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FEATURE // Beer in La La Land

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Irrigating LA’s Craft Beer Desert

Story by Bran Yaeger // Photography by Ethan Pines

Maybe it’s easy to pick on Los Angeles because, like Kurt Russell’s snake Plissken, I escaped from LA. The LA lifestyle is perennially low-hanging fruit; LA goes gaga over anything trendy and spendy. You need a car (and a couple hours to kill in traffic) to get anywhere. Beer has calories and ergo non-light beer is a major no-no. It’s a city of
fair-weather fans. Generally, it’d be hard to conceptualize how the country’s second largest megalopolis can have a beer scene still in its infancy. The problem has always been that everyone’s so over the sizzle before the steak even arrives.

In the last couple of years, beer bars and gastropubs have become all the rage in LA. But commercial areas and hot spots have long been peppered with chic digestibles. I remember the proliferation of gourmet popcorn shops that offered rainbows of artificial flavors in the ‘80s. More recent: the overnight overpopulation of cupcake bakeries offering colorful mini cakes at two bucks a pop and “frosting shooters” for $1. Once, in the LA hipster neighborhood of Silver Lake, I inadvertently got a pot of coffee. The order wasn’t by mistake, since I saw my table-neighbors had a siphon going. My misstep was in saying “I’ll have what they’re having,” and then, four tiny cups of coffee later (full disclosure: it was really good), I got the check for $25. I felt as if I’d been mugged. Caffeinated and financially taken advantage of. I’d experienced quintessential LA artisan culture. Now it’s beer’s turn.

Though the American craft brewing revolution quietly launched in the northern half of the state—Anchor in 1965, the short-lived New Albion in 1976, and Sierra Nevada in 1979—every early attempt to establish a brewery in the greater LA area failed. My T-shirt from a Southern California beer festival in 1995 lists so many defunct breweries that it feels like a mass gravestone. The one exception comes from an unassuming brewer named Mark Jilg who launched Craftsman Brewing in Pasadena in 1995. (Pasadena’s in LA County but is proudly its own city.) That was right about the time LA’s southern neighbor, San Diego County, was bit with the beer bug. Pizza Port started brewing in Solana Beach in 1992. Within four years, Stone and Ballast Point were also selling suds. Today, the San Diego Brewers Guild boasts 25 unique breweries with a handful of nanobrewies rounding out the edges.

Now we are headed into 2012 and the city of Los Angeles has merely five breweries including the newly relocated Angel City, the rooftop Bonaventure Brewing, Belgian-style Brouwerij West and brand new Golden Road Brewing. Sadly, yet in typical LA fashion, downtown’s Nibble Bit Tabby just closed despite opening mere weeks after the city’s elder statesman, Eagle Rock Brewing, born two years ago.

More Kardashian than Papazian

The first danger to a healthy, long-lasting craft beer culture is LA’s obsession with trends. By definition, they come and then they go. Everything it knows about fashion it learned from watching Kim Kardashian’s reality infomercials but it seems like no one has taken the time to read The Complete Joy of Homebrewing by Charlie Papazian (a craft beer must-read, even if you’re not a homebrewer). Of the handful of brewpubs that have come and gone, none is more surprising than the case of Eureka Brewing Co. and Restaurant. Though which aspect is more surprising—that it was a partnership involving celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck of Spago’s fame and Anheuser-Busch, or that practically no one remembers or ever heard of it—I’m not sure. Being a Puck property made it extremely popular and hard to get a table, but it survived less than two years, dying alongside the notorious ’91 riots, because the packaging aspect failed to take. When plans to sell the brewing operation (once ambitiously claiming it would produce 50,000 barrels) to Jim Koch’s Boston Beer Co. fell through, the equipment found a happy home at Bell’s Brewing. Yes, the brewery did better in Kalamazoo, Michigan than in Los Angeles, California.

An equal beer-culture killer is LA’s driving culture. The city is literally built upon a desert, which rightly makes it prime for drinking a lot. Some 3.7 million people call LA home (practically 13 million in all of LA County). Compare that to, say, the state of Vermont, which has 15 percent of LA’s population yet 700 percent more breweries according to the Brewers Association.

The threat is that LA is 470 square miles with 187 miles of freeway laid down (527 miles in the county). These figures lead up to one frightening stat: 42,508 DUI arrests in LA County in 2009 according to California DMV’s latest report. Compare that to San Francisco County—1,525 arrests albeit with nine-plus million fewer in population—and it’s clear that Angelenos either don’t have enough good drinking options close to home or make really poor decisions. I generally believe that craft beer drinkers have proven themselves to be better decision-makers, but if you live on the Westside and the breweries and beer bars are popping up on the Eastside, Angelenos are accustomed to driving a dozen miles (meaning two hours in LA traffic) to get where they want to go.

