Have a Beer with Offbeat’s Co-Founder/Brewer Tom Garcia
This Stone Brewing alum spent years in the trenches before breaking out on his own to pursue his unique vision for brewing.
Tom Garcia | Photo by Bruce Glassman
If San Diego’s brewers were all characters from kitschy 80’s television shows, Tom Garcia would definitely be MacGyver. Working with limited resources but no lack of creative drive or ingenuity, Tom built Offbeat Brewing Company by piecing together parts, re-tooling processes, and by doing by hand what most pro brewers get done with automation. Tom likes to say that he built his brewery with “duct tape, string, and super glue,” a fact that he’s particularly proud of and one that he believes has enabled him to brew beers that are truly different.
You’ve been around the San Diego brewing scene for some time now. What was your trajectory?
Well, I started brewing professionally in 2003. It was before the big boom started in San Diego, we had some decent-size breweries—I think we had 23 breweries if you counted all the brewpubs. I had grown up in Escondido and San Marcos, had gone away to college in Iowa, graduated, and came back. My first pro brewing position was at Stone Brewing. When I started there on Mata Way in San Marcos, I think I was the 20th-something hire.
When I came into the brewing industry I had some school knowledge and some practical knowledge (I loved to cook and loved science and math and numbers) but I had only just started home brewing. I told my wife this was a great idea, it was going to cost us like fifty cents a beer, I’m going to save us tons of money, and I’m going to make all kinds of stuff.
Was she a beer enthusiast, too?
At the time she only drank wine! We went down to this small home brew store in San Marcos called Brew Maxxer, which was probably the only home brew store in North County at the time. It’s since closed. My wife went with me and the owner poured some beers for us and we realized there’s something different about what you can accomplish brewing your own. So she started down the path of loving beer, we brewed our first batch together, and within about three months I started to buy all the books I could find. My mind couldn’t stop focusing on how beer is made and how to do it better. And even though I was in the infant stages of brewing, my desire to know more was just growing exponentially. I also realized that, the more complicated a book on brewing was, the more I enjoyed it. And the more engineering, math, and chemistry that was involved, the more excited I got. So, I knew I had a passion for it and I wanted to commit to something, I was twenty-five at the time, so I started calling some of the few breweries that were around. The one that happened to be right in my backyard was Stone. I’d had Stone IPA at a restaurant and I remembered drinking a couple of pints of it. It was the first time I’d had a real robust IPA, a true IPA. It was the floral notes and the citrus notes of that beer that hit me. So I read the table tent that had Stone’s information and I saw the web site, and I decided I was going to work there.
What was your strategy for getting in the door?
At that point I started sending resumes into every department, and I’d call to follow up and sometimes they wouldn’t even know they’d posted the job yet! Eventually, I got hired to work in the tasting room. I poured beers, filled growlers, ran kegs out, that kind of thing. I did that for about three months. I don’t know how I had the balls to think that I should be allowed to brew there, but I told them, “Hey guys, I’m gonna do this. I’m gonna do it somewhere.” I even applied to Davis and got accepted. One day, I went up to Steve [Wagner] and said I needed more days, and he said, “Alright, get on the bottling line,” which wasn’t what I was expecting at all. But I was brought up with a hard-work ethic; you get there, you work a thousand percent the whole time you’re there, you arrive on time, and you don’t call in sick. I basically just said yes to every opportunity I could get. When the bottling line broke down, I went over to the brew house and asked if there was anything I could do, like grain out, or sweep, or mop. We only had a few brewers at the time, so they would say, “Absolutely!” I got made fun of for brown-nosing by the other guys on the line, but after a few months I was in a lead role running the filler. And when one of our brewers was leaving to go back to Ohio, we were looking for a new brewer. So, my pitch to Lee [Chase] was, “Hey, I don’t have any bad habits. I haven’t learned anything anywhere else. I’m going to do anything that you want me to do a hundred percent the way you want it done. That was my pitch. And he said he’d give me a chance. I was pretty lucky to have that. So, in my first year of working there—within month eight—I was brewing.
Do you remember how many barrels a year Stone was producing at the time?
I’d say we were in the 20,000-barrel range when I got there. By the time I left we were at 100,000 barrels. I was there about seven years. I brewed for three years with them, and Lee Chase was my brewing mentor.
How was it working for Lee?
It was great. He was one of my favorite bosses. Super mellow. If he’s chewing you out, you might not know it right away. But if you listened to what he said you’d realize that he meant it and, if you wanted to keep brewing, you’d do the stuff he was asking. I was very fortunate to be able to go home, read from the same UC Davis books that Lee had learned from, and come in during the day where I could ask him questions. I utilized his knowledge, so most of my rudimentary skills I learned from his teaching.
After about three years of working with Lee, we moved into the Escondido facility and I got to take over the lab. I started the QA and QC department at Stone. It was microbiology and chemistry-type stuff. So I ran our lab for a couple of years, and I was on the brew team. My work was closely related to everything that was happening on the brewing side. After a couple more years, I moved on to become the cellar supervisor, where I ran Stone’s cellar.
When did you decide you wanted to open your own brewery?
Before I even started working for Stone, I had this odd idea, for some reason—I don’t know why—that I’d start a brewery.
Are there things you brought from the Stone culture to your own brewery?
