San Diegan Jim O’Brien opened O’Brien’s Pub in 1994 after taking over the location from a German deli named Ingrid’s. He’d been inspired to open a beer bar by a trip to Pioneer Square in Seattle, where he saw plenty of beer on tap and the locals loving it. Upon returning to San Diego and finalizing the deal for the Kearny Mesa spot, O’Brien went to work. He replaced the deli cases with beer taps and painted the interior walls green, which made the place look like an Irish pub, and that’s why he decided to use his own last name as the moniker.
O’Brien’s Pub opened on January 3, 1994, a Monday, as a non-smoking bar at a time when it was still legal to smoke indoors. Back then, Kearny Mesa wasn’t the hotspot for Asian cuisine like it is now, but parking was nearly as tough, O’Brien admits. The first few years were a grind, but even with the loyal regulars “we were a neighborhood pub without a neighborhood,” he says.
The opening day tap list was quite bold for the time, including barleywines Sierra Nevada Bigfoot and Anchor Old Foghorn Ale. In fact, most of the beers on tap at O’Brien’s in those early days came from Northern California. That slowly changed; Gina Marsaglia from Pizza Port Solana Beach came in to marvel at one of the few beer bars in San Diego, and soon Pizza Port’s Swami’s IPA made it onto the O’Brien’s tap list, and pub regulars were requesting more and more hoppy beer. “We couldn’t get enough of Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale,” for example.
O’Brien now works in real estate but still tries to visit the pub a few times per month. The beer scene is much different these days: “If people wanted really good beer in San Diego, they pretty much had to come to me,” he boasts.
When he decided he wanted to move on from the pub, Tom Nickel, then director of brewing operations at Oggi’s, was top of the list to take over. O’Brien says Nickel only took a few hours to decide he’d want to own the place after the proposition was made, and the transition became official in January 2003, while Nickel was still at Oggi’s. 15 months later, he led the team that won three medals at the World Beer Cup, held at the Town and Country Resort in Mission Valley that year. Nickel was named top brewmaster, and the Oggi’s team became world champion in the small brewing company category thanks to one gold medal (Sunset Amber), one silver (Caber Toss Wee Heavy), and one bronze (Black Magic Stout).
“The Wee Heavy and Sunset Amber were both brewed by Jeff Bagby [of today’s Bagby Beer Co.], but they only allowed one person’s name on the trophy,” says Nickel. “In truth, Jeff and I shared it, as we each won medals and neither of us would have won it without the other.” In total, San Diegans won 11 medals that year.
Meanwhile, Nickel continued to ramp up the selection at O’Brien’s, creating one of the first big bottle lists in San Diego, focusing on Belgian beers. “One of the best bottled beer lists in town was actually at Claim Jumper,” Nickel says. “At the time, nobody knew what the hell Cantillon was; you could find it at BevMo.”
Six years later, Tom Nickel asked Tyson Blake to become the general manager for O’Brien’s Pub. The two had met at San Diego Brewing Company, where Blake worked, in 2001. Or perhaps they met at O’Brien’s, or a Real Ale or Strong Ale Festival… the details are fuzzy, but they surely met over a few pints, and it was clear that their beer philosophies, and their personalities, were a match.
Blake accepted the position in 2010, a week before his oldest son, Max, was born. The timing felt right, but he was still nervous. “It was a big decision, we’re about to have a kid, I had something secure, but now I’m going into a brand new job at a place that I love.” Here, Nickel interjects: “And you don’t want to screw that up!”
After several years of brewery collaborations and beer dinners at the pub, the twenty-fifth anniversary was finally on the horizon, and in September 2017 the idea “25 Beers for 25 Years” was born during a road trip to Fieldwork Brewing in Berkeley. “It was a great idea around two years ago, when I’d been drinking,” Nickel laughs. “And now that we’re having to coordinate the nitty gritty of brewing schedules, release schedules, some beers are blends, some we need artwork for, some are draft only… the good thing now is that more than half of them are already done, or they’re blends of beers that are already existing.”
The beer releases will tie in with the monthly dinners, which are helmed by Blake. Many brews, like the collaboration with Jeff Bagby, have historical significance for Nickel and the pub. Case in point, for August, Colby Chandler from Ballast Point is re-brewing Crystal Pier, which was originally made for the second annual Pizza Port Strong Ale Festival in 1998 (an event which Nickel co-founded with Tomme Arthur); that beer became the genesis for Ballast Point Dorado Double IPA.
In February, a special “Stein Bier” will be on tap, made with granite rocks heated to 800 degrees, caramelizing the sugars in the wort. This beer was originally a collaboration between Nickel, Tomme Arthur, and former AleSmith owner Skip Virgilio, who’s now brewmaster at Gravity Heights. Arthur later used the technique to brew Hot Rocks Lager at The Lost Abbey, while this specific iteration was crafted at Rouleur Brewing in Carlsbad. “When Tomme and Skip talked about brewing the Blarneystone again for the Gravity Heights opening, they got me involved again,” says Nickel.
While there’s still one brewery collaborator to be determined, you can bet they’ll have a cool story to tell. “What a Long, Strange Sip It’s Been” indeed. Update: Since printing, O’Brien’s has added Second Chance Beer Co. as brewery collaborator #25.
2019 Beer Dinners
The beer dinners at O’Brien’s are known for being decadent occasions best enjoyed with a ride-sharing app at the ready. This year, the pub is hosting two breweries per dinner, featuring ales (and ciders in the case of Scripps Ranch’s Newtopia) specifically made for this celebration. Here is the tentative schedule for 2019, subject to change:
SUNDAY, JANUARY 13: Alpine & Council
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 10: Bitters Brothers & Gravity Heights
SUNDAY, MARCH 24: Kern & Ironfire
SUNDAY, APRIL 28: Silva & Rip Current
SUNDAY, MAY 19: Karl Strauss & South Park
SUNDAY, JUNE TBD: Newtopia Cyder & TBD
SUNDAY, JULY 21: Sierra Nevada & Beachwood
SUNDAY, AUGUST 18: Colby Chandler (Ballast Point) & Societe
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 15: Burning Beard & Nickel
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 13: Russian River & Eric Rose (Hollister)
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 3: Barrelworks
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 10: The Lost Abbey
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 15: Bagby & Fieldwork
TBD: Dinners w/ Cascade & Second Chance Beer Co.