Despite the twisting freeways, one pioneer who ascertained LA was prime for a better beer culture is Tony Yanow. After his success with Tony’s Darts Away last year, the vegan-friendly craft beer bar in Burbank, Yanow opened Mohawk Bend in Echo Park last summer. Housed in the Ramona Theater which was built in 1914, Mohawk Bend is the latest in a line of LA gastropubs that include Brian Lenzo’s Blue Palms Brewhouse, Clay Harding’s 38° Ale House & Grill, and Bob Spivak’s Public School 612.

One of the best attributes of these spots isn’t just that they tap plenty of great beer (though while most offer 20 to 35 taps, I’d argue that Mohawk Bend’s 72 drafts suffer from mind-boggling choice. Then again, with 10,000 square feet of cold storage, I hear they’re actually blowing through it), it’s that they are conducive to education. One destination taking that concept to new heights is Public School 612. This downtown spot comes from the founder of The Grill on the Alley, one of old Hollywood’s venerable spots (CEO Bob Spivak told me that everyone who’s ever been nominated for an Academy Award has dined at his Beverly Hills resto).

With Public School, Spivak brought on Hallie Beaune, one of the two “Beer Chicks” who are hired guns consulting with restaurants and bars to overhaul their craft beer programs. Everything about Public School is designed to put these newfangled microbrews in a classroom setting where it’s okay to ask questions, because the only thing that will sustain a good beer culture is if people understand what makes it great, not just trendy. The menu itself, designed in the style of iconic school composition books, even lists among its Beer Glossary the offensive “Beer Snob: One who uses his or her knowledge of beer to exclude, alienate, and judge rather than share, guide, and spread.”

Or, if you’d rather be seen in a long line to get into a microbrew bar, there’s always the two locations of Sang Yoon’s well-known Father’s Office. (The original opened in Santa Monica and more recently a newer, bigger one opened in Culver City; I’ve never been inside because I quit the queue after half an hour and headed to my old favorite, the Library Alehouse in Santa Monica.)

Jeremy Raub, owner of Eagle Rock Brewery, says of such snobbishness that “it’s outdated… That attitude doesn’t take the long view and it has pretty much died out across LA.” A rising tide may lift all ships, but only the ones anchored in the true spirit of the craft—inclusive of the community—will weather the storm. Most recently, the ephemeral Essex Public House on Hollywood never figured out that craft beer is a culture, not couture.

It takes a village (of millions)

Raub’s livelihood depends on local beer’s longevity. Since one of the trickier aspects of having beer-forward establishments (ones that tend to promote local products) is the dearth of said local products. Raub and his father, Steve—both members of the Maltose Falcons, not only LA’s oldest home brewing club but America’s—were the first to jump through every agency hoop imaginable in order to open Eagle Rock Brewing. It’s because the Raubs took on the local health department that aspiring brewery owners no longer have to (which isn’t to say that opening a brewery in LA is now simple).

Adding to the brewing scene, Tony Yanow’s third craft beer venture isn’t another beer bar but LA’s newest brewery—and the only one to package their beer. Sixteen-ounce cans of Golden Road Brewing’s Point the Way IPA (weighing in at an easy-drinking 5.2 percent ABV) and Hefeweizen should be on shelves by press time, and the brewery officially opened during LA Beer Week, October 2011. Yanow’s partner, Meg Gill, left Speakeasy Brewing in San Francisco to work in Atwater Village, an LA neighborhood bordering the city of Glendale, to get Golden Road up and running. Talk about culture shock.

“LA is not a craft beer town,” says Gill. “The reason is because there’s no craft beer supplier. There’s no brewery in LA that packages and fully distributes their beer. And that’s what we’re trying to change.”

That said, Gill joins LA’s other purveyors and publicans in relishing the enthusiasm from the consumers. “I love the excitement. It’s not just the bar owners but employees on the floor, too. Everyone.” From the mash tuns to behind the bars to those on the stools, she declares LA to be full of “super beer geeks.” She said they’ve shown up asking to help at Golden Road in any way, even mopping the floors.

To claim that Eagle Rock blazed a trail for suppliers may be overstating the situation. It’s more like they turned on the seat-warmer. “Believe it or not there weren’t that many people clamoring when I started calling around to bars,” says Jeremy Raub of the early days. “People weren’t sure about a brand new brewery. We had
maybe a couple dozen accounts at first.” With steady growth over the past couple years, and big time help from Stone Brewing’s distribution arm, Eagle Rock can now be found on tap at some 80 establishments. Raub currently brews 15 barrels at a time, but that’s about to double.

