no other pub can match.
This year, for the first time, O’Brien’s is doing a second wet-hop event that features beers made with hops from San Diego hop farms. There are currently more than 10 major hop farms in the county and San Diego brewers are enjoying an increasing supply of local product. The San Diego wet-hop event will be held from September 11-13 and will include wet-hop beers from Mother Earth, Stone, Ballast Point, Thorn Street, and about a dozen other breweries.
Working behind the bar on Convoy Street has given Tyson a unique perspective on San Diego’s evolution as a craft beer mecca. When he started at O’Brien’s five years ago, the brewing scene was markedly different. For one thing, there were only 40-45 breweries in operation back then, and craft beer hadn’t infiltrated the other aspects of San Diego life as much as we see today. “The restaurants were more wine and cocktail focused,” Tyson says. “You could find one craft beer, or a couple of bottles, but that was about it. Even restaurants that had food that pairs really well with beer wouldn’t have much of a beer program. Now you can go pretty much anywhere and find at least Ballast Point beers on tap, or Green Flash, or Stone.”
Today, of course, the brewing community is also expanding more rapidly than ever before, which means variety has never been greater. With 110 breweries, each brewing on average 10-20 beers, the sheer number of brews to choose from makes finalizing a tap rotation even more challenging. Tyson is constantly meeting with folks from the new and small breweries who bring him samples in the hope that they can break into the O’Brien’s lineup. “It’s incredible to see the quality of beer being brewed around San Diego,” Tyson says, “so it’s harder and harder to say no—or to say ‘it tastes really good right now, but I’m stacked for the next two weeks.’” Some of the newer breweries that have really impressed Tyson recently include Half Door, Fall Brewing, and San Clemente’s Artifex. “I think the one thing those three breweries do is they hit their fermentation temperatures just right. Their hoppy beers are all done with light malt bills that let the hops shine through; they’re aggressive where they need to be and they finesse where they need to.”
Other new developments that put a twinkle in Tyson’s eyes include a growing trend among breweries to brew more Berlinerweiss beers and more gueuzes [Belgian-style sour fruit beers]. “Almost everybody seems to be kind of dabbling in them,” he says. “Council is doing a nice job with their sour saisons, and 32 North does a really nice Kolsch and a peach Berlinerweiss, which is great. I’m also excited about Toolbox. They’re filling a bunch of barrels and will be able to release more of their stuff. And who isn’t excited by the fact that Societe is finally getting ready to release some bottles?”
Some people think of Tyson as the “beer geek” equivalent of a kid in a candy store. He’s often asked how he restrains himself from tasting everything all the time. His answer: “I don’t! Like you said, imagine you’re in a candy store and there’s 28 bins. You don’t have to open any bag. You just lift the bin and try.” In truth, tasting and monitoring the quality of the beer is an important aspect of Tyson’s job. As the pub’s G.M., he’s responsible for cleaning all the lines, checking how the beer is pouring, and for tasting everything that goes on tap (doesn’t sound so bad, right?). If there’s a beer that’s lasted more than a week, he checks it to see how it’s holding up (even though a beer rarely lasts that long at O’Brien’s!). So, yes, Tyson’s job is part real work and part candy store. So, with all the choices, what’s the one beer he simply can’t resist? “I love Alpine’s Duet,” he admits. “I love the simplicity, the cleanliness, the aroma of Amarillo and Simcoe. Duet and [Russian River’s] Blind Pig, for me, are the beers that I really geek out about. If they’re on tap, then I’m a happy guy.”