The quality is the most important thing. During my years at Stone, I grew into positions where I had a lot of nice toys to play with, and instruments, and a staff of nine or ten people. I was fat and happy, I guess you could say. It was really easy to get certain things done. When I opened Offbeat, I was the only brewer for the first two-and-a-half years. I was also running the office, hiring folks to run the tasting bar, and doing everything else that needed to get done.
So, you really had to get back to basics for a while there.
And you also wanted to start brewing some different kinds of beers from the ones you worked on at Stone?
Yes. When I was ready to leave, I told Steve that when I closed my eyes I saw something different. I wanted to pursue some other ideas of beer. Of course, we had been making delicious Stone IPA, and I had the rare privilege of being someone who was actually able to create recipes and put some of my own beers out. The 13th Anniversary beer was one of mine. My job hadn’t been devoid of creativity, but I wanted to see what I could do on my own. So I left in 2009 to start my own brewery, and I also started doing some brewery consulting. During the days, I worked with other breweries, like Mother Earth, which was just getting started, as well as five or six other breweries in Vista. Pretty soon I decided to get serious and to really push for the opening of Offbeat. Being the kind of person that I am, I thought I could do a thousand times more with my resources than I actually could. So I basically bootstrapped this place—I had some 401K money—just enough to get things running here. And I started putting equipment together and filling out paperwork, even though I don’t think I fully understood how I was going to get the ball rolling. I did know that, if I didn’t start taking the steps, I wasn’t going to find the things I needed to put this together. It was a strong learning curve. I think it was just my being naïve about what we could accomplish that got us out here.
So by September 2012 you were ready to open.
We opened when we opened because we needed to sell beer so we could pay rent. We opened with four beers, one of which was a collaboration with Mother Earth. The year that I opened, lots of things changed. All of a sudden the projections were that San Diego was going to have fifty more breweries within the year. That meant anything I had planned or modeled in my business plan was just not accurate. So, from the very beginning, we had to change and adapt to the environment and respond to what our customers were wanting. We opened Offbeat with the idea that we would just sell beer from the bar. We didn't distribute for the first two-and-a-half years and, because of that, we’d run through inventory in a weekend. So we had some common growth problems. For me, my frustration was that, at Stone, I had been used to having all these awesome tools and people and being able to get on the phone and say, “get this done” and “get that done.” The resources I had meant I never had to worry about the entire business, I could just focus on getting the beer made. At Offbeat, we had certain constraints. For example, we never got hop contracts, and the equipment I bought was either repurposed or reused. I had to recondition it and reprogram it. Instead of buying equipment, I was making equipment. I like to say that we wound up essentially turning an old VW bug into a race car. The first year or two, it was just grinding, grinding, grinding. But because of those challenges and limitations, we started making beer that was unique to Offbeat. We didn’t have money to buy new equipment, like a simple carbonation stone that may cost two hundred dollars. So, I wouldn’t buy it. And we don't have a carb stone to this day (all the beers are naturally carbonated). I just started changing my methods. I started making beer that was unfiltered, unfined, and not force-carbonated. What we quickly started to do was take the constraints we were facing and we used them to our advantage. We used them to make beer that was unique and to make beer that can’t be easily replicated. So when you taste it, it’s really easy to tell that it’s an Offbeat beer. We tend to be malt forward—most brewers are hops first; we’re hops third or fourth. Some people get upset about that, but there’s delicious hoppy beer all over.
Do you find that some people who know you were a brewer at Stone come here expecting super-hoppy beers, like you’re a Stone disciple?
Yes. Absolutely. In fact, I took IPA off the menu once, for about two or three months. It was great experiment, but a horrible financial decision.
What are some of the other ways that Offbeat beers have become unique?
Because I went back to my foundational knowledge, and started making beer unfiltered, we began to develop our strategies and technologies around how we could use brewing techniques from 200,000 or 300,000 years ago. For example, since our beer isn’t filtered, it’s allowed to mature more naturally. It definitely takes longer to make our beer, but not exponentially longer. We’ve had to manage our resources fairly well, especially in terms of hops. A lot of our beers are based on certain hops; Fuggles, for example. Sometimes I could get it and sometimes I couldn’t. So I basically had to say, okay, I’m going to use my knowledge of hop blending to find the same flavor by combining this hop with that hop. And that became our model. We were not going to become hop dependent. We’ll still make our IPAs consistent, but we’re always going to do what we have to do to get the flavor profile we need. And that gives us freedom. The way I look at it, the whole brewing industry is usually going, “IPA, double IPA, triple IPA,” and we’re going, “what’s out there?” So we experiment with browns and European dark malty-style beers. Being malt-forward you can really get a bad reputation for being too sweet, under attenuated, and less tasty, but we work hard to avoid that. We’ve started to use other ingredients for bittering as well. We use a lot of ingredients, like spices and sage in our IPA, which are other ways to provide bitterness. We are constantly battling through our constraints to develop new techniques and to brew beers that are unique to us.
And even though you could afford more resources now, you seem to prefer working with the limitations and obstacles that force you to be inventive and creative.
Absolutely. Our name can be taken a few different ways. Musically, “offbeat” can mean a little bit on the downbeat. I like to think about brewing and music as being similar, just different art forms. I also really like the multi-faceted dimensions of our name. Another facet of “offbeat” can mean “off the beaten path,” which I love. I just really like that concept.
Offbeat Brewing Company, 1223 Pacific Oaks Pl, Escondido, CA 92029