By comparison, the new kid, Golden Road, plans to brew more than 1,000 barrels in its first year. The crew is already eyeing seasonals (What does LA know about seasons?) with brewmaster Jon Carpenter, formerly of Dogfish Head, and they’re also planning a Cellar Series, which will include sour beers.

Ironically, the one guy who has never sought the spotlight or pushed for a larger, local craft beer scene in the first place is one of the beneficiaries of this zeitgeist. For 16 years, Mark Jilg of Craftsman has been brewing everything from a pre-Prohibition lager to a Triple brewed with white sage to his Cabernale (the purple hue comes from the Cabernet grapes). You could always find it on tap at Lucky Baldwins in Pasadena, which was serving great beer before the other great taphouses were even born. For Jilg, the idea of breaking into the market with a huge brewery and then creating a gastropub must’ve been unfathomable.

“Mark [Jilg] and Tony [Yanow] are from opposite ends of the spectrum,” says Raub. “Both are great guys. They have the same goal, but with different approaches. Mark’s been keeping to himself and quietly working toward ensuring there’s great beer in a few small spots… He was able to survive where people weren’t that accepting of craft beer. Tides are turning now. Like it or not, he’s getting more exposure.”

Playing on the same team

A year before Jilg launched Craftsman, LA had two teams in the National Football League, the Rams and the Raiders. By the time he fired up his brew kettle, they were gone. And no one seems to mind. If every beer bar and gastrotavern up and moved to Orange County, would anyone cry over spilt milk stout? If the well ran dry in Portland, Oregon, on the other hand, there’d be riots in the streets (though it’d be perched atop tall-bikes). If craft beer were replaced with mass-marketed imports (it’s bad enough how much Corona, Heinie, and Amstel Light moves in this town) would there once again be LA riots? Probably not.

One of the reasons LA is a city of fair-weather fans is because in order to root for the home team, it has to be your hometown. Today, every city is full of transplants, but LA’s denizens are particularly migratory. I used to get asked where my accent was from. Turns out, nobody had ever met a native Angeleno.

The thing that will ensure craft beer’s healthy future in La La Land is that the players continue to work together. Four area publicans, the ones mentioned early on—Yanow, Sweeney, Harding, and Lenzo—set up pop-up beer gardens known as ColLAboration. Their objective is simple: Where true beer enthusiasts can gather and enjoy the best in brews under the warm California sun.

By operating as a beer garden rather than a festival, the brewers don’t have to stand behind a booth and pour samples; they get to mingle with the supporters. “It’s a community with fans rallying around a team,” says Raub. “San Diego’s scene has been building over the last 15 years. They have more events, beer bus tours, and [craft beer] has permeated fine dining. They have a great community built up. All that stuff is beginning to grow in LA. Hopefully we’re adding more breweries and brewpubs.”

The next ColLAboration event is December 3 at Golden Road Brewing. At one of last summer’s ColLAboration events, Meg Gill overheard an amusing comment from one of the beer geeks. In fact, she says everyone heard it since, as she put it,  Not that Ciccerone Program founder Ray Daniels envisioned the certification (beer’s equivalent to Sommeliers) as a verb, and the exclamation shows there’s quite a bit of cockiness among budding beer geeks, but Gill believes it’s that very competition that makes the whole team better.

In the dark days not so long ago, the City of Angels had no bar equivalent of San Francisco’s Toronado or San Diego’s O’Brien’s, nor bottle shop equivalent of Seattle’s Bottleworks or Portland’s Belmont Station. Nor do they yet, for that could take years to weave into the city’s fabric. (LA’s first answer to SF’s City Beer Store is called Sunset Beer Co. from longtime local retailer and advocate Alex Macy.) But it used to be that bar owners drove far north or far south to buy kegs to tap. Craft fans did likewise to stock up on bottles or fill their growlers. But LA shows promise in becoming a beer-centric destination.

“A few months after we opened, a guy came in and got a flight,” offers Raub. “He sat quietly, but when he left he said he came up from San Diego just to try [our beer].”

Says LA-based beer writer and home brewer Drew Beechum, “I can’t wait for the day when LA has a beer festival where the LA breweries are out there kicking everyone’s teeth in.”

Beechum’s assertion is surprising considering the state of beer here just a few short years ago, but that day may soon arrive. Don’t look for celebrity endorsements. And while the few LA breweries are wisely making lower-alcohol session beers so imbibers drive home safely, don’t expect them to concoct low-carb beer. Everyone is welcome at the craft beer table; not everyone in town needs to embrace it. After all, vodka and Diet Coke tippy toes in at about 50 calories but a pint of Imperial IPA will always barge in around 400 calories. And just remember, the camera adds ten pints.

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