Los Angeles Brewers Catch Up
Los Angeles has always been considered a cocktail town. While nightlife and bar culture thrives in L.A., for many years, breweries didn’t exist here. The days of Maier’s Malt Tonic and Eastside Lager are long forgotten. The old Pabst Blue Ribbon plant is more known now as an arts colony than a production brewery. Even the nearly 20-year-old Crown City brewpub shuttered in 2008. The only real surviving old guard brewery operation in the greater L.A. area is the modest operations of Craftsman in Pasadena, which in its nearly 20 year existence is still only crafting small-batch artisan ales that are serviceable primarily in the L.A. market. But beyond these cultural hurdles, there were strong believers in the craft; ready to charge ahead in what many considered a risky and unreceptive market for local beer.
The 2009 Boom
In 2009, three breweries were founded, helping to pioneer what is now a steadily growing brewing culture. Known as the Class of 2010 (for when they celebrate their anniversaries), Eagle Rock Brewery in Glassell Park, Ladyface Ale Companie in Agoura Hills and Strand Brewing Co. in Manhattan Beach became the three breweries within county lines that truly brought local beer back into L.A. Beer bars boasting multiple taps of European imports now began making room for these small-batch local brews, but it wasn’t easy getting there. Many of these pioneers had to deal with the headache of bureaucratic red tape and had to work extra hard to convince residents that their addition would not only improve their neighborhoods but also bring money into their local economies.
“Once we finally opened, we had to overcome the stigma that consumers had about craft beers being of inferior quality and flavor compared to the larger commercial brand names,” says Ting Su, a co-founder of Eagle Rock. “On the flipside, there was no shortage of opportunities to get out and educate people on what we were all about.”
For Ladyface, a strong base of support from local homebrew clubs contributed to the desire to open its doors outside of the city’s center.
“L.A. was almost a vacuum with BJ’s holding the fort in L.A. and only two brewpubs between Craftsman Brewing and us,” says founder Cyrena Nouzille. “As I was involved locally as a [Maltose Falcon] homebrewer, I knew the potential was there.”
Nouzille continues to explain that in the early days, they accepted a challenge to educate their customer-base—many of whom were still under the strong-hold of being devout big beer fans.
“When we first opened, people came in looking for Coors Light. Some turned on their heels, but many accepted our Belgian blond in its place,” Nouzille said.
Casting A Wider Net
In five short years, L.A. has grown from three breweries to nearly 30 registered with the Los Angeles County Brewers Guild. There are about a dozen more in planning with the county.
Golden Road Brewing opened its doors nearly four years ago in a long-abandoned warehouse space in Atwater Village. The startup co-founded by local restaurateur Tony Yanow and his business partner Meg Gill was one of the nation’s fastest growing brewery startups—ambitious with its high-volume production business model and aims to become L.A.’s first regional craft brewery. Originally looking for a brewery in the San Francisco Bay area, Gill was later convinced by Yanow that L.A. was going to be the next big thing—and they both wanted to be a part of it. As the company grew, they enlisted the talents of former Drake’s Brewmaster Jesse Houck.
“Having seen what Meg and Tony were building in L.A., I knew that joining their team would be an exciting new chapter in my career,” Houck said. “There is an incredibly engaged community here that cares about nurturing craft and is proud of what their local brewers are creating.”
Something For Everyone
Part of L.A.’s beer landscape is built on an idea of locality. Of the 30 breweries here, only a small fraction of that has statewide distribution and none of them have hit nationwide shelves.
While California has no shortage of great India Pale Ales, L.A. brewers hit multiple notes on the flavor wheel. Name a beer style and there’s a brewery in the county probably makes it—and they’re making it well.
Monkish Brewing in the south bay just celebrated its third anniversary of brewing exclusively Belgian-leaning brews, and while founder Henry Ng has yet to have compromised on his “No IPAs” philosophy, there is still a line out the door on Sunday afternoons to get a drink in his tasting room. Expect delicate and nuanced saison and farmhouse ales and a growing barrel-aged wild program. Just a few minutes away, a newcomer dazzles sour beer fans at Phantom Carriage Brewery with Head Brewer Simon Ford making his long-time homebrewing dreams come true.
Heading away from L.A’s south bay brewery mecca, you’ll find solid small-batch offerings at Highland Park Brewery in its eponymous east side neighborhood. Owner-Brewer Bob Kunz is gaining a reputation for his more creative offerings such as brews made with ingredients foraged in his yard or his barrel-fermented Berliner Weisse. Drive further north and you’ll hit the most northern border of L.A. County where Lancaster’s Bravery Brewing and Kinetic Brewing are serving their local communities with hoppy IPAs and solid barrel-aged stouts in what was once a (literal) barren desert.
The city’s palate is developing. Beer fans in Los Angeles are supporting their brewers with pride and fervor—and they’d love nothing more than to share it with anyone in need of a well-crafted beer.