Feeding the URGE to Brew
Getting a taste of life on the other side of the tap handle
Mason Ale Works Beers | Photo by Bruce Glassman
By all accounts, Grant Tondro and his business partner, Zak Higson, are some of San Diego’s best-established publicans. In 2007, they founded Rancho Bernardo’s Barrel Room Vintage Wine Bar and Bistro, a North County favorite that today boasts a list of more than 250 wines. In 2010, they opened URGE Gastropub in Rancho Bernardo, an uber-popular spot that features elevated comfort food and a selection of 51 great craft beer taps. The URGE project was soon followed by the opening of Brothers Provisions, an artisan market and deli that specializes in higher-end gourmet foods and beverages. Most recently, Zak and Grant decided to bring their URGE concept to Oceanside, but they didn’t want the new place to simply be a mirror image of the original. This time, in addition to offering more than 40 taps of great craft beer, they decided they would also brew a bunch of the beer themselves. [Actually, to be exact, they hired former Lost Abbey head brewer Mike Rodriguez to do the brewing.] The result was the creation of Mason Ale Works, a 10-barrel system that chugs away just behind the wall of the new restaurant’s massive whiskey bar.
The 9,500-square-foot Oceanside location, which seats about 210, has turned out to be the duo’s most successful launch yet, but Grant admits that—after all the years he’s spent strictly as a beer buyer and purveyor—it’s a whole new experience being one of the guys responsible for actually making the stuff.
Given the overwhelming success of the URGE concept in Rancho Bernardo, Grant and Zak knew they had to do another restaurant; the challenge was how to make it different while keeping the best elements of the original. “The big thing was the desire to do another URGE and to still do something fun and unique,” says Grant. “We always say we want our restaurants to seem like a family—you can tell that they’re all related, but there’s no twins.” The partners considered a number of things that would make their new location unique and they finally settled on two central concepts: The new place would have a massive selection of whiskeys and it would also house a brewery.
The whole idea of brewing their own craft beer started more than two years ago with an earlier (but ultimately doomed) project called Craft Alley, which was going to be a brewery and bowling alley in Vista. The deal fell through after prolonged negotiations, but, in preparation, Grant and Zak had talked with Jeff Bagby and Steve Wagner about helping the Craft Alley project out. “They were going to consult for us and get us on our feet,” Grant says. Jeff Bagby put the URGE guys together with brewer Mike Rodriguez, who stayed with the group for more than two years before finally getting the chance to brew a batch of beer in the new location.
Once the Oceanside brewhouse was operational, Mike’s first weeks were spent brewing what will be Mason’s core beers. The initial brews were all designed to be full-flavored, food-friendly takes on classic styles, including a few variations of IPA, a Saison, a hoppy red, and a coffee stout.
Because he had been evaluating and buying beer from so many breweries for so long, Grant approached the Mason brewing project with a highly experienced palate and a very broad overview of the industry. That overview meant he also had very specific ideas about what he wanted for the Mason Ale Works brand. “We’ve definitely got a unique perspective,” says Grant. “There are certain things that other people are already doing where we said we’d like to do those things, too. But there are other things we thought could be a little bit different.” One example of something different, Grant points out, is Mason’s hoppy red IPA, called Charley Hustle (Grant is, by his own admission, a “huge baseball guy”). “How many red IPAs are there out there?” he asks. “I love My Bloody Valentine and Evil Dead Red, they’re great, but not too many guys are doing them. So here’s a chance for us to do an IPA, but not enter head-on into the single or double IPA market, where it’s a little crowded.”
Grant also views their Saison, called Mi Bella, as something of a departure from the rest. “It’s a fantastic yeast strain. And it’s a style we’ve said from day one that we wanted to have as one of our core beers. It’s also something Mike does really well, given his time at Tank 7 and then at Lost Abbey.” Initially, Grant was a little concerned that a Saison wouldn’t have enough crowd appeal to be a core beer, but he’s gratified that the feedback from his patrons has been very positive.
Every brewer struggles to find the proper balance between doing the beers he or she wants to brew and doing the beers the customers want to drink. At Mason, they abide by the most tried-and-true of brewing maxims: Brew what you like. As Grant says, “Our goal is to make beers that we want to drink. We figured if we made something that’s awesome, that we wanted to drink, then other people would be into it.” This same strategy has guided Grant and Zak in all their business ventures from the very beginning. “Every one of our places is a different expression of one of our vices,” Grant explains. “We’ve got a huge wine list at The Barrel Room, we’ve got a huge cheese selection at Brothers (and a great bottle shop), and we have two URGE locations with tons of great beer. That’s the secret to our success.”
Despite having full confidence in Mason’s strategy and quality, Grant is also well aware that he has now entered into a game in which he was previously only an observer (an observer who tasted and bought lots of beer!). Entering into the craft brewing arena has not come without a certain amount of trepidation on Grant’s part. What does he fear most about being a bona fide brewery? “It’s probably making a beer that isn’t perfect,” he says. “It’s tough because we have to constantly balance our business decisions with our quality decisions, and I have to be impartial.” Some of those decisions, as he explains, are not easy to make. If he feels one of his own beers is not drinking well, for example, he has to dump it. “As long as I stay Grant Tondro, beer buyer, we ought to be in good shape,” he says. “The real trick is knowing what’s good enough and what’s not good enough. I’ve got no problem serving a well-made beer that maybe I’m not excited about, but it’s challenging to make those calls.” In other words, Grant now has to constantly ask himself, if he were just an objective beer buyer for URGE, would he give his precious taps over to Mason beers?
Even though there are unique complexities to simultaneously being a publican and a brewer, Grant does look forward to all the positive rewards of having his own brewery. As soon as his distribution agreement is up and running, URGE Oceanside will be able to get beer into URGE Rancho Bernardo. And, as soon as the planned packaging operation is in place, cans and bottles of Mason Ale Works beer will be on the shelves at Brothers Provisions and many other retail outlets. When that happens, of course, Mason beers will be available on a much larger scale, and Grant and his team will feel even more pressure to be great.
“It’s a little bit terrifying,” he admits. “I respect the hell out of anyone who makes anything because ultimately you’re putting yourself out there to be judged—whether you want to be judged or not.” In the end, Grant believes the positives will outweigh the negatives, and the thrill of having his own brand out in the world will make everything else worthwhile. “I’m really excited that we’re not too far from a point when I can walk into a bar, other than one of our places, and I’ll be able to order one of my beers. That’s going to be awesome. I’m also excited about doing a bunch of special events here in town. When I picture walking into Toronado or Hamilton’s for a Mason Ale Works event, my mind explodes just thinking about